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Overview and research

During the past fifteen years there has been a growing body of research which indicates that direct, frequent experience with the natural world produces positive physical, mental and emotional benefits not only in adults but also children and young people. However, while research is increasingly showing the benefits of the outdoors to children’s health, their access to nature and outdoor play has  fallen dramatically. Today in our society, children spend less than half the amount of time playing outdoors that their parents did at the same age, and much of that time is restricted to built playgrounds and highly organised activities or sports. Quite simply, a growing number of children no longer have opportunities for playing in nature and, as the following research studies show, this is not good for their health and well-being. We can, and must,  improve children’s well-being through increasing the amount of time they spend outdoors.

Research Summary

Impact of nature and being outdoors on health and well being

1)   Research shows that contact with nature has a positive effect in reducing the impact of attention deficit disorder (ADD) in children (Taylor, A.F. et al. 2001).  Also, children with ADHD demonstrated improved concentration skills when completing a task, after a twenty minute walk.  The preferred place for a walk was an urban park rather than a downtown, or residential area. Faber Taylor & Kuo (2009) suggested that "Doses of nature" might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool in the tool kit for managing ADHD symptoms. The difference was comparable to what is achieved with standard ADHD medication.

2)    Even a view of nature – green plants and vistas – helps reduce stress among highly stressed children.  The more plants, green views and access to natural play areas, the more positive the results. (Wells & Evans, 2003)  The link between stress reduction and greenspace is strong, with robust evidence. Anders Szczepanski, Director National Centre for Outdoor Environmental Education, Linköping University noted that “Outdoor activities reduce the levels of stress hormones among children aged six in primary schools. High cortisone levels indicate stress, and stress has a documented bad influence on memory capacity.  Outdoor activities give better learning in a pure logical sense.”  

3)    Kuo and Sullivan (2001) studied the inhabitants of an urban public housing complex in Chicago, and tested the hypothesis that nearby nature reduces the propensity for aggression. Long-term female residents of the apartment complex were interviewed. The authors found that levels of aggression and violence were significantly lower among individuals who had some nearby nature outside their apartments than among their counterparts who lived in barren conditions, and that residents living in greener settings demonstrated reliably better performance on measures of attentional functioning. The authors invoke the 'attention restoration theory' as providing the best explanation for the link between nature and aggression.

‘Attention restoration theory’ was first developed by Stephen Kaplan (1995), a psychologist at the University of Michigan. He noticed that adults who were focusing hard on a task in the morning found it harder to focus in the afternoon. Kaplan hypothesized that immersion in nature might have a restorative effect. If children are working hard in the morning, having access to playgrounds which have plenty of plants, trees and shrubs might be helpful in terms of the benefits on their ability to focus in the afternoon.

4)    Street trees may help prevent early childhood asthma in urban areas, suggests one study. Trees change local air quality. Lovasi et al (2008) examined the prevalence of asthma in 4-year old and 5-year old children, the density of street trees, pollution sources and census data. Based on these findings, the authors estimate that an increase in tree density of 343 trees per square kilometre would be associated with a 29% lower prevalence of early childhood asthma. However this analysis does not demonstrate that trees cause or prevent asthma for an individual child. While the results of this study are encouraging, Lovasi et al suggest that additional research is needed to better understand the effects of trees on the prevalence of childhood asthma.

5)    Myopia, or short sightedness, in children appears to be affected by the amount of time spent outside, according to research for the Australian government. Rose et al (2008) compared the vision of six and seven-year-olds of Chinese ethnicity in Singapore and Australia. Thirty per cent of the Singaporean children were short sighted compared with ten per cent of the Australian children. The researchers found that all the children spent a similar amount of time reading, watching TV and playing computer games, but the Australian children spent on average two hours a day outdoors - 90 minutes more than the Singaporean children.

6)    The proximity of greenspace to children appears to be gender related when it comes to self-discipline in 7-12 year old children. Taylor et al. (2002) discovered that for girls, greenspace immediately outside the home can help them lead more effective, self-disciplined lives but suggest that perhaps more distant greenspaces are equally important for boys.  Again this has implications for schools in that ensuring there is plenty of natural greenspace within the school grounds could particularly benefit girls.

