April 24, 2003

A room with a view helps rural children deal with life's stresses, Cornell researchers report

ITHACA, N.Y. -- A room with a view -- a green one, that is -- can help protect children against stress, according to a new study by two Cornell University environmental psychologists. Nature in or around the home, they say, appears to be a significant factor in protecting the psychological well-being of children in rural areas.

"Our study finds that life's stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low-nature conditions," says Nancy Wells, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis in the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell. "And the protective impact of nearby nature is strongest for the most vulnerable children -- those experiencing the highest levels of stressful life events."

The study is published in the latest issue of Environment and Behavior (Vol. 35:3, 311-330). Wells will discuss the study at a meeting of the Environmental Design Research Association in Minneapolis on May 25.

Wells and Cornell colleague Gary Evans assessed the degree of nature in and around the homes of 337 rural children in grades 3 through 5 by calculating the number of live plants indoors, the amount of nature in the window views and the material of the outdoor yard (grass, dirt or concrete). Their assessment was based on a "naturalness scale of residential environments" that they developed in 2000. In addition, they used standardized scales to measure stress in the children's lives, parents' reports of their children's stressed behavior and the children's self-ratings of psychological well-being. The researchers then controlled for socioeconomic status and income.

"Our data also suggest little ceiling effect with respect to the benefits of exposure to the nature environment," the researchers note. "Even in a rural setting with a relative abundance of green landscape, more appears to be better when it comes to bolstering children's resilience against stress or adversity."

In 2000, Wells conducted a study that found that being close to nature also helps boost a child's attention span. "When children's cognitive functioning was compared before and after they moved from poor- to better-quality housing that had more green spaces around, profound differences emerged in their attention capacities even when the effects of the improved housing were taken into account," says Wells. Other studies, she notes, also support the theory that green spaces might help restore children's ability to focus their attention, thereby bolstering their cognitive resources by allowing neural inhibitory mechanisms to rest and recover from use. "By bolstering children's attentional resources, green spaces may enable children to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life stress," Wells says.

Another possible explanation for the protective effect of being close to nature, Wells says, is that green spaces foster social interaction and thereby promote social support. One study, for example, shows that children and parents who live in places that allow for outdoor access have twice as many friends as those who have restricted outdoor access due to traffic.

The study was supported, in part, by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, the W.T. Grant Foundation, the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Hatch Grant and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide additional information on this news release. Some might not be part of the Cornell University community, and Cornell has no control over their content or availability.

o Nancy Wells:

http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/02/1.24.02/green_space.html

o Gary Evans:

http://www.human.cornell.edu/faculty/facultybio.cfm?netid=gwe1&facs=1

o Environment and Behavior :

http://www.sagepub.co.uk/frame.html?http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journals/details/j0163.html

o Previous studies:

"Power of nature is profound, says Cornell researcher in finding that living amid green

space is highly beneficial to children":

http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Dec01/housing.mental.ssl.html