Two children playing in a forest. They're throwing leaves into the air.

Helping Children Lay Down Healthier Roots

Trees are good for kids; we know this. But just how good? A new study reveals how much of a positive effect they can have on early development.


Scientists have long known that green spaces can be beneficial to children’s physical and mental health, but for those of us living in urban areas, these spaces may be few and far between. Urban designers can help children by prioritizing green spaces in our cities. But when it comes to designing these spaces, does the type of greenery make a difference?

This was the question posed by a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia. Their study, which investigated the impact of different types of green spaces on children’s development, was published in Environment International.

Many previous studies have highlighted the benefits that the environment can have on our physical and mental health. The researchers behind this particular study were interested in how these benefits might extend to children during their early developmental years.

To learn more, the team carried out a long-term study on nearly 30,000 children in the Vancouver metropolitan area. Using data from the British Columbia Ministry of Health, the researchers followed the children’s development from birth to 5 years old.

The children’s development was assessed with a tool known as the Early Development Instrument. This assessment tracks children’s physical health, communication skills, and language and cognitive development, among other characteristics.

The team then determined whether each of the children lived in proximity to green spaces, as well as whether these green spaces were dominated by trees or grass. They also accounted for the socioeconomic status of the families included in the study.

Overall, the team found that children who lived near green spaces had higher development scores than those in pavement-dominated areas. This was the case for both tree- and grass-covered green spaces, but the highest scores were reported for children in tree-dominated areas.

The researchers believe that these higher scores were due to the fact that tree-filled areas are better at mitigating air pollution, noise pollution, and heat. Trees have also been shown to better reduce stress than other types of vegetation, which can further promote children’s physical and mental development.

In the future, these findings can be used by city planners to help foster positive early development in children. Prioritizing trees over grass in urban green spaces can help children meet important developmental milestones.

“[O]ur findings suggest that converting paved surfaces to green spaces and, in particular, increasing the amount of trees in neighbourhoods may have positive effects on early children health and development,” said Matilda van den Bosch, an assistant professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and corresponding author of the study, in a press release.

“[E]ven minor individual gains in childhood could lead to important public health benefits across the life course.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.