A detailed new study that was recently featured in The Conversation has provided some fascinating insights into poorly realised contributors to academic performance: the levels of nearby green space and traffic pollution.
Joep Claesen and colleagues compared academic performance (NAPLAN scores in reading, writing, spelling, grammar, punctuation and numeracy) with the levels of greenery around schools (using standardised vegetation indices) and also with traffic pollution at schools (via nearby road density).
They found that higher levels of greenery were associated with higher academic performance. They also found that higher nearby road density, and therefore higher levels of traffic and pollution near schools, was associated with poorer academic performance.
My first thought when reading these results was that wealthier schools and jurisdictions often have higher levels of greenery, so socioeconomic status (SES) and the associated educational advantages, may be driving these findings. However, the authors used sophisticated statistical analyses to remove the effects of SES on the results. The association is therefore real and meaningful.
There are many possible explanations for these results. There is growing appreciation for the importance of exposure and connection to natural environments for human wellbeing in general. Even being inside, but having a view of nature, leads to greater levels of relaxation which is an important state for learning (we don’t always learn well when stressed!).
One experiment showed that immersing children in green spaces at school led to better performance on cognitive tests, and this was partially because the higher levels of vegetation provided a buffer to airborne pollution. Higher levels of air pollution may be having a detrimental impact on health, especially in children. Air pollution is already known to contribute to higher incidence of asthma and allergies in children and there is increasing evidence that pollution may affect childhood neurodevelopment, and therefore reduce brain and nervous system health at this pivotal phase of development.
Taken together, these findings suggest that, for optimal brain development and learning experiences, we should increase exposure to greenery and vegetation, and decrease exposure to high trafficked areas, wherever possible. While you may not be able to change where you live or where you learn, you can make a concerted effort to seek out time in natural green spaces during your downtime, which I think would go a long way to improving your health, wellbeing, and potentially grades too! So for the next study session, why not try and find a spot where you have plenty of fresh air and a calming view of nature?!
Nature Play Queensland have some fantastic resources and ideas for increasing nature time for young children and families.