Natural terrain playgrounds include elements of the outdoors, such as grass, dirt, scrub oak, and water features. While schools are littered with concrete and asphalt playgrounds, new research has found that natural terrain environments reduce stress and prolong attention spans in children and adolescents. The study, conducted by the University of Colorado and published in journal Health & Place, observed and compared different school yard environments, finding a correlation between "green" settings and calmer mental states in kids.

Comparing Environments

The study included a variety of environments of recreation, including a wooded area designated for elementary school recess, a natural habitat used by fourth through sixth graders for science and writing lessons, and a high school garden used for both volunteerism and required school coursework. The sites were located throughout Baltimore, Maryland and Denver, Colorado.

Alongside 1,200 hours of observation, researchers interviewed students, teachers, parents, and alumni—all participants who had spent substantial time in the various sites.

Students Thrive in Green Settings

Researchers found that in Baltimore, 96% of children between first and fourth grade chose to play in the woods when given the choice of a wooded area, concrete playground, or sports field. Activities that occurred in the woods were often sensory-based, including building forts and foraging for interesting objects. Teachers and parents reported longer attention spans, along with more balanced emotional and social behaviors.

Similar results were found in Denver, where 25% of the students who completed assignments in a natural environment noted their surroundings as "peaceful" or "calm." The study notes that the children considered spending time in a green area as an escape from the stress of the classroom, even though they were still fulfilling required work.

Advice to Schools

"In more than 700 hours of observations at the Denver school's green outdoor space, zero uncivil behaviors were observed," said Louise Chawla, environmental design professor and lead author of the study. She also pointed out the difference that occurs in non-natural settings: "But there were many incidences of arguments and rudeness indoors, as there are at many schools."

For schools with limited resources who are interested in natural terrain settings, Chawla suggests using minimal asphalt in design and finding a way to work more city parks and open spaces into recreation schedules.

Recommended For You

Maisha M. Syeda, MSc.
Sigal Sharf



Louise Chawla, Kelly Keena, Illene Pevec, Emily Stanley. Green schoolyards as havens from stress and resources for resilience in childhood and adolescence. Health & Place, July 2014. DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2014.03.001

Date of original publication:

Updated: August 27, 2016