Nature and Public School Students: Examining the Link between Academic Functioning and School Nature
Although research has demonstrated that nature exposure (i.e., environments with natural features such as vegetation or greenspace) has the potential to improve individuals’ psychological and physical well-being, little research has investigated potential student benefits related to nature exposure near schools (i.e., school nature). Mechanisms thought to explain benefits of nature exposure include cognitive and physiological responses that improve in relation to stress reduction; these responses may also yield additional benefits to students’ academic functioning. This study investigated the extent to which kindergarten through 8th grade students in traditional, public schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina exhibited better academic functioning (i.e., higher test scores, fewer behavioral incidents) in relation to school nature (i.e., nearby tree canopy and permeable surface). Nature indicators were assessed using Geographic Information Systems, and data were analyzed using multilevel modeling to control for interdependence among students attending the same school. A primary study aim assessed the degree to which student academic functioning was sensitive to prediction by nature indicators at a tenth-, quarter-, or half-mile from the school. Results were largely inconsistent with expectations because few associations suggested that students exhibited better academic functioning in schools with more nearby nature. One significant association indicated that students in schools with more permeable surface within a half-mile performed slightly better on academic testing; therefore, half-mile nature indicators were used in subsequent analyses. The study also aimed to estimate an optimal dose of nature exposure for student functioning. While most associations were not significant, findings indicated that the risk of a behavioral incident was greatest in schools with Average to High Canopy compared to schools with Low or Very High Canopy; these results were counter to expectations. Lastly, the study investigated whether academic disparities related to group and school characteristics (i.e., such as being male, adolescent, Black, immigrant, in a low-income school, or having disability status) were heightened or minimized in the context of greater nature exposure. Although results regarding most potential moderators were not significant, analyses indicated that the heightened risk of a behavioral incident in relation to greater tree canopy was greatest for Black students and least for students with limited English proficiency (LEP). Findings also indicated that LEP students performed worse academically in schools with greater tree canopy, whereas non-LEP students performed similarly regardless of nearby nature. Possible explanations for these largely unexpected results considered the potential for tree canopy within a half-mile of schools to be crowded or unmanaged, which may evoke a fear response among students. According to prior research, a fear response may be particularly salient among students of color. Furthermore, these results may be attributed, at least in part, to some key study limitations. In particular, strong conclusions cannot be drawn because of the study’s correlational nature and the omission of several variables that may explain study results, including neighborhood disadvantage (e.g., poverty, crime), school discipline practices, tree canopy quality, and a neighborhood’s proportion of immigrant residents. Implications of this work and future directions for research and intervention are considered.