Adv. Hort. Sci., 2006 20(3): 220-223
Received for publication 14 March 2006.
Accepted for publication 31July 2006.
Influence of green vegetation on children’s capacity
of attention: a case study in Florence, Italy
S. Mancuso, S. Rizzitelli, E. Azzarello
Dipartimento di Ortoflorofrutticoltura, Università degli Studi di Firenze, Viale delle Idee, 30, 50019
Sesto Fiorentino (FI), Italy.
Key words: attention capacity, children, nature, primary school.
Abstract:In the present study we compared the effects on primary school children’s capacity of attention of a
garden dominated by green vegetation with those of a classroom lacking natural elements. Eighty pupils, eight
and 10 years of age of similar education and intellectual faculties, were chosen to solve the so-called “Trail
making test”. Results showed that garden exposure significantly improved the attention of children. Implications
of this finding are discussed in terms of guiding school policy and design.
Life in an urban setting can be both physically and
mentally stressful. Under these conditions a substantial
amount of vegetation is of paramount importance not
just to improve environmental conditions, but also for
human health and well-being. Abody of research has
emphasised the relationship between the presence of
plants in urban areas and stress reduction. Bennett and
Swasey (1996) proved that urban residents visit public
gardens to relax, reduce stress and for a sense of resto-
ration. Honeyman (1991) measured, by means of phy-
siologic parameters, the sense of relaxation and calm
coming from looking at plants, even in pictures.
Patients spending their convalescence in rooms facing
a garden recover more quickly than those sheltered in
rooms with windows looking out on buildings (Ulrich,
In the last year special attention on the positive
effects of plants on children and teen-agers has been
posed. Horticultural and gardening programs in the pri-
mary schools teach children to know and respect natu-
ral rhythms, to finish a labour with care, to work
together to realize and maintain their project. Moreo-
ver, theoretical and empirical work in landscape archi-
tecture and environmental psychology has addressed
numerous possible other benefits of nature for children,
including providing privacy (Nabhan and Trimble,
1994; Trancik and Evans, 1995), mental stimulation
(Faber Taylor et al., 1998), sensory stimulation (Strini-
ste and Moore, 1989) and supporting important deve-
lopmental activities such as play (Miller, 1972; Moore,
1986 a, 1989), creative forms of play (Jansson, 1984),
and exploratory and divergent thinking (Heseltine and
Holborn, 1987; Kirkby, 1989; Senda, 1992). Neverthe-
less, among this plethora of studies, only a few papers
have raised the question of nature’s potential impact on
children’s attention (Trancik and Evans, 1995; Wells,
2000; Faber Taylor et al., 2001).
The study described here evaluates the effectiveness
of the presence of plants in improving children’s and
students’learning ability. The specific objective was to
determine whether exposure of primary school children
to nature could influence their capacity to direct atten-
tion, defined as the capacity to inhibit or block distrac-
tions during purposeful activity, such as noise in the
external environment or worries in the internal one
(Posner and Snyder, 1975; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1982
a). The present study compared the attention-impro-
ving effects of a garden dominated by green vegetation
with those of a classroom lacking natural elements.
Findings showed that garden exposure significantly
improved the attention of primary school children
engaged in the simple task of taking an easy test.
2. Materials and Methods
This research was conducted at the primary school
“Andrea del Sarto” in Florence housed in ancient buil-
ding in the area of the urban park of “San Salvi” (about
10 ha area) and surrounded by a large garden planted
with trees where children can meet and play.
Atotal of 80 pupils, with similar education and
intellectual faculties, participated in this study. They
were chosen to solve the so-called “Trail making test”
(TMT). TMT was standardized by Partington and Lei-
ter (1949) who found the test to be a good predictor of
general mental ability. The test is used to point out skill
in perceiving visual and spatial stimuli and in changing
from a numerical stimulus to an alphabetical one.
Around 1944 the test became part of the Army Indivi-
dual Test of General Ability, and is now part of the Hal-
stead-Reitan Test Battery. It consists of two parts (Fig.
1): A) in as little time as possible the subject has to con-
nect, with a stroke of a pen, the numbers from 1 to 25
according to increasing order.The encircled numbers
are randomly spread across a sheet of paper (210 x 297
mm); B) on a sheet of paper are written the numbers
from 1 to 10 and the letters from A to L; the subject has
to connect every letter to the corresponding number (1-
A; 2-B; 3-C, etc.) in as little time as possible.
ple is exactly like the test and helps to understand and
solve it in the best way. TMT does not violate privacy
and does not upset the performer; an especially impor-
tant aspect when working with children.
Children were divided into two groups (40 each):
one composed of fourth year students (ten-year-old
pupils); the other of second year students (eight year
olds). The same-aged children had normal intellectual
faculties and they were prepared in a similar way. Ten-
year-old pupils were subjected to both tests (A and B),
whereas the younger ones did only test A.
Half of the students in each group (20 elements)
took the trails individually, in the presence of a teacher
and an operator, in a room without vegetation (the lin-
guistic lab); the other half did the same in the school
garden (Fig. 2). Trials were timed by an operator. He
began timing when a child started solving the test and
stopped when he completed it correctly; if the child
made a mistake, the operator corrected him and then let
him continue while the clock remained running.
Fig. 1 - Trail making test. Trial A (left): in the shortest time you have
to connect, with a stroke of a pen, the numbers from 1 to 25
according to an increasing order. Trial B (right): you have to
connect every letter (from Ato L) to the corresponding num-
ber (from 1 to 10) in the shortest time.
