Research Summary

Green space and early childhood development: A systematic review

Green space exposure during the early years is positively linked to healthy child development

Reviews on Environmental Health

Previous reviews of the research show that green space exposure is associated with health outcomes for children. Little research, however, has focused on the link between green space and child development. This review of the literature addressed this gap by synthesizing the evidence of the effect green space exposure has on early childhood development.

To be included in this review, papers must have examined associations between exposure to green space during childhood (including the perinatal period) and health and development outcomes. Twenty-three papers met the inclusion criteria and were included in this review. Findings from the papers were grouped into four main categories: perinatal health, physical exercise, neurodevelopmental health, and respiratory health. Eleven of the studies focused on the association between maternal green space exposure and perinatal health. Four studies examined the associations between green space exposure and childhood physical activity; five on associations with children’s psychological or neurodevelopmental health; and three on respiratory health.

Studies focusing on perinatal health consistently reported significant positive associations between surrounding greenness and increased birth weight. Studies in this category also reported statistically significant associations between increases in measures of surrounding greenness and decreased risk for low birth weight and very low birth weight pregnancy outcomes. Increased greenness was also associated with decreased risk of preterm birth. Studies focusing on surrounding greenness and physical activity also considered childhood BMI (body mass index). One study reported a significant association between higher nearby greenness with a lower BMI and lower odds of children and youth increasing their BMI scores over a 2-year period. Another study showed similar results but found that the associations are not constant across childhood. The association between greenness and BMI was more evident as children grew older. The association was also stronger for boys than girls. Research relating to psychological health showed that living farther from city parks and other green space was associated with higher levels of children’s mental health problems. Children with more green space exposure were more likely to have better physiological health including memory, attentiveness and emotional well-being. These results differed, however, according to mothers’ education level, with children in the lower maternal education group showing greater benefits associated with nearby parks than children in the high maternal education group. Studies focusing on respiratory health showed that exposure to certain pollens produced from green space can increase the risk of asthmatic symptoms during childhood. Studies in this category also showed that exposure to residential green space in urban environments was associated with less wheezing and other respiratory problems depending on vegetation type.

This review found a positive association between green space exposure and early child development and, thereby, strengthens the evidence base on the health benefits of green spaces for children. The evidence supports green city initiatives as a health-promoting strategy.