A new study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning finds that when students have a view of green space, their ability to pay attention increases, and their stress decreases. And previous research has shown that the more stressed kids are, the worse they perform in school.
Almost 100 Illinois students at five public high schools were assigned to three different types of classrooms, with windows facing the side of a building or a green space, or no windows at all. The students had to complete various tiring tasks including proofreading random sequences of letters, giving a speech about their dream job, and doing a set of subtraction problems. They took attention tests and filled out questionnaires before and after the tasks, as well as after a break, to measure their stress and mental fatigue. They also wore equipment on their wrists and fingers to measure their heart rates, sweat levels, and body temperatures.
After the initial tasks, all the students performed equally, but when given ten minutes to stare out the window and relax, the students with a green view seemed to recover more easily from their stressful experience. The students who looked out the window to see green space scored better on the attention tests and were quicker to recover from the stressful educational tasks than their peers who looked at buildings or at a blank wall. Merely looking outside at natural light didn’t help the kids function any better than staring at a wall; the students only saw significant benefits from looking at a natural landscape. The researchers found that the attention restoration effect of the green views wasn’t a result of the stress recovery process, suggesting that there are at least two distinct ways that looking at green space affects the brain.
Plenty of studies have suggested that green space is good for mental health, but this one is particularly persuasive because it was a randomized, controlled trial. That means it's less likely there's some other factor at play—like schools with green views having a less-stressed population of students because they generally get to spend more time outside, are more affluent, or some other factor. The study suggests that there really is something about trees that helps people relax and pay attention.