Research Summary

Green schoolyards as havens from stress and resources for resilience in childhood and adolescence

Natural schoolyards decrease stress, strengthen attention, reduce behavior problems, and enhance factors associated with resilience in children of all ages

Health & Place

Research on stress, resilience, and benefits of contact with nature in children has historically been conducted in separate disciplines: medicine, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, environment and behavior. These disciplines are shown to be connected in the current study. Stress and anxiety in children are increasingly prevalent, contributing to increased risk of many mental and physical health problems in adulthood as well as through their growing years. A range of protective factors is known to promote resilience in children. The purpose of this study was to explore how naturally-vegetated schoolyards can reduce stress in children and youth while also enhancing factors associated with development of resilience.

A growing body of research provides evidence that people, including children and youth, derive benefits from direct experiences with and in the natural world. This study aims to deepen understanding of why those benefits are derived and what forms they take. It suggests the usefulness and power of naturally-vegetated school grounds for stress reduction and management, and considers implications for further research. The authors discuss the interconnections between nature and society and use ecological psychology as a theoretical base, which defines affordances offered by an environment and behavior settings that affect and control behavior in specific environments.

The authors examine three types of nature contact among children of three different age groups: wooded area for recess play (young elementary school students, aged six to twelve), outdoor classroom use (older elementary school students, aged nine to 13), and gardening programs (high school students, aged 14 to 18). The young elementary school students were from a private elementary school in suburban Baltimore for children with language-based learning disabilities (n=11). The older elementary school students were from a public elementary school in suburban Denver (n=106). The four sites of high school students (all in Colorado) included: a private college preparatory school on a former ranch (n=16), a public high school in a rural town (n=24), a public alternative school (n=5), and an afterschool program (n=7). The high school students at these sites engaged in gardening in the form of an elective school service, an optional agricultural biology class, a required horticulture science class, and an elective after-school and summer gardening program.

The various qualitative study methods employed include ethnographic observations of students (sometimes using videos and photos), and semi-structured interviews with students, parents, and teachers. Students were not specifically asked about stress or resilience, but these themes emerged through data analysis. The authors provide general demographic information about students at each site including age, gender, race, and geographic location.

The young elementary school students overwhelmingly chose wooded areas over a playground for play during recess. Reported benefits include physical independence, supportive social relationships, and imaginative play. Children learned physical and social competence, formed complex cultures and alliances, and developed autonomy. Teachers and parents observed enhanced attention and decreased anxiety among the children.

The older elementary school students used a varied natural area for school assignments that included woods, a butterfly garden, hills, and a pond. They found these areas relaxing and stress-free when compared to their normal academic environment, and one-quarter specifically described the setting as calm or peaceful. They reported feelings of safety, respite, freedom, and attention stimulated by seasonal changes. Researchers observed a marked decrease in disrespectful behaviors among students and increased cooperation and accountability.

High school students who participated in gardening programs at all four sites were interviewed about their experiences. Forty-six percent of keywords analyzed had to do with calm, peace, and relaxation, and participants cited four reasons for these feelings: being outdoors in fresh air in nature, feeling connected to a natural living system, caring for living things successfully, and having time for quiet self-reflection. Fifty-one students were specifically asked how gardening affected their attention, and 98% reported positive effects. Several students mentioned positive effects on their psychiatric symptoms.

Overall, students in all age groups in all settings reported or displayed positive effects on stress and attention. Protective factors for resilience were also enhanced, including competence and supportive social relationships. The authors describe how competence results in feelings of mastery and self-efficacy, and supportive social relationships were related to students’ freedom to choose activities and define their own roles.

This study adds substantially to the research on mental health benefits of nature contact among children and youth.