Academic studies are suggesting that experiences in the outdoors are crucial for a child’s cognitive, social, and psychological development. In my opinion, some of the most compelling work is that being done with children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, more commonly known by its abbreviation ‘ADHD’.
Specifically, researchers Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan found that urban environments and modern technologies often aggravate a child’s ADHD symptoms. Further, the ADHD symptoms of children who spend a lot of time playing in indoor settings such as basements with few or no windows (I would think that many elementary school classrooms and gymnasiums would also fall into this category) were much more severe than the symptoms of children who played outside.
This leads to the most important finding of this research: that natural settings often alleviate (and never worsen) a child’s ADHD symptoms. In the researchers’ focus groups with parents, one parent shared that a Disneyland trip was too stimulating for her child, but a camping trip to a state park resulted in a vacation the whole family enjoyed because her child was relaxed, happy, and calm. Another described how his son’s struggles with ADHD were minimal when he was engaged in outdoor activities such as hitting golf balls or fishing.
Other studies with similar findings:
Author Richard Louv, in Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, is essentially making the same case. At one point in the book, he describes his conversation with James Sallis, the program director for the Active Living Research Program for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who tells him that children with indoor, inactive upbringings are more likely to experience struggles with mental health and wellbeing. In fact, Louv argues that although the ADHD child is labelled as having the disorder, it is actually society that is disordered because it has created the structures in which many children are no longer connecting with nature in any significant way.
Meanwhile, a small study by Ke-Tsung Han showed that plants were important to students’ behaviour and wellbeing in a junior-high classroom in Taiwan. His experiment involved classrooms with plants and classrooms without plants. Students in the classroom with plants tended to rate themselves both as more comfortable in the classroom and as feeling more friendly towards others than those students in a classroom without plants.
I personally find this interesting, and it is connected to findings of research on Green School Yards. Check back soon to learn more about that research!
Han, Ke-Tsung. (2009). Influence of limitedly visible leafy indoor plants on the psychology, behavior, and health of students at a junior high school in Taiwan. Environment and Behavior, 41(5), 658-692.
Louv, Richard. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder (updated and expanded). Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Taylor, Andrea Faber, Kuo, Frances E., and Sullivan, William C. (2001). Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77.