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26 February 2019

What is the role of neighbourhood greenspace in children’s spatial working memory?

Professor Eirini Flouri spoke to us about why they chose CANTAB to investigate children’s spatial working memory in a large, epidemiological study.  

Can you tell us more about yourself?

I am professor of developmental psychology at University College London (UCL). I am interested in understanding the causes of children’s emotional and behavioural problems. I search for causes in biological and cognitive factors, but also in the family environment (parenting, parental mental illness and poverty) and the broader context (neighbourhood and school).


What is the rationale behind your study?

This study is the most recent addition to our programme of research on the role of neighbourhood greenness in child cognitive and emotional/behavioural development. In this study we explored if the amount of greenspace in the neighbourhood was related to children’s spatial working memory, which is strongly associated with academic achievement.

We expected that spatial working memory would be strongly linked to the amount of area greenspace, given that those living in areas with more greenspace are more likely to actively use outdoor spaces. Active exploration of an environment leads to better spatial learning and wayfinding than passive exposure.

Spatial learning and wayfinding - the ability to learn, remember and follow a route through the environment - are, in turn, strongly related to spatial working memory. There was another possible mechanism that could explain such a link: exposure to natural, green settings restores attentional resources by imposing fewer demands on visual or auditory processing.

Our sample was drawn from the Millennium Cohort Study, which administered the CANTAB spatial working memory task (SWM) at age 11 years. We analysed the SWM results from the 11 year olds who lived in urban areas of England (about 5000 children).


What are your key findings, and what are the wider implications?

We found that children living in urban neighbourhoods with more greenspace had better spatial working memory. That effect was robust to adjustment for family poverty, parental education, sports participation and neighbourhood deprivation, all associated with neighbourhood greenspace and child cognitive skills in general. In addition, neighbourhood greenery was related to children’s spatial working memory similarly in deprived and non-deprived neighbourhoods.

If the association we established between greenspace and child spatial working memory is causal, then our findings can be used to inform policy decisions about both education and urban planning. For example, a strong case could be made for outdoor learning and for easy access to urban greenspace.


Why did you choose CANTAB for your study?

It was ideal that the CANTAB spatial working memory task was available in the Millennium Cohort Study, as we wanted to test our hypothesis about the impact of greenness on child spatial working memory in a large, general population sample.


What are the next steps for your research?

We would like to test some of these associations experimentally. This would be challenging for many reasons, but this is where we want to take this research next. We will also want to be able to separate out the effects of outdoor greenness from those of, for example, outdoor air quality and noise.  


Do you have any other amusing or challenging anecdotes from your research that you would like to share?

What is amusing now that the study is so widely talked about in the media is that this was a difficult paper to publish. I knew the work we had done was good and our data reliable and analysed appropriately but I think that this study was just sitting between scientific fields with widely different habits and approaches.  The mainstream cognitive psychology journals thought that the research was too epidemiological, the epidemiology journals thought it was too cognitive.


Interested in using CANTAB for your epidemiological study?

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Tags : cantab testimonial | swm | spatial working memory | epidemiology

Author portrait

Professor Eirini Flouri, University College London