Why city trees can be good for kids’ brains

Plus, 9 ways to find the wild in your neighborhood—wherever you live

With three kids under eight years old, New York City parents Kimberly and Sam Leopold made proximity to nature the top must-have during their recent apartment search. “We spend time in a park two or three times a day,” says Kimberly, who lives in a 750-square-foot South Harlem apartment with her husband and daughters. “Honestly, it’s a matter of survival. The kids are just happier when they can play and explore outdoors.”

And it turns out that a regular infusion of nature—in particular, seeing and being around trees—could help bolster kids’ thinking and reasoning skills, too. A recent British study of more than 3,500 city-dwelling children and teenagers from across London found that having a higher daily exposure to woodlands (basically, places with trees) can help kids’ cognitive development.

The good news is that kids can—and should—get a daily dose of trees and other nature even if your family lives in a city or suburb, says Tim Beatley, founder and executive director of Biophilic Cities, which advocates for future cities in which residents are surrounded by nature.

“Nature can't just be seen as something far away that you occasionally visit,” he says. “Few things hold the potential to deliver this sense of being immersed in seamless nature in the way that trees can and do.”

The brain benefits of trees

The London research is part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that spending time in nature can boost kids’ brainpower. But what happens in the brain when kids experience wooded areas in particular? The lead authors of the British study say one possible explanation for their findings may be that woodlands typically have more cool nature-y stuff for kids to hear, touch, smell, and see, such as chirping birds, rough bark, weirdly scented leaves, and wiggly worms.

In other words, trees and the amazing array of things in, on, and around them could help with sensory integration—which is how the brain takes in, organizes, and responds to information from the senses, says Keith Somers, a pediatrician with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Children’s Community Pediatrics-GIL.

“We are sensory beings from the get-go, and nature provides all of the impacts that each of the senses needs,” adds Somers, who takes a wholistic approach to childhood health and partners with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Parks Rx initiative. He explains that the senses vital for a child’s development are the familiar five—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—plus two others: balance and awareness of body in space (or what occupational therapists often call the “hidden senses”).

Somers notes that stimulating the senses during the first three years of life helps build strong, healthy brains. For instance, even when a baby appears to be sitting quietly in your arms, she’s taking in information and developing neural pathways—those essential connections between neurons used to transmit information to the brain.

As kids grow, engaging multiple senses helps build and strengthen these pathways, laying the foundation for learning and mastering complex tasks later on. And, since each of the senses uses a different part of the brain (for instance, information from the eyes gets processed in the back of the brain in a region of the cerebrum), the multisensory and experiential nature of, well, nature gives young brains a workout. Watching squirrels race around a tree trunk, stacking rocks (and seeing them fall!), smelling flowers, and balancing on a log are sensory adventures kids can’t get via Zoom or other virtual learning experiences.

“We know that nature is our biggest teacher,” Somers says. “Sometimes you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a technological device when you can just go out and find a tree.”

Why kids need trees (even dead ones!)

It doesn’t take a whole forest or even a wooded park to spark kids’ imagination and creative problem-solving. A single tree will do, and it doesn’t have to be alive! Dead trees on the ground are teeming with life, serving as shelter and a food source for birds, bugs, salamanders, and other creepy-cool creatures.

Kids can be mentally mesmerized by the swaying, moving, and creaking of trees, which animates cities and neighborhoods. “Looking at trees is akin to the ‘effortless looking’ we experience when we watch clouds or the ocean,” Beatley says. (Check out these ideas to get a child’s head in the clouds.)

For city and suburban kids in particular, proven health benefits have been associated with spending time among trees on a regular basis. As an example, Beatley points to the extensive Japanese and Chinese research around shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, showing that at the end of a walk in the woods, stress hormone levels go down and immune systems get a boost. (This article provides a how-to on forest bathing as a family.)

Trees also provide shade and cooling (something increasingly essential in urban environments) and help to ameliorate air pollution, reducing kids’ asthma risk. For Beatley, though, the sense of wonder that trees inspire is one of the biggest reasons why kids (and adults) need woodlands and other nearby nature in their daily lives.

“Experiencing awe delivers positive emotional and health benefits and also helps provide a sense of deep connection, purpose, and meaning in life,” he says.

9 ways to find the wild in any neighborhood

Sparking a sense of wonder about trees or any sort of nature also helps kids become people who want to protect the planet, says London-based National Geographic Explorer and parent Daniel Raven-Ellison.

“If we want kids to care about wildlife and wild places, it's vital that they experience them for themselves,” explains Raven-Ellison, founder of the National Park City movement, a global effort to reimagine urban areas as greener, healthier, and wilder places. “That doesn’t mean going far; every neighborhood has somewhere a little wild to discover.”

That’s true even if you don’t live near a wooded park. Raven-Ellison and Beatley agree that nature can be found in everyday places, such as along sidewalks, fence lines, and canals; on rooftops and ivy-covered walls; in vacant lots, community gardens, and playgrounds; and in the landscaping around buildings.

To help your family notice the nature in your neighborhood, Raven-Ellison suggests taking regular walks on the wild side during which you try at least one of these activities:

• Quietly follow a squirrel or other animal for as long as you can. Where does it go? What does it do?

• Count how many blocks or steps can you travel without making a single bird fly off. (This article can get your child started as a birder.)

• Take a photography safari to snap pictures of 10 animals, each one smaller than the last. (Here’s some advice from Nat Geo photographers about taking pictures of wildlife.)

• Sit quietly under a tree and wait. What sights, sounds, and smells do you notice?

• Go on a bird stakeout. Observe a resident flock, take notes on how they look and what they do, and give them all names that reflect their personalities—like Hoppy, Whistler, and Feeder Hog!

• Assign points to different wild woodsy things (for instance, pigeon = 1, rabbit = 5), and collect points as you spot them on the walk. First one to 20 wins!

• Where permitted, climb a tree. Choose one kids can reach on their own (no lifting!) and make sure three points of the body—two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand—are supported by branches at all times. (If you’re still nervous, check out why a little risky play is good for children.)

• Swatch nature. Pick up paint swatches from the local hardware store and try to match the colors to things you find in nature.

• If your kids are into it (and if you can handle it), investigate the “murder” of a bird or other woodland critter. Draw a white chalk line around the body (but don’t touch!) and look for clues as to how, when, where, and why the animal died.

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