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Research in Barcelona, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported in the Guardian, explores the relationship between children’s exposure to green spaces at school, and their learning.  The Guardian report says:

“The researchers carried out mental performance tests on 2,593 children aged seven to 10 attending 36 primary schools in Barcelona every three months for a year.  At this age, children’s brains are rapidly developing and their mental abilities improving.  Over the study period, participants’ overall working memory increased by an average of 22.8%, and superior working memory by 15.2%, while inattentiveness decreased by 18.9%.”

The Spanish researchers found that each degree of increase in surrounding greenness led to a 5% improvement in the development of short-term, or working, memory over a period of one year.  It also improved the progress of “superior working memory” – the ability to update memories with changing information – by 6%, and reduced inattentiveness. Computer analysis suggested that [a lowering of exposure to] carbon from traffic fumes might account for up to 65% of the trend.”

The amount of ‘green space’ was assessed with the help of satellite images, and the researchers applied a measurement based on the reflective properties of land surfaces.  The Guardian reports one of the lead researchers, Dr Payam Dadvand, as saying:

Our findings suggest a beneficial impact of green space exposure on cognitive development, with part of this effect resulting from buffering against such urban environmental pollutants.”

British medical researchers who have read the journal report have raised a number of methodological and analytical points about how the amount of green space was measured, whether the children had any contact with the greenery, what contribution families made to their children’s learning, whether the link between green space and air quality was causal, and whether children from less green areas may well be poorer and less healthy anyway.

The controversy in the report may well lie in its attempts to quantify such effects.  Had the research said that children learn more effectively in schools surrounded by flowers, shrubs, trees, bees, birds and butterflies, then we’d all have nodded because that’s what we think – actually, we get up in the mornings knowing that.  And we’d also have thought, why did they bother doing that research?  So, an attempt to quantify by the researchers is understandable, even if it’s hard to know what “each degree of increase in surrounding greenness led to a 5% improvement in the development of short-term, or working, memory … .” can mean.

At NAEE, we understand the importance of greenery to a school.  That’s why schools applying for the Kenrick Day bursaries are given preference if they have limited or no green space on the school site.  We also know that green space can be a significant stimulus to curriculum and to all-round learning; something the report seems not to have considered.  Happily, NAEE’s new report: The Environmental Curriculum does.  It’s available here.