As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition
and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.
Last Child In the Woods
Science is increasingly demonstrating that by not getting outdoors, kids are missing out on a key component in their development of creativity and in their emotional health. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that children as young as five experience significant reductions in the symptoms of attention deficit disorder (a major stumbling block to educational attainment) when they engage with nature. Other studies have shown that children who play in natural settings - such as parks - are more cooperative than those who play only on flat turf or on asphalt playgrounds.[i] Research has also found that daily exposure to natural settings increases a child’s ability to focus – thereby enhancing cognitive abilities.[ii]
Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, professor emeritus and senior researcher at Yale University, states that nature is critical to a child’s intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual and physical development. His research points to optimal learning opportunities at various ages, and he urges educators, political leaders and communities to ensure that children have positive contact with nature where they live, play and learn.[iii]
Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity,
problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.
Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection
Dr. Stephen Kellert
The American Institutes for Research conducted a study that found that 56% of at-risk youth reported never having spent time in a natural outdoor setting. They compared two groups: students who then spent time outdoors learning and students who did not. Those who were taken outside for a variety of learning opportunities had a 27% increase in “measured mastery of science concepts, enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills, gains in self-esteem, gains in positive environmental behavior, and gains in problem-solving, motivation to learn and classroom behavior.” [iv]
Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances Kuo conducted one interesting study on the effect that parks have on children with ADHD. Essentially, they had each child complete a series of activities requiring high levels of focus and concentration. They the children were divided into three groups. The first was taken for a walk in a downtown area, the second through a residential neighborhood and the third walked through an urban park. The children then had to complete a test to measure the levels of concentration they were capable of and the answer several questions about their walk. Even when controlling for factors such as time of day, weather, terrain, etc, the authors found that children who experienced the park were far better equipped to concentrate AND that the park experience impacted their levels of concentration almost as much as the two most common types of ADHD medicine.[v] That last point is important – 20 minutes walking in a park was almost as effective as the standard ADHD medical prescription.
Along a similar vein, Taylor, Kuo and another researcher, William Sullivan, have also found that there are MANY positive benefits for inner city youth who have access to green spaces to play – namely parks. They found that even a view of green setting enhances a child’s self-control and self-discipline. Interestingly, they also concluded that this was especially true for girls, though the effect was assuredly noticeable on boys as well.[vi] This positive and lasting impact of green spaces holds true for rural children as well. Dr. Nancy Wells, Cornell professor, found that highly stressed children have substantially reduced levels of stress when provided with just a view of nature. Furthermore, the greater access to natural play areas, the greater the stress reduction.[vii]
Perhaps the best report to date that clearly shows the lasting impact that outdoor play in natural environments – specifically parks – have on a child’s educational attainment comes from the National Wildlife Federation’s Kevin Coyle, Vice President for Education and Training in Back to School: Back Outside! Create High Performing Students[viii]. The report directly shows how outdoor time is connected with wide-ranging academic benefits that include:
Improved classroom behavior
Increased motivation and enthusiasm to learn
Better performance in science, math, reading and social studies
Higher scores on standardized tests – including college entrance exams
Measurably better performance by low-income and otherwise at-risk students
In addition, the report details the outcomes of a 2010 survey of 1900 educators which found that
78% of educators believe that children who regularly spend time outside in unstructured play are better able to concentrate and therefore perform better in the classroom, and
75% of educators said that students who regularly spend time outdoors are more creative and have stronger problem-solving skills in the classroom
To get even more specific, Back to School: Back Outside revealed that play time outdoors in natural settings:
usefully employs children’s native intellect from interpersonal communications to math and science skills
is especially effective at supporting the educational growth and attainment of low-income students
measurably increases student motivation and enthusiasm to learn
helps students to concentrate for longer periods of time and helps mitigate attention deficit problems
drastically improves classroom behavior, as measured by discipline referrals
helps to keep students engaged in school and less likely to drop out
encourages students to learn across disciplines, thereby building better real-world problem solving skills
increases scores on standardized tests and college-placement exams
measurably improves performance in math, science, reading and social studies
The current generation of children is less physically fit, less able to concentrate and less able to relate to others than any previous generation. As a result, they are less prepared to be effective in the classroom. One strong step in the right direction is to get them outside and into nature – into parks.
[ii] Wells, N.M. “At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greenness’ on Children’s Cognitive Functioning.” Environment and Behavior. Vol. 32, No. 6, 775-795.
[iii] Kellert, Dr. Stephen, Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection (Island Press 2005)
[iv] “Effects of Outdoor Education Programs for Children in California.” American Institutes for Research: Palo
Alto, CA: 2005. Available on the Sierra Club web site.
http://www.sierraclub.org/youth/california/outdoorschool_finalreport.pdf (Volume 1)
[v] Faber Taylor, A., & Kuo, F. E. (2008). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park.
[vi] Taylor, Andrea Faber; Frances E. Kuo; and William C. Sullivan. “Views of Nature and Self- Discipline:
Evidence from Inner City Children.” In the Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21, 2001. © 2001 Academic
[vii] Wells, N.M., and Evans, G.W. “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children.” Environment and Behavior. Vol. 35:3, 311-330.
[viii] Coyle, K.J. (2010) Back to school: Back outside!: How outdoor education and outdoor school time create high performance students. Reston, VA: National Wildlife Federation.