Thursday, September 26, 2013

UI research shows time in natural environments key to healthy human development

UI research shows time in natural environments key to healthy human development

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Some parents, says Andrea Faber Taylor, will get their children outside because that’s natural to them. Other parents may or may not, because they consider regular outdoor activity an accessory. That is, they’ll get the kids outdoors if there’s time left after schoolwork and basketball and dance and the myriad other activities that seem to fill up the days.

Faber Taylor and her colleagues at the University of Illinois Landscape and Human Health Laboratory want to change the way adults in this second group think. They want everyone to understand that time spent outdoors in green spaces is a key to healthy development in all children. And they are active contributors to the growing body of academic research that supports the case for this perspective.

[Photo by Andrea Faber Taylor: two of her daughters at play in a stream.]

The Landscape and Human Health Laboratory is directed by Ming Kuo, whose expertise in cognitive and environmental psychology is complemented by Faber Taylor’s knowledge of horticulture and children’s behavior and environments.

Some of their most fruitful recent work has shown that a “dose” of activity in a green setting can be a useful tool for treating the symptoms of children with ADHD. Starting from the understanding that exposure to natural environments enhances attention among people in the general population, they hypothesized that the same would hold true among children with attention deficits.

In their field studies, the team from the lab compared how children’s ADHD symptoms were affected by going for a twenty minute walk in three different settings: a park, a neighborhood with trees and grass, and a downtown space lacking any significant green.

What they found was that a walk in a park enabled the children to perform significantly better on tests of concentration and impulse control than a walk in either of the other settings.

The field study corroborates what researchers with the lab have found through a number of surveys of parents whose children have been diagnosed with ADHD. In the most recent of those, which collected data using a national, internet-based survey, they found that regardless of income or gender, children who play regularly in green settings experience milder ADHD symptoms than children who play indoors or in built up outdoor settings.

Taylor and Kuo’s findings about the benefits of activity in green space for children with ADHD serve as an extension of previous research by members of the lab on the role of green space in human well being. And it leads them to advocate for designing communities with green space in mind, and making play in green space a priority in the daily life of children.

This week the Landscape and Human Health Lab has partnered with environmental educators at the Urbana Park District and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District to celebrate “Take a Child Outside Week.” A number of events associated with this effort will take place on Saturday, These include trash clean ups at Busey Woods and Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, and an opportunity to help install plants to benefit wildlife at the Perkins Road Wet Prairie. Details about these events are available through the Take a Child Outside Week page on the Web site of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.

I would add that helping children connect with nature requires neither organized programs nor the setting of a big park. When we’re in the right frame of mind, the outside is as close as the nearest door.