Several recent studies have found children tend to fare better academically if they have ample access to the natural world. But the reasons for this remains hazy. Do they get more exercise? Breathe cleaner air?
Recent British research reveals one likely advantage such kids enjoy. It finds they score higher on a standard test of Spatial Working Memory — the ability to retain visual information long enough to process it and make use of it to solve problems.
For a child, this may mean developing an innate sense of whether they have taken the proper path through a wooded area. But the benefits are far broader: Spatial Working Memory has been linked to mathematical ability too.
The research team, led by psychologist Eirini Flouri of University College London, used data on 4,758 11-year-olds living in urban areas in England. The amount of green space in their neighborhoods was estimated using data derived from satellite images.
The kids all completed a standard test in which they were asked to search for blue tokens on a computer screen by clicking on boxes of various colors. The task gets more difficult as more boxes are added. Participants are instructed not to return to a box where a token has already been found, which forces them to remember which boxes have already been searched.
After taking into account various factors that could influence their ability, the researchers found "children living in greener neighborhoods have better working memory." This remained true even after adjusting for parental education and participation in sports.
"This is a substantively important finding," they write in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. "Exposure to green space may have specific cognitive benefits for children."
Flouri and her colleagues can't be certain why, but they offer several possibilities. Besides developing the ability to find one's way using visual cues, exposure to natural green settings "restores attentional resources by imposing fewer demands on visual or auditory processing," they note.
Staring intensely at a screen for long hours can be mentally fatiguing. Time spent in nature can provide a needed break.
As always with this sort of study, it's important to note that correlation does not prove causation. It's possible that children who live in leafier, park-rich neighborhoods have sharper brains for reasons that have nothing to do with the physical environment.
But another of the study's findings argues against that explanation. It finds the positive cognitive impact of green space, while small, was similar for kids "in deprived and non-deprived neighborhoods." In other words, even poorer kids, who might not have the sort of brain-building resources available to wealthier ones, appear to benefit from exposure to the natural world.
If this association is indeed causal, "our findings can be used to inform policy decisions about both education and urban planning," Flouri and her colleagues write. "A strong case could be made for outdoor learning, and for easy access to urban green space."
Indeed, one could argue that, for a neighborhood, parks are not just perks. They may play a unique role in developing young minds.
This story originally appeared as More evidence that green space helps develop young brains on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.