7)    In August 2008, Greenspace Scotland published a literature review, “Greenspace and the quality of life.”  The review did not consider the role of greenspace or natural settings within education.  However some of the research examined provides useful ‘food for thought’ for educators. One key finding was that the proximity and accessibility of greenspaces in relation to residential areas appears to affect the overall levels of physical activity/exercise for children and young people.  The more greenspace there is, the greater the amount of physical activity. 

Childhood experiences of natural spaces affect behaviour and attitude  especially toward the environment

1)    Childhood experiences in natural spaces are strong predictors of adult use and attitudes toward nature.  Ward Thompson et al (2008) found that people who have had frequent childhood experiences in natural spaces are more likely to visit such places as adults.  Also people who have had frequent childhood experiences in natural places tend to feel more comfortable visiting these places alone, and have a more positive attitude towards these spaces as adults (e.g. they feel more energetic and restored in these spaces).

2)    The impact of childhood nature experiences also determines environmental attitudes in adults. Wells and Lekies (2006) found that childhood participation with “wild” nature (e.g., hiking, camping, or playing in the woods), had a significant, positive effect on both adult environmental attitudes and behaviours. That is, people who participated in “wild” nature activities as children were more likely to have pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours as adults. Additionally, Wells and Lekies found that childhood participation with “domesticated” nature (e.g., picking flowers or planting seeds), while having a significant, positive effect, did not have as great an influence as that of “wild” nature on environmental attitudes and had only a marginal effect on environmental behaviours.

This study has significance for schools. In terms of promoting an ethos of sustainable development, schools should consider how to offer unstructured free play experiences in wild nature.

Nature experiences are important throughout childhood. Ward Thompson et al (2006) undertook extensive research with groups of teenagers and a literature review relating to teenagers engaging with wild adventure space.  They noted many positive health, social and educational benefits. The young people found wild adventure space to offered a breathing space from family or peer pressure, risk and challenge, inspiration, comfort and a place to have a good time with friends.

3)    Chawla (2006) found that many individuals who choose to take action to benefit the environment had an adult mentor as children, who took them outdoors. The adult mentors demonstrated:
•    Care for the land as a limited resource essential for family identity and well-being
•    A disapproval of destructive practices
•    A fascination with the details of other living things and elements of earth and sky
•    Simple pleasure at being out in nature
For teachers and adults working with young people, Chawla’s findings have implications. Many children today may not have an interested adult who can foster such values in their home or community.  Therefore school staff need to consider their personal role here and ways of demonstrating such values as an indirect and more subtle form of developing environmental citizenship within children.

Bell at al (2003) explored the uses and meanings of woodland by children and teenagers in Central Scotland. The study also underlines the key role that childhood experience plays in people’s relationship with place. Interestingly Nicol et al (2007), through discussions with 76 Scottish children aged 3-18, noted that

... most young people valued outdoor experiences that were less formal. These experiences were more commonly associated with providing more sustained, purposeful learning, tailored to their own interests and needs.  Family contexts appeared to catalyse some of the richest forms of learning about, in and for the environment.

Benefits of forest schools and nature kindergartens - spending time in nature during the school day (For more information on what these are click link.)

1)    Grahn et al (1997) studied children’s behaviour as a whole (how they play, how often they are outside, their play routines, etc.), development of motor function and powers of concentration during the course of a year.  The study was carried out at two day nurseries, one outdoor “I Ur och Skur” kindergarten, and the other a traditional nursery in new, spacious premises.  “When it comes to concentration capacity, the children within I Ur och Skur pre-schools are more than twice as focused as children within a normal pre-school.  Their motor skills are better, they are less frustrated, restless and sick.”  One key reason for statistically significant differences being observed was attributed to the uneven surfaces and trees children encountered in the outdoor nursery.

This study also monitored the role of adults working with the children through the use of diaries. The entries from the traditional nursery staff showed that staff often felt inadequate and the staff had to intervene more to manage conflicts which arose, usually to do with the dominant activity which was cycling.

2)    Fjørtoft and Sageie (2001) built upon the research by Grahn et al. They compared two groups of pre-school children during a nine-month period. All these children attended the same nursery. One group had daily access to natural landscape for at least two hours, the other group only occasional access. Significant differences were found in coordination, balance skills, and agility. The researchers concluded, “Nature affords possibilities and challenges for the children to explore their own abilities. The children feel more comfortable being in the natural environment and their knowledge about nature increases.” 

