"For the girls, we found that the greener the view that was available from their apartment window, the better they were able to concentrate, refrain from acting impulsively and delay gratification," said Andrea Faber Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences. "The greener views translated into better self-discipline."
The findings, published online in June by the Journal of Environmental Psychology, in advance of the journal's print publication, are based on a study of 169 children, ages 7 to 12, in a large downtown Chicago public housing complex. Boys' scores did not display the same relationship to views of nature from home, possibly because boys tend to spend more time playing away from home than do girls, said co-author Frances E. Kuo, co-director of the Human-Environment Research Lab.
This study is one of several that Kuo and third co-author William C. Sullivan have conducted on the link between nature and healthy human functioning in inner-city Chicago.
"This study grows from previous research that shows the ability to concentrate can be renewed through contact with natural settings," said Kuo, who also is a professor of psychology. "I'm pursuing the possibility that self-discipline draws on the same brain mechanism that concentration does."
The new findings, Taylor said, strengthen arguments that city planners and housing developers should strategically incorporate views and access to nature to enhance the quality of life for residents.
For the new study, the researchers recruited and trained volunteer residents of the mostly African-American Robert Taylor Homes to interview and test families they didn't already know. The data collected were then analyzed by the scientists to understand the impact of the physical environment on mothers and children.
Mothers were asked to rate the amounts of nature (trees, plants or water) and human-made structures (buildings, streets or pavement) visible through their apartment windows. Boys and girls were given a series of widely recognized performance measures: four to assess concentration and three to measure impulse inhibition. A final measure, in which children had the option of getting a small bag of candy right away or a much larger one later on, was used to test their ability to delay gratification.
Greater performance in these three areas, Taylor said, reflects greater self-discipline, which, in turn, can enhance academic achievement and reduce juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancies.
"This study is one of the first to examine the relationship between nature and concentration in children with normal attentional functioning," Kuo said. "And it is the first to link nature with impulse inhibition and delay of gratification in any population."
The research to date, Kuo said, suggests that parents, caregivers and homeowners in inner-city neighborhoods should encourage girls to study or play in rooms with a view of nature; promote playing outdoors in green spaces; advocate recesses in green schoolyards; plant and care for trees and vegetation around the home; and value and care for trees in the neighborhood.