CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Trees and grass do more than make a person feel closer to nature. In the midst of a public housing complex in inner-city Chicago, such greenery supports children's play, particularly creative forms of play, and encourages the presence of adult supervision.
The findings -- published in the January-February issue of Environment and Behavior -- have implications for urban policymakers and for the general health and well-being of children growing up amid the poverty of America's concrete jungles, say University of Illinois researchers.
In 64 outdoor spaces of Chicago's Ida B. Wells housing development, almost twice as many children (ages 3-12) played in areas with trees and grass than in barren spaces. Creative forms of play occurred considerably less frequently in non- or low-vegetation areas.
"I think from a policy standpoint, the findings about more play are exciting, because play in general has important implications in children's development," said Frances E. Kuo, co-director of the U. of I. Human-Environment Research Laboratory.
Specially trained observers also watched for the presence of adults, finding that the children's access to either partial or full adult supervision was doubled in areas with vegetation. Observations were done during after-school hours and on Saturdays.
The sites, differing only in the amounts of vegetation, are about equal in size within the complex of 100 one- to four-story apartment buildings. On average, 16 families share a single courtyard. Of the 5,700 residents in the complex -- one of the 10 poorest neighborhoods in the nation -- 97 percent are African American and 44 percent are children under age 14. Unemployment is 93 percent.
"I think the public often has a sense that the conditions of the inner city are at least partially due to the behaviors of individuals who live there," Kuo said. "It's important to remember how many children are growing up in these conditions. We want kids to stay in school and be socially responsible and hold decent jobs. We really need to think about the environments they are growing up in."
Schools can't be considered the only fix for fostering the healthy development of inner-city children, said study co-author Andrea Faber Taylor, a Jonathan Baldwin Turner graduate fellow at the U. of I. "What about children's free time? We need to consider where they spend that time. Children need nearby spaces that support activities, such as play, that are important for healthy development."
The study -- funded by the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council -- carefully documented previous research that links the importance of play on social and cognitive development of children and the accessibility the children have to responsible adults.
"This study argues that the way we design our cities has a very critical impact on the people who live in them, in particular the children who are growing up there," said co-author William C. Sullivan, a landscape architect in the U. of I. department of natural resources and environmental sciences.