A recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder has demonstrated that schoolyards with natural terrain and trees, dirt and water features reduce children’s stress and inattention when compared to schoolyards that only have asphalt and standard recreational equipment. The researchers observed students of various ages in five schools across Colorado and one school in Baltimore, logging up more than 1,200 hours of study time in the process. The results score another huge thumbs-up in favor of Mother Nature serving as an unparalleled teacher for children to learn from and a haven to bask in as much as possible.

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The study observed students at a private elementary school in Baltimore that serves children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, a public elementary school in suburban Denver with students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and a college preparatory school, a public high school, an alternative school and an afterschool program all catering to teenagers in different parts of Colorado. A variety of settings were observed including elementary-school students who were able to spend their recess in wooded and built areas, fourth- through sixth-grade students’ using natural habitat for science and writing lessons, and high school students who were gardening either as volunteers, or as required for school service or coursework.

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The results were extraordinary. At the Baltimore school, “96 percent of students in the first through fourth grades chose to play in the woods when they had the option of heading either there, to a playground or to an athletic field.” Teachers reported that the students then returned to class with longer attention spans. At the Denver elementary school, 25 percent of students spontaneously described the green area as “peaceful” or “calm.” Louise Chawla, CU-Boulder professor of environmental design and lead author of the study, noted: “In more than 700 hours of observations at the Denver school’s green outdoor space, zero uncivil behaviors were observed. But there were many incidences of arguments and rudeness indoors, as there are at many schools.” Researchers also observed isolated incidents such as an occasion when a group of students in the Denver green space tried but failed to provoke another student normally known to be quick to react aggressively.

For the gardening teenagers, 46 percent used positive descriptors such as “calm,” “peace” and “relaxation” when discussing their experiences. They consistently gave four main reasons for this, which were being outdoors in fresh air, feeling connected to a natural living system, successfully caring for living things, and having time for quiet self-reflection. Chawla states: “Many schools already offer stress management programs, but they’re about teaching individuals how to deal with stress instead of creating stress-reducing environments.” In light of the team’s results, she suggests that schools consider digging up asphalt or concrete and replacing them with gardens, or that they develop relationships with city parks or local wild habitats to have a natural environment that students can access on a regular basis.

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+ University of Colorado Boulder

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