Mom was right—playing outside has unexpected benefits for kids.

By Kate Winick
FamVeld/Shutterstock

Should you move to the suburbs? It’s a question many young parents face, and one that depends on a lot of factors, not the least of which is giving kids more space to be outdoors. Whether it’s memories of roaming your neighborhood on your bike or swinging high in your own backyard, most of us share an inherent belief that being out in nature is good for kids. And now, a new study indicates that might very literally be true.

In a study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, researchers studied 4,758 kids age 11, living in urban areas throughout England, and found that a lack of parks, trees, and green spaces correlated with poorer spatial working memory, an important cognitive ability that is strongly related to academic performance.

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“Spatial working memory is an important cognitive ability that is strongly related with academic achievement in children, particularly mathematics performance," said corresponding author Dr. Eirini Flouri, of University College London. It’s also closely linked with attentional control, the ability to direct your attention and a key quality in an academic environment. Earlier studies showed that direct contact with nature helps your brain recover from time spent forcing it to concentrate—it restores your mental resources by giving your brain a break from processing information.

Researchers worked with kids in both underprivileged and wealthy neighborhoods for the study, proving that the green space itself helped develop an important part of a child’s brain, regardless of other factors. "If the association we established between neighborhood greenspace and children's spatial working memory is causal, then our findings can be used to inform decisions about both education and urban planning,” said Flouri.

Most studies prior to this have looked at how green spaces benefit adults, by helping to keep them physically fit, but evidence that children also benefit provides an even stronger argument for building and maintaining parks and public spaces.

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So if you’ve already made the move, get your kids out and about throughout the school year, and if you’re staying in the city, make the most of public parks and gardens—it pays off more than you know.

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