Committee for Children Blog

How Environment Can Foster Social-Emotional Well-Being

I recently read an article by Florence Williams in the January 2016 issue of National Geographic. It was entitled “The Power of Parks: A Yearlong Exploration.” The article was about how the brain responds to nature and how nature can reduce stress, among other things. It reminded me of how the environment is just as important as skill development for fostering social-emotional well-being. These are a few examples.


Executive-Function Skills

Teaching Skills: Second Step Brain Builder activities are taught in Kindergarten through Grade 3. Practicing these activities can boost children’s memory and improve self-regulation for paying attention and controlling behavior.

Environment:  Another way to enhance executive-function skills could be to take a walk in a botanical garden or woodland. Stimuli in natural, peaceful environments reportedly allow the brain to restore its capacity for focused attention.

  • Stephen Kaplan found in a recent study that a 50-minute walk in an arboretum enhanced executive attention skills, such as short-term memory (Williams, 2016, p. 67).



Teaching Skills: The Second Step Empathy Unit teaches students to identify and understand their own and other’s feelings, take others’ perspectives, and show compassion for others.

Environment: Nature scenes may increase empathy-related brain activity.

  • Korean neuroscience researchers watched the brain activity of people viewing different images. They found that when people looked at nature scenes there was increased blood flow to areas of the brain associated with empathy and altruism (Williams, 2016, p. 66).


Emotion Management: Stress and Anxiety

Teaching Skills: The Second Step Emotion-Management Unit teaches students to recognize how strong feelings affect their brain and body and how to apply strategies for managing worry, anxiety, and stress.

Environment: Nature may influence whether you focus on negative emotions. Looking at images of nature scenes or taking walks in the forest could be a way of managing stress and anxiety.

  • Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan suggest that visual aspects of natural environments, such as water, can reduce stress (Williams, 2016, p. 58).
  • The Korean neuroscience researchers (see above, under “Empathy”) who watched the brain activity of people viewing different images found that when people looked at urban scenes blood flow increased to their amygdala, which processes anxiety and fear. This did not happen with nature scenes (Williams, 2016, p. 66).
  • Greg Bratman of Stanford and his colleagues scanned the brains of three volunteers before and after they took a 90-minute walk and found decreased activity in a brain area associated with a key factor
    in depression (Williams, 2016, p. 67).
  • According to a recent study done by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University and a group of Japanese researchers, a 15-minute walk in the woods was associated with a 16% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol (Williams, 2016, p. 58).


Although this review only briefly explores the role the environment plays in social-emotional development, it offers insight into  how environment supports social-emotional well-being. What things can we do to consider environment in our classrooms and throughout the day? Right now, I am going for a walk in the park.


Bratman, G., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(28), 8567–8572.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207–1212.

Kaplan, S., & Berman, M. G. (2010). Directed attention as a common resource for executive functioning and self-regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(1), 43–57.

Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): Evidence from field experiments in 24 forests. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, 15(1), 18–26.

Williams, F. (2016, January). The power of parks: A yearlong exploration. National Geographic, 229(1), 54–67.