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Time spent outdoors during preschool: Links with children's cognitive and behavioral development

Summary


Outdoor time in the early childhood years may support children’s development of attention skills and protect against inattention-hyperactivity symptoms

This longitudinal study examined potential associations between children’s time spent outdoors while at childcare to their cognitive and behavioral development during preschool and first grade. While previous research indicates that exposure to outdoor environments may be beneficial for children’s health and cognitive development, little is known about how much time in nature is needed for children to experience such benefits and how long such benefits remain over time.

This study was conducted in Norway where daycare centers usually offer between 1 and 9 hours of daily outdoor time. The 28 daycare centers participating in this study varied widely in how much time the children spent outdoors and in the type or quality of the environment. A total of 562 children were followed longitudinally over a period of four years, with assessments conducted each year. The assessments involved the children, their parents, and their teachers. Children were individually tested using the digit span, a subtest of the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC IV). The digit span measures executive functions, such as attention and short-term memory. Parents completed a questionnaire about the family and the child’s personality and behavior. Teachers completed questionnaires regarding each child’s behavior. The same assessments were used at all four data collections.

Children with high and low levels of outdoor hours during daycare did not differ with respect to performance on the digit span at age 3. However, from age 4 until after school entry (around age 7), children with high levels of outdoor time during daycare showed consistently higher levels of digit span performance than the children with low levels of outdoor time. Additionally, children with high levels of outdoor time during childcare showed fewer inattention-hyperactivity symptoms at ages 4, 5, 6 and 7. These relations were strongest when the children were five and six years old and decreased when they entered elementary school at age seven. Potential confounding factors controlled for in this study included gender, daycare center quality, children’s temperament, maturational age, socioeconomic status, parent mental health symptoms, family harmony, and the use of nature after school hours.

These findings suggest that outdoor time in the early childhood years may support children’s development of attention skills and protect against inattention-hyperactivity symptoms. Placing daycare centers in high vegetation areas and affording more outdoor time may be an effective and environmentally friendly way of supporting and enhancing children’s self-regulatory capacities and cognitive development.

Citation

Ulset, V., Vitaro, F., Brendgen, M., Bekkus, M., Borge, A.I.H., (2017). Time spent outdoors during preschool: Links with children's cognitive and behavioral development. Journal of Environmental Psychology

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