Grey matter is green

Playing in the woods is good for physical and mental health.
Playing in the woods is good for physical and mental health. / R.C.
  • It was Rousseau's theory three centuries ago and later also that of educationalist María Montessori. A study by the Global Health Institute shows that children who spend more time outdoors perform better at school

There is modern and omniprescent artificial intelligence and there is primal talent, the one we have always had. In case there should be any doubt, a rigorous study which has just been published confirms empirically that writing and knowledge are not abilities which are innate in us, but ones which are absorbed much more effectively with natural methods. In the literal sense of the phrase.

“We found that greater exposure to green spaces was associated with better marks in the attention tests we carried out on children at the ages of four to five and seven,” says the report, which was carried out by the Global Health Institute of Barcelona.

In other words, children who play and spend more time in parks and outdoors - climbing trees, running on the grass, touching leaves, earth and stones - have greater cognitive development and perform better at school.

Experts and teachers already knew that. “No description, no illustration in any book can replace actually looking at trees and all the life that surrounds us in a real wood,” wrote Italian educator María Montessori, who insisted that play is the best teacher for children.

Long before that, nearly 300 years earlier, the enlightened Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas influenced not only the French Revolution but also educational material, believed education should be regulated “by the rhythms of Nature.” This is an undisputed concept, an axiomatic principle, for many in the education sector.

“It is a something that we consider obvious, but now it has been demonstrated by this study, which is very valuable because it involved ten years of observation and its conclusions are serious and reliable,” says Andrés Payá, a doctor in Education and director of the Comparative Education department of the Philosophy Faculty at Valencia university.

The report which has just been published is based on information compiled about 1500 children in Sabadell and Valencia between 2003 and 2013.

The longest and shortest distance between their homes and green areas were measured, at birth and then again between the ages of four and five, and at seven.

In the two later phases, “we carried out psychological tests for overall evaluation in a very simple way with a computer: the children only had to push the 'Enter' key. At both ages we found better responses, a higher ability to concentrate and less impulsiveness in the youngsters who were used to playing, running and jumping in parks and green spaces,” explains Jesús Ibarluzea, a doctor in Public Health and one of the specialists who worked on the research.

The project, which was led by doctor and environmental epidemiologist Payam Dadvand, involved “around 40 professionals in very different spheres such as psychology, public health, biochemistry, statistics and epidemiology,” explains Dr Ibarluzea.

“This is the first time the impact of residential exposure to green spaces has been studied with regard to childrens' ability to concentrate,” says Dr Dadvand, who believes it “shows the importance of green areas in cities for the health and development of childrens' brains.”

The team of researchers admits, however, that the scientific evidence of this certainty is still limited, which is why they will be carrying out new studies to confirm it.

“We are going to extend the tests to groups of children we have in Asturias and Guipuzkoa, to see if the effects we have observed also apply in different climates and landscapes to those in Valencia and Sabadell,” he explains.

Healthy, sociable and creative

Andrés Payá has no doubt that they will, and he makes a logical point: the key does not lie in the proximity of the green areas, but in the way and the frequency in which they are used.

He says there are three main benefits to the outdoors with regard to a child's development. “It improves their health through physical exercise; sociability because they are playing with others; and it enhances creativity and divergent thought because they are interacting with water, mud, leaves.... our spontaneous instinct is this, don't stay home alone playing with a toy.”

From a more medical point of view Rafael Guerrero, professor of Evolutionary Psychology and Education at the Complutense University in Madrid, says that “contact with natural surroundings reduces symptoms which are common these days such as hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder and impulsiveness.”

Why is that so? “Nature teaches us that things require time; I can't plant a seed and expect a tree or plant to appear immediately. That improves attention because it focuses on the present moment, here and now. These children find it easier to concentrate, and to control their impulses and emotions. That is what the studies say and clinical practice demonstrates. The natural environment also makes them more sociable and helps them to achieve full attention. Their brain development is much more powerful.” Also, he adds: “all this applies to adults too, of course.”

Dr Guerrero says there is another derived benefit. “These children will be able to tolerate frustration better when they are grown up, because they will have learned from nature that not everything happens as you expect.”

The study from the Global Health Institute refers to 'green spaces', a term which covers a general concept. “It talks about the advantages of the whole natural environment, not just things of one colour,” explains Rafael Guerrero. The 'green' is the symbol of a philosophy. In fact, there are outdoor education centres in the Canary Islands, such as El Médano Beach School in the south of the island of Tenerife. It is near La Tejita beach and the Red Mountain Nature Reserve, where there is little vegetation and the dominant colours are the blue of the sea and the ochre and sandy hues on land.

The phyletic memory

For Francisco Mora, a doctor in Medicine and Neuroscience and professor of Human Physiology at Complutense university, the conclusions of this research are enormously positive.

“We have inherited our cerebal codes and constructed them in a natural green environment. Biological evolution tells us to return to this space, the places in which we have really been made over the past four or five million years,” he explains. “It's what is called the phyletic memory, defined as the innate information of our species, and even species which preceded us on the evolutionary scale, which has been genetically inherited through DNA.”

Payam Dadvand's thesis, that green zones are needed in cities to encourage the development of the childrens' brains, has precedents in neuroarchitecture, according to Dr Mora, who has written several reference books about his speciality.

“Major Japanese architectural studios build with the criteria of the neuroeducator in mind and it means there are schools with large windows and views to the outdoors, and that has a positive effect on the students' performance,” he explains.

Nothing that Rousseau wouldn't have known already. And he wasn't even Japanese.