You can take homo sapiens out of the wilderness, but not the wilderness out of humans it appears. For decades, scientists have reported our species exhibits a consistent, if not quite understood, response to spending time around nature: it boosts our mental and physical well being.
The scattering of findings have held in hospital beds, public housing, and Japanese forests. A 2001 study of public housing found the mere presence of trees and grass reduced reduced reported aggression and violence. Another showed people shown a stressful movie recovered to a normal state—as measured by metrics such as heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure—"faster and more complete[ly]" when exposed to natural rather than urban environments.
Those studies are now moving out into everyday life. One of the most recent in the area by the University of Tennessee looked at the way natural playgrounds—built from wooden structures, gardens, and other natural features—affected children’s behavior compared to conventional plastic, metal and "artificial" playscapes.
Dawn Coe, an assistant professor in the Department of kinesiology, recreation, and sport studies at the University of Tennessee spent time observing the behavior and time children spent playing on a local playground. After playground renovations added a gazebo, slides, trees, a creek, and a natural landscape of rocks, flowers and logs, Coe returned a year later to observe differences. Working with a statistician, Coe found children spent twice as much time playing in the natural landscape, and were less sedentary after the renovation and more active.
"Natural playscapes appear to be a viable alternative to traditional playgrounds for school and community settings," said Coe in a university statement. "Future studies should look at these changes long-term as well as the nature of the children’s play."
The key word here is "appear." The findings are preliminary (Coe is preparing to submit the findings to a peer-reviewed journal), so it’s too early to draw any conclusions. But the correlation poses an interesting hypothesis as the US wrestles with an obesity epidemic and what some are calling "nature deficit disorder."
Cities aren’t waiting for definitive studies. Natural playscapes are part of a growing trend appearing in cities across the US including Boston, Phoenix, Chicago, New York, Auburn and others.