Normally, the entire test can be completed in 5 to 10
minutes. TMT evaluates numerous processes (Kay,
1984), such as:
1) Spatial organization, graphomotor speed, recogni-
tion of numbers, visual pursuit, vigilance and num-
2) Part Aevaluates the process of rote memory.
3) Part B is associated with distinguishing between
numbers and letters, integration of two independent
series, ability to learn an organizing principle and
apply it systematically, serial retention and integra-
tion, verbal problem solving, and planning.
Both parts are simple and anonymous; they are pre-
ceded by an example to aid understanding. The exam-
Fig. 2 - Places where children took the trials: linguistic lab
(above) and garden (below).
All the data derived from the tests were subjected to
ANOVA using the program Statistica version 4.0 (Stat-
3. Results and Discussion
Significant correlations were found between the
time needed to solve the test and the place where the
test was taken (Table 1). The second year pupils took
an average time of 178 s to solve test Ain the lab
(maximum 260 and minimum 122 s) and 142 s in the
garden (maximum 190 and minimum 102 s). These
data put in evidence a significant average difference of
36 s in favour of the children who took the trial out-
doors in the presence of vegetation.
In the lab the fourth year pupils took an average
time of 145 s (maximum 220, minimum 85 s) to solve
test A and 118 s for test B (maximum 290, minimum 64
s). In the garden the average time fell to 99 s (maxi-
mum 178, minimum 64 s) for the first trial and 66 s
(maximum 101, minimum 42 s) for the second one.
Also in this case, being surrounded by vegetation hel-
ped to save time: on average, 45 s for test Aand 52 s
for test B (Table 1).
Even if we exclude the extreme values from the
results (maximum and minimum times from each
group), we obtain significant differences (Table 1).
It is important to emphasise that the linguistic lab is
a quiet room, whereas in the garden, pupils involved in
the trials were exposed to noise from the street close by
and to other “disturbing” factors like wind and excessi-
ve warm temperature. However, pupils of the “Andrea
del Sarto” primary school usually spend much time in
the garden, studying or just walking with their teachers.
As a result they are inured to staying outdoors in con-
tact with nature and they did not mind the windy and
hot weather of the test day.
The notion that exposure to the natural environment
positively affects human well-being has been discussed
in many papers showing measured cognitive, psycho-
logical, and physiological benefits. Among these,
numerous studies have documented children’s prefe-
rence for natural green spaces. According with Wells
and Evans (2003) children’s preference for green natu-
ral spaces is a direct corollary of human evolution. Pre-
ferred environments are likely to afford long-term sur-
vival and are likely to be the settings in which humans
are more likely to function effectively (Kaplan and
Kaplan, 1982 b; Ulrich, 1983; Zube et al., 1983;
Class Place Test Mean time
(s) S.E. P
Table 1 - Impact of different environments on the time needed by children of different ages to solve the trail making test
Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Parsons et al., 1998). Nume-
rous studies have documented that children’s preferred
environments include a predominance of natural ele-
ments (Korpela, 2002). For example, Moore (1986 b)
reported that when urban children aged 9 to 12 were
asked to make a map or drawing of all their favourite
places, 96% of the illustrations were of outdoor places.
The children’s most frequently drawn favourite places
were lawns, playgrounds and schoolyards, their own
home, local parks, and single trees. Sebba (1991)
reported that when asked to describe the most impor-
tant or preferred place of their childhood, a large part of
adults indicated outdoor places. When examining both
British and Caribbean children, Sobel (1993) found
that children generally preferred natural play spaces. In
his study on the experience of growing up in cities,
Lynch discovered a general appreciation for vegeta-
tion: younger people frequently suggested that more
trees should be planted in the urban environment. “The
hunger for trees is outspoken and seemingly univer-
sal… Landscaping should be as essential a part of the
basic infrastructure of a settlement as electricity, water,
sewer, and paving” (Lynch, 1977). Given the evidence,
it is reasonable to expect that green natural settings,
preferred by children, would also have a beneficial
effect on children’s well-being. More recently, Faber
Taylor and co-workers (2001) documented that activi-
ties in green settings tend to reduce symptoms in chil-
dren who struggle with a chronic attention deficit due
to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
The results of our research are consistent with pre-
vious studies confirming that the environment plays an
important role in children’s development. Children
spend as many as 40-50 hr per week in institutional and
out-of-home care situations; so the play yards associa-
ted with these settings become one of the most impor-
tant places where they have experiences with nature
(Herrington and Stundtmann, 1998). Landscape desi-
gners have to realize that the plan of an outdoor play
space can influence the different aspects of children
development, i.e. social, cognitive, and emotional
(Whiteouse et al., 2001); they have to create interesting
and stimulating places, especially around schools,
where children spend so much time. Since the pionee-
ring work of Jean Piaget, Rudolf Steiner and Maria
Montessori, a lot of scientists and educators have reco-
gnized that a rich, multi-sensory learning environment
is essential for the cognitive and emotional develop-
ment of a child. Aschool garden, with its shapes and
textures, colours, smells and sounds, can be beneficial
for the development of the growing child and the
Results of this study confirm that even a brief expo-
sure to the natural environment may have some benefi-
cial effects on children’s capacity to direct attention.
The green environment at school may play a far more
significant role in the well-being of children than has
previously been recognized. The notion that nature
plays a positive role in improving children’s perfor-
mance at school has a number of implications, mainly
for policy and for the design of school children’s envi-
ronments. Green schoolyards, enhancing the children’s
attentional capacity, could play a central role in the
improvement of pupils’academic performance. Access
to vegetation and natural areas can help in the attenua-
tion of adverse affects of stressors often encountered by
children in the first years of school. However, further
research to explore the features of the nature-attention
relationship, and with regard also to the effects of dif-
ferent types of green areas, are needed.
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