A recent study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has found that living in a tree-filled environment is linked to better early child development than living in areas where vegetation takes the form of grass cover. However, both varieties of green spaces were associated with better developmental outcomes than places dominated by paved surfaces.
Many previous studies have argued that exposure to green spaces is associated with better memory and attention in early childhood, higher academic achievements, and fewer behavioral and emotional problems. However, this is the first study to explore whether the type of vegetation makes a difference in these positive associations.
The investigation was carried out in the Vancouver Metropolitan Area in Canada and was based on a large cohort of 27,539 children, who were followed from birth to five years of age (between 2000 and 2005). In the fifth year, in order to compute each child’s developmental score, the researchers asked children’s kindergarten teachers to rate their pupils’ physical health, mental well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, communication skills, language development, and general knowledge.
Afterwards, by using a high-spatial-resolution land cover map, the scientists determined how much exposure to vegetation each child had, and whether the vegetated land consisted of grass or trees. The average percentage of total vegetation exposure was found to be 36 percent, while exposure to predominantly paved surfaces was 32.2 percent.
While children with the greatest exposure to vegetation (either trees or grass) had the highest developmental scores, those exposed predominantly to paved surfaces had the lowest ones. However, the study revealed that living close to tree-filled areas in early childhood led to better developmental scores than being exposed to grass-covered environments. According to the scientists, this may be due to the fact that tree-filled areas are better in mitigating air pollution, noise and heat than more open green spaces, while also contributing to a higher degree to support restoration from mental fatigue and the capacity for focused attention. On the other hand, grassy spaces may encourage group activities and thus foster social well-being.
“Because we assessed different types of vegetation, our findings contribute to an improved understanding of associations between exposure to green spaces and early childhood development,” said study lead author Ingrid Jarvis, a landscape ecologist at the University of British Columbia.
“Taken together, our findings suggest that converting paved surfaces to green spaces and, in particular, increasing the amount of trees in neighborhoods may have positive effects on early childhood health and development,” concluded study senior author Matilda van den Bosch, an expert in landscape planning and public health at ISGlobal.
The study is published in the journal Environment International.