17 June 2021Share
Greenery around primary schools may boost academic performance in young children while exposure to traffic-related air pollution may be detrimental, a new ACU study reveals.
Researchers at ACU’s Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research mapped greenery and traffic exposure around 851 primary schools across Melbourne to examine how they were associated with average academic scores for children in Years 3 and 5.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Research, looked at the average NAPLAN scores in reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation and numeracy for 2018.
NAPLAN data already accounts for any between-school differences in socio-economic factors such as parental education and occupation making it possible to compare schools in different locations.
Study lead and active travel expert Alison Carver said greenery was measured within the school grounds, with greenery and density of roads mapped within circular zones of varying radii.
“We found that school-level academic performance in reading, numeracy, grammar and punctuation was better on average for schools located in areas with more greenery, while poorer performance was associated with higher levels of traffic-related air pollution surrounding schools,” Dr Carver said.
“Our findings show preliminary evidence that greener environments with low traffic levels around primary schools may promote children’s academic performance.”
The study compared the NAPLAN scores of similar socioeconomic-status schools and found higher scores in greener areas. For example, when comparing schools with the highest and lowest levels of green within 300m, it found statistically significant differences of an average 20 points in reading scores for year 5.
Dr Carver said access to greenspace – which included parks, trees, shrubs and grass – was an important environmental exposure linked to children’s healthy development.
“There is a growing body of evidence supporting the importance of children’s environments to their health and development,” she said.
“We know that greenery in urban areas can boost mental health among older adults and lead to better cognitive development in primary-aged schoolchildren however, there is still debate on whether greenery around schools can boost academic performance.”
Exposure to traffic-related air pollution at school, where children spend much of their waking hours, has previously been associated with poorer performance in tests of brain health and development.
Study co-author and air pollution expert Amanda Wheeler said with increasing urbanisation in Australia and globally, consideration needed to be given to the location of schools so that children grow and learn in environments that promote physical and cognitive health.
Dr Wheeler called on planners and educators to consider where schools were located and how their surrounding environments could be improved to promote childhood learning and health.
“Additional steps to reduce traffic levels around schools should be encouraged where possible as well as active transport and use of public transport to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads,” she said.
The study was the first of its kind in Australia. It also involved leading environmental epidemiologist Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, an ACU professorial fellow and research professor at ISGlobal Barcelona, and researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
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