After many hours observing children at play in different settings, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder say natural terrain playgrounds, those that incorporate trees and grass, even if they include some man-made structures, are effective against stress.

Published in the journal Health & Place, the study is the first to focus on the effectiveness of student access to natural settings, including playgrounds that include dirt, scrub oak and water features among others.

“Many schools already offer stress management programs, but they’re about teaching individuals how to deal with stress instead of creating stress-reducing environments,” says Louise Chawla, CU-Boulder professor of environmental design and lead author of the study. “Schools are where children spend a major part of their life hours, so it’s an important place to look at for integrating daily contact with the natural world because of the many benefits it brings.”

The researchers logged a combined total of more than 1200 hours observing a variety of age groups either at play or completing assignments that require being outdoors.

To diversify their data, they visited a range of institutions, including elementary schools in Baltimore and Denver and four public and private entities for teenagers that included a college preparatory school, a public high school, an alternative school and an afterschool program, all located in Colorado.

Observation at the Baltimore elementary school spanned three years, during which 96 percent of children opted to skip the conventional playground alltogether and play in the woods when given the choice.

While the younger set showed a tendency to observe and take in their natural surroundings, older children organized projects like fort building.

In both cases, teachers reported longer attention spans in students returning from recess and parents said the experience was important to their children’s school-life balance.

Observation at the Denver site found an unusually peaceful atmosphere.

“In more than 700 hours of observations at the Denver school’s green outdoor space, zero uncivil behaviours were observed,” said Chawla. “But there were many incidences of arguments and rudeness indoors, as there are at many schools.”

For schools with limited access to nature, Chawla suggests contacting local city parks in the interest of creating joint-use agreements as well as tearing out as much asphalt as possible on site.