3)    In England and Wales, forest schools activities have been matched up to the Key Stage attainment targets, thus allowing schools to incorporate this approach as one way of covering all the curriculum expectations.  Murray and O’Brien (2005) found that forest school programmes had increased children’s confidence levels, social skills, language and communication, motivation and concentration, physical skills and knowledge, and understanding of their natural surroundings.

In Scottish secondary schools, forest school activities have frequently been organised for pupils with identified additional support needs, especially behaviour and social skills. However, Borradaille (2006) notes that “this is a divisive rather than an inclusive approach, with the inherent weakness of increasing the young person’s feeling of being different and excluded, as a consequence.” Thus the integration of forest school activities into a secondary school curriculum needs careful thought to allow equality of access.


Bell, S., Hamilton, V., Montarzino, A., Rothnie, H., Travlou, P. and Alves, S. (2008) Greenspace and Quality of Life: A Literature Review Stirling Greenspace Scotland Research Report

Borradaile, L. (2006) Forest School Scotland: An Evaluation Edinburgh: Forestry Commission Scotland.

Chawla, L. (2006) Learning to Love the Natural World Enough to Protect It in Barn nr. 2 2006:57-58. Norsk senter for barneforskning. Barn is a quarterly published by the Norwegian Centre for Child Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.

Faber Taylor, A. and Frances E. Kuo, F.E., (2009) Children With Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park Journal of Attention Disorders, Mar 2009; vol. 12: pp. 402 - 409.

Gardner, H., (2006) Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice, 2nd edition, Basic Books USA ISBN 978-0465047680 p18-20

Grahn, P., Martensson, F., Lindblad, B., Nilsson, P., & Ekman, A. (1997) Ute på Dagis  Stad and Land 145. Håssleholm, Sweden: Nora Skåne Offset.

Fjørtoft, I. & Sageie, J.(2001) 'The Natural Environment as a Playground for Children: The Impact of Outdoor Play Activities in Pre-Primary School Children', Early Childhood Education Journal 29(2): 111-117.

Kaplan, S. (1995) The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182

Kuo, F. E. & Sullivan, W. C. (2001) Aggression and violence in the inner city - Effects of environment via mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33, 543-571.

Learning and Teaching Scotland (2007) Taking Learning Outdoors: Partnerships for Excellence Learning and Teaching Scotland Glasgow, 5-7

Louv, R., (2005) Last Child in the Woods Algonquin Books New York ISBN 9781565-125223

Lovasi, G. S., Quinn, J. W., Neckerman, K. M., Perzanowski, M. S., & Rundle, A. (2008) Children living in areas with more street trees have lower prevalence of asthma Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 62(7), 647-649.

Mannion, G., Sankey, K., Doyle, L., Mattu, L., University of Stirling (2007)     Young people’s interaction with natural heritage through outdoor learning Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 225 (ROAME No. F06AB03) p86

Motari, L., Zerbato, R., (Editors) (2008) Adventures in Nature Children in Scotland Edinburgh ISBN 978-1-901589-78-8

Murray, M. and O’Brien, L. (2005) Such enthusiasm – a joy to see: An evaluation of forest school in England New Economics Foundation and Forestry Research

Rose, K. A., Morgan, I.G., Smith, W., Burlutsky, G., Mitchell, P. And Saw, S. (2008) Myopia, lifestyle and schooling in students of Chinese ethnicity in Singapore and Sydney Arch Ophthalmol 2008 126 (4): 527-530. Accessed 22.309

Taylor, Andrea Faber; Frances E. Kuo; and William C. Sullivan, (2001) Coping with ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings Environment and Behavior, Vol. 33, No. 1, January 2001

Ward Thompson, C., Aspinall, P., & Montarzino, A. (2008) The childhood factor - Adult visits to green places and the significance of childhood experience  Environment and Behaviour, 40(1), 111-143.

Wells, N.M. (2000) At Home with Nature: Effects of 'Greenness' on Children's Cognitive Functioning  Environment and Behavior. Vol. 32, No. 6, 775-795.

Wells, N.M., and Evans, G.W.(2003) Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children Environment and Behavior. Vol. 35:3, 311-330.


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