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Study: Growing Minds Need Greener Spaces

People sitting in a hammock in Laurel Park, Gainesville, Georgia, June 8, 2015.

People sitting in a hammock in Laurel Park, Gainesville, Georgia, June 8, 2015.

We've known for a long time that being outdoors has a host of health benefits. Getting into nature has been shown to reduce depression, improve your outlook and even boost your immune system. Now there's research suggesting kids become better learners when they are surrounded by greener spaces.

The more we learn about being out of doors, the more sense it makes to get out of your chair and take a walk.

Kids are no different.

There's a lot of good science to support your mother's annoying demand to 'get off screen and get outside.'

Mother nature may in fact do a world of good for our kids' ability to learn.

For the first time, a new study confirms this interplay between lush green spaces and a child’s mental growth.

Researchers in Barcelona, Spain, wondered whether schoolchildren in their city would benefit from being surrounded by greener spaces.

So Jordi Sunyer at the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology and his colleagues tracked more than 2,600 7 to 10-year-olds from 36 schools in the city. They used satellite data to see how much green space surrounded the schools.

“This satellite data is able to measure the intensity of the green color and the photosynthetic activity, so then with that we can know the vegetation within the school, in just the very close surroundings," said Sunyer.

The children took computerized tests that probed their memories and attention spans four times over the course of a year.

The researchers then created mathematical models to see whether green spaces predicted any improvements on these tests over time. They took into account other important factors, like the mother’s socioeconomic status and whether or not the schools were located in poor areas.

They saw a 5 to 6 percent increase in memory and a 1% reduction in inattentiveness in children exposed to more green space.

When the researchers drilled down they discovered the increase might be about more than just exposure to the outdoors.

More trees, it turns out means less traffic-related air pollution. And the clean air, the researchers found, explained up to two-thirds of these improvements in memory and attention. Sunyer says that schools surrounded by greenery had less air pollution in the classrooms.

“What these data are telling us is that a way to manage air pollution in the cities is increasing vegetation in the schools," he said.

More studies are needed to reveal exactly how increasing vegetation in schools improves cognitive function, says child psychologist Lisa Freund at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“There’s something about being out in nature that can be very supportive of the human. But do we need the actual greenery around us? Do we need pictures? We don’t know," said Freund.

Published in the Proceedings of National Science, this study paves the way for global research that can inform a wave of future policies to cultivate greener spaces for growing minds.