Research on brain development shows influence of nature, green spaces and physical activity on children’s brains

If you want your children to have smarter brains, sharper memories, and longer attention spans, raise them in a home with lots of greenery and plenty of physical activity. That’s because two Spanish studies discovered that nature and exercise exert strong influences upon brain development and mental health, reported a Waking Times article.

The Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) collaborated with Hospital del Mar and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health (UCLA FSPH) in Los Angeles, California. The study is part of the BREATHE project, where ISGLobal takes a look at how air pollution in urban environments can affect cognitive development.

The research group observed the effects of green environments on children from primary schools in Barcelona, Spain. According to them, children who grew up in homes surrounded by greenery showed more white and grey matter in their brains, which are traditionally associated with higher levels of cognitive function.

Exposure to nature increases children’s brain power

Researchers analyzed satellite information of the participants’ physical addresses from birth to the time of the study to assess their exposure to greenery throughout the course of their lives. They also took high-resolution 3D magnetic resonance images (MRI) of the brain anatomy of the children. Finally, the children took computer tests that rated their working memory and attention spans.

“This is the first study that evaluates the association between long-term exposure to greenspace and brain structure,” elaborated Dr. Paya Dadvand, the lead study author from ISGlobal. “Our findings suggest that exposure to greenspace early in life could result in beneficial structural changes in the brain.”

The findings were published by UCLA FSPH. The California-based university determined a positive link between long periods of exposure to greenery and the growth of white and grey matter volume in certain parts of the brain. Those regions are in turn connected to other parts of the brain responsible for cognitive performance.

High volumes of white and grey matter in those brain regions correspond to better working memory and longer attention spans. (Related: Effortless yet effective way of boosting memory performance revealed, works for both young students and Alzheimer’s patients.)

Lack of physical activity weakens working-memory

In another BREATHE study, researchers determined that physically-inactive preschoolers suffered from weaker working memory by the time they entered primary school. The trend in memory development held for primary-school students who didn’t partake in physical activity. As they became adolescents, their short-term memory likewise deteriorated.

“Scientists associate working memory with our ability to retain information in the short term for cognitive processing,” reported ISGLobal. “It is one of the most important functions of learning and academic achievement.”

Seemingly aware of that correlation, Eagle Mountain Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas tripled recess time for primary-school students last year. Teachers at the Texan school claimed their physically-active pupils display better focus during class periods and pay more attention to their lessons, which translated to improved levels of learning.

On a similar vein, a University of British Columbia study reported that children who play outdoors tended to feel more strongly about the environment when they became adults.

According to Waking Times, these various studies provide strong evidence that green spaces and physical activity boost the brain development of children. Natural surroundings with plenty of outdoor physical activity are arguably the best environment to raise them in.

In order to ensure children and adults alike enjoy vital access to natural environments, it is recommended that cities build more gardens, nature paths, trees, and parks. The additional greenery is sure to break up the constant monotony of grey concrete.

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