UEL Baby Dev Lab

Nature Access for Urban Children (NAUC)

Nature Access for Urban Children (NAUC)

Earth is now a majority urban planet. The urban population is growing by 80 million inhabitants every year, whilst the proportion of children growing up in rural areas is decreasing. Almost 70% of the world’s children are expected to grow up in cities by 2050 (UNICEF, 2019). In response to rapid urbanisation in recent decades, there has been an increase in research investigating how living in urban environments affects individuals. Research has indicated that nature is linked to physical, cognitive and emotional benefits for children. Nature exposure has been linked to improved affect and cognition (Bratman, Daily, Levy, & Gross, 2015), prosocial and self regulated behaviour (Sakhvidi et al, 2022; Putra et al 2021) better performance in school tests (Sivarajah et al, 2018; Wu et al., 2014), reduced ADHD symptoms (Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2011; Kuo & Faber Taylor, 2004) and improved confidence and social skills (Sheldrake et al, 2019) to name just a few positive outcomes.

Child playing outside

Yet access to nature is decreasing with each generation. A  2- year study of children’s engagement with natural environments showed that children living in London are less likely to visit the natural environment than those living in other areas of England, and 12% of children in the UK have not been in a natural outdoor environment such as a park, forest or beach for over a year. Children from lower income households and ethnic minorities are less likely to visit natural environments  (Hunt et al, 2016) and it has been suggested that this may be perpetuating wider health and educational inequalities (Browning & Rigolon, 2019).

Child playing in mud

If exposure to nature can improve cognition, physical health, social behaviour and wellbeing, then spending more of the school day learning outside in natural settings could have a significant positive impact on pupils’ attainment and mental health. This is particularly salient during a time when children’s self reported wellbeing has declined over the last decade (DfE, 2019).

The overall objective of this study is to explore the mechanisms underlying the effect of a natural, outdoor learning environment on children’s learning, wellbeing and behaviour, and examine whether this effect varies between individuals, for example, is learning outside particularly beneficial for specific groups of children?

This information can then be used by schools to develop effective learning environments and interventions, and a research informed approach to outdoor learning.

In this project, each child’s physiological stress, social behaviour, attention and learning performance will be analysed at a micro-level. Children aged 4-5 in 6 different schools from the London Borough of Newham, will wear specially designed devices which will incorporate a head mounted camera, microphone and heart rate monitor.

Children wearing devices

These wearable devices will be worn whilst they take part in a series of both indoor and outdoor lessons, taught by their usual teacher, and covering the same learning material as would usually be planned for. The schools vary in the type of outdoor learning environment they have available, ranging from concrete urban spaces to grass and forested areas. This will allow for the exploration of how differing levels of nature may affect children.

Nature projects scenery 2

Educational settings montage

 Data will be analysed and compared across indoor and outdoor settings to elicit the impact of the learning environment on factors such as:

  • Physiological stress (heart rate)
  • Prosocial behaviour and self regulation
  • Attention and memory
  • Speech and language
  • Wellbeing and involvement

Whilst measurements of noise in each environment will also be taken to see whether this mediates any observed effects. This study is led by Gemma Goldenberg and assisted by Molly Atkinson who works as a knowledge transfer lead on the partnership between UEL and Newham Learning. You can follow Gemma’s research on Instagram @phd_and_three where she summarises existing research in this field as well as sharing her own research journey.

PhD and three



Latest publications

  1. Whiting, S., Wass, S., Green, S., & Thomas, M. (2021). Stress and learning in pupils: neuroscience evidence and its relevance for teachers. Mind, Brain, and Education. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mbe.12282

  2. Wass, S. (2019). Investigating the factors that cause stress in young children and how this affects their concentration. The Chartered College of Teaching. https://my.chartered.college/2019/03/investigating-the-factors-that-cause-stress-in-young-children-and-how-this-affects-their-concentration/