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By Byoung-Suk Kweon, PhD, PLA and Christopher D. Ellis, PhD, PLA, ASLA
Children need safe, healthy, and stimulating environments in which to grow and learn. During the school year, children can spend 6 to 8 hours at school where the environment plays a critical role in child development. Much time is spent in the school yard or traveling to and from school. These environments need to be carefully planned and designed to optimize experiences that support education, health, and stewardship. The problem is that many school children are exposed to unhealthy environmental conditions, school yards that lack opportunities for nature experiences, and commuting options that favor vehicle travel over walking or biking.
Research shows that children are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution than adults: Their lung function has not been fully developed and their airways are narrower than adults’. They breathe in greater levels of polluted air relative to their weight and spend more time outside when air pollution levels are the highest. Dr. Byoung-Suk Kweon at the University of Maryland and Dr. Paul Mohai at the University of Michigan found that of 3660 schools in Michigan, 62% were located in areas with the highest levels of air pollution from industrial sources. Their study, funded by the Kresge Foundation, found that air pollution concentrations are statistically significant predictors of student performance. This was true even after controlling for factors such as the rural, suburban, or urban location of the school; average expenditure per student; size of the student body; student-teacher ratio; and percentage of students enrolled in the free lunch program. Their work with Dr. Sangyun Lee and graduate student Kerry Ardwork was recently published in the prestigious journal Health Affairs. The team is currently drafting a school siting policy for the state of Michigan that focuses on healthy environmental conditions.
Understanding how trees and other urban infrastructure influence school performance is essential for improving childhood well-being. Dr. Christopher D. Ellis and Dr. Kweon at the University of Maryland investigated the effects of trees and other physical environments around Detroit schools on elementary and middle school children’s school performance. They measured the amount of tree canopy around the schools, the distances to highways, housing vacancy rates, proximity to waterbodies, etc. within one kilometer of 897 public schools (grades 3 through 8) in the Detroit Metropolitan area. These measures were evaluated against the average performance scores measured by the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test. They found that urban nature such as trees and open water have positive impacts on children’s school performance while close proximity to highways and high housing vacancy rates have negative impacts. Their analytical procedures controlled for school enrollment and socio-economic status. Funding for this study was provided by the US Department of Agriculture McIntire-Stennis program.
This summer, Drs. Kweon and Ellis, along with research assistant Mark Storie, are participating in LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to quantify the benefits that school landscapes can have on school children, teachers and staff. Their case studies are documenting ways that stormwater and wastewater systems, nature playgrounds, and schoolyard gardens integrate into school curricula, support outdoor activities, increase outdoor classroom use, and influence test scores and attendance rates.
It is important to show that today’s educational environment is far more than just buildings and books. If the world outside is designed to be safe, healthy and rich with learning opportunities, then school environments can be places in which children flourish and succeed.
Dr. Byoung-Suk Kweon is an Assistant Professor and Dr. Christopher D. Ellis is an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Science & Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland.
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