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Green urban space may be good for children’s brains

7 September 2018

Children living in greener urban neighbourhoods may have better spatial working memory, according to new research by UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

Family sitting on grass

Spatial working memory is a measure of how effective people are at orientation and recording information about their environment. It enables us to navigate through a city or remember the position of objects and is strongly inter-related with attentional control.

The research, published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, found that lower quantity of neighborhood greenspace was related to poorer spatial working memory, and this relationship was the case in both deprived and non-deprived neighbourhoods.

Conducted by Professor Eirini Flouri, Dr Efstathios Papachristou and Dr Emily Midouhas (UCL Institute of Education), the study looked at 4,758 11-year-olds living in urban areas in England, drawn from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies’ Millennium Cohort Study.

The team measured spatial working memory through visual and spatial memory tests conducted on computers. The participants were asked to search for blue tokens hidden within coloured boxes displayed on a computer screen without returning to a box where a token had previously been found. The task gradually became more difficult as the number of boxes increased.

The researchers measured the number of errors made by participants and found that children in neighbourhoods with more greenspace made fewer errors. They were also more likely to be from socio-economic advantaged backgrounds and participate in sport.

When factoring in controls relating to family poverty, parental education, sports participation and neighbourhood deprivation, the findings suggest that exposure to greenspace may have specific cognitive benefits for children.

“Our findings suggest a positive role of greenspace in cognitive functioning. Spatial working memory is an important cognitive ability that is strongly related with academic achievement in children, particularly mathematics performance,” said Professor Eirini Flouri.

“If the association we established between neighborhood greenspace and children’s spatial working memory is causal, then our findings can be used to inform decisions about both education and urban planning.”

The study was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

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Henry Killworth

Tel: +44 (0) 20 7679 5296 

Email: h.killworth [at] ucl.ac.uk