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Impact of urban nature on executive functioning in early and middle childhood

Summary


A walk in nature improves some aspects of executive function in preschoolers and elementary students more than an urban walk

This study examined the effectiveness of a 20-minute walk in a natural environment in promoting cognitive recovery of young children. Attention restoration theory (ART) – the idea that directed attention can become fatigued and then restored by spending time in a restorative environment — provided the framework for this study.

Previous research indicates that natural environments can have restorative benefits for older children, adults, and children with attention disorders. The aim of this study was to determine if younger children – with more limited attentional processes – would also experience the restorative benefits of exposure to natural environments. This study was also designed to expand the previous research by examining sex differences, testing typically developing children, and measuring multiple dimensions of executive function (EF). Three dimensions of EF examined in this study were directed attention, spatial and verbal working memory, and inhibitory control.

Thirty-four school-age children (ages 7-8) and thirty-three preschoolers (ages 4-5) participated in this study. The children participated in two sessions in which they first completed puzzles, an activity designed to fatigue attention, then took a 20 minute walk along urban streets or in a park-like area, then completed assessments of working memory, inhibitory control, and attention. The type of walk occurring in the first session was counterbalanced across participants so that, for example, the urban walk did not always occur in the first session and the park-like walk in the second session.

The overall results of this study provide some evidence that ART applies to younger children, in that the participants responded faster on an attention task following the nature walk than an urban walk. Findings also indicated that boys and preschoolers performed better on the measure of spatial working memory after the nature walk than after the urban walk. The type of walk did not affect inhibitory control or verbal working memory. Preschoolers did, however, demonstrate more stable spatial memory following the nature walk than the urban walk.

The fact that young children can benefit from time in nature has — according to the authors — important implications for educators and policy-makers as they make decisions about children’s playgrounds, the amount of time for recess, and even the greenness of urban neighborhoods.

Citation

Schutte, A.R., Torquati, J.C., Beattie, J.L., (2017). Impact of urban nature on executive functioning in early and middle childhood. Environment and Behavior, 49(1), 3-30.

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