New research has found that inner-city kids and teenagers who live near trees and woodlands have better cognitive development and mental health.
While a clear explanation behind this relationship wasn't found, the new study indicates the link has little to do with the socioeconomic background of the children and may have something to do with the known benefits of the natural world on wider well-being.
Reported in the journal Nature Sustainability, scientists at University College London and Imperial College London looked at how different types of natural urban environments affected the cognitive development, mental health, and overall well-being of over 3,500 children and teenagers aged nine to 15 years, from 31 schools across London. The team then used satellite data to help calculate each participant's proximity to green spaces (which were separated further into grassland and woodland) and blue space (rivers, lakes, and the sea).
They found that children and teenagers with higher daily exposure to woodland tended to have higher scores for cognitive development, and an overall 16 percent lower risk of emotional and behavioral problems two years later, compared to those with low exposure to natural environments. However, this effect was not seen for participants who lived near grasslands or blue spaces.
Crucially, the findings remained true after accounting for a wide variety of other factors that may influence this outcome, including ethnic background, their parents' occupation, and the type of school they attended.
Other studies have found this link between green spaces and improved well-being, but it’s often hard to untie this from the wider socioeconomic force that may be at play. This study appears to do a relatively good job at accounting for these other variables, although they do concede that exposure to air pollution could be an important underlying factor. In recent years, plenty of evidence has suggested that air pollution exposure can affect the brain in deeply significant ways.
While the cause behind the association between woodland and happy brains remains uncertain, the researchers speculate on a few interesting explanations:
“Previous studies have revealed positive associations between exposure to nature in urban environments, cognitive development and mental health. Why these health benefits are received remains unclear, especially in adolescents,” Mikaël Maes, lead author and PhD student at UCL, said in a statement.
“These findings contribute to our understanding of natural environment types as an important protective factor for an adolescent’s cognitive development and mental health and suggest that not every environment type may contribute equally to these health benefits,” adds Maes.
“Forest bathing, for example (being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of a forest), is a relaxation therapy that has been associated with physiological benefits, supporting the human immune function, reducing heart rate variability and salivary cortisol, and various psychological benefits. However, the reasons why we experience these psychological benefits from woodland remain unknown,” explained Professor Mireille Toledano, joint senior author from Imperial College London.