IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Lack of green space impacts children’s risk taking

24 January 2022

Children who grow up in the least green urban areas are more likely to make fast decisions and are less risk averse, a new study led by IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society finds.

Mother and child outside

The study looked at data from the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study to investigate the role of greenness of children’s immediate residential areas at ages 9 months and 3, 5, 7, and 11 years in reward and punishment sensitivity, measured using the Cambridge Gambling Task (CGT), at age 11 years.

The researchers found that children growing up in the least green urban areas tend to score higher on risk-taking than urban children in greener areas. This was the case even after adjusting for neighbourhood and family socio-economic disadvantage as well as individuals’ pubertal status, IQ and mental health. Children in the least green urban areas therefore showed higher sensitivity to reward (or lower sensitivity to punishment) than other urban children. They showed a strong preference for fast decision-strategies, i.e. more risk-taking behaviours.

Previous research has shown that natural or semi-natural areas that provide habitat for wildlife and can be used for recreation (such as parks, woodlands and allotments) are related to health outcomes. This study also shows their importance in reward-seeking.

Lead author Professor Eirini Flouri said: “Life History Theory proposes that exposure to environmental harshness leads to a focus on the immediate future and the production of fast strategies. We expected that children growing in greenspace deprived areas would show faster decision-strategies because such environments are harsher. Life History Theory has been tested in studies examining links between characteristics of the local ecology and various outcomes. However, ours was the first study that was guided by it to explore the role of the physical rather than the social local context in reward-processing and risk-taking in children. 

“Our study indeed showed that long-term greenspace deprivation was related to children’s risk-taking. It suggests that limited availability in urban areas of natural or semi-natural areas, partially or completely covered by vegetation, that provide habitat for wildlife and can be used for recreation (such as parks, woodlands and allotments) is related to the process of choice under risk in children. This is an important antecedent of mental health but also a host of outcomes related to motivation, including educational and socio-economic, both short and long-term’.” 

This research suggests that the built environment can impact on risk-taking among children as young as 11 years old. The researchers argue that future research should explore how urban environments could be designed to protect from dysfunctional reward-related decision-making in the general child population.

The study was funded by a UCL Institute of Mental Health small grant.



Image from Sai De Silva via Unsplash.