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Natural environments near schools: Potential benefits for socio-emotional and behavioral development in early childhood


Natural environments near schools are positively associated with the socio-emotional and behavioral development of preschool children

This study investigated associations between preschool children’s socio-emotional and behavioral (SEB) development and natural features near the schools they attended. A primary goal of the study was to understand how “school nature” might contribute to children’s SEB development, beyond what the children gained from “home nature” (natural elements in the home environment).

Researchers obtained Fall (November) and Spring (May) assessment results of preschoolers participating in a publicly funded preschool program in Charlotte, North Carolina for the academic year 2013-2014.  This program serves children considered to be at risk of not being ready for kindergarten, as determined through a screening process. Children scoring below age expectations in the areas of cognitive, developmental and/or preacademic functioning are eligible for the program.

Teachers from 50 different schools administered the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment Preschool Program, Second Edition (DECAP2) to the preschoolers in their class. The DECAP2 is a nationally standardized tool designed to assess socio-emotional resources and protective factors in preschool-age children. Areas assessed include initiative, self-regulation, attachment, and behavioral concerns. Aerial photography and Geographic Information Systems provided measures of naturalness or greenness near the children’s homes and schools. These measures were used as indicators of passive nature exposure for the children. With active engagement, children intentionally participate in natural settings; passive exposure, which does not require intentionality, is defined by characteristics of the environment. Indicators of passive exposure used for this study include park access, proportion of impervious surface (surfaces through which water cannot pass ), and proportion of tree canopy at home or school. Greater nature exposure was defined as higher proportions of tree canopy, higher levels of park access, and lower levels of impervious surface.

The procedures used for data collection and analysis allowed the researchers to identify patterns associated with differing doses of nature exposure in both school and home environments separately.  Findings indicated that preschoolers with more exposure to trees either at home or at school showed greater improvement in socio-emotional competencies than preschoolers with less exposure to trees. Findings also showed children having greater independence and social skills when their schools were in neighborhoods with limited impervious surface, such as concrete. This was especially true for children living in neighborhoods low in impervious surface. There was some evidence that the benefits associated with tree canopy may fluctuate according to seasons and that the potential impact of “school nature” may depend on levels of “home nature”.

The overall results of this study indicate a positive association between natural features near schools and early childhood development. These results suggest that a collaboration between school administrators and city planners on greening efforts near schools could potentially benefit both the school and the larger community.


Scott, J.T., Kilmer, R.P., Wang, C., Cook, J.R., Haber, M.G., (2018). Natural environments near schools: Potential benefits for socio-emotional and behavioral development in early childhood. American Journal of Community Psychology


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