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Growing minds: nature and the brain

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As more and more children face nature deficit disorder from spending too much time indoors, research shows the benefits of spending time in nature not only include refocusing attention and building self confidence, but improving overall cognition and mental health.

Growing Minds by Karen Sumner

Benefits of Spending Time in Nature are Numerous

The restorative benefits of nature are extensive and well supported by research: more time in the natural world produces tremendous mental and emotional gains. And yet, we are spending less time outdoors than ever before, and our children, especially, are more separated from natural experiences than previous generations.

How is it that we know so much about the "brain boost" that comes from immersion in our natural environment, yet we benefit so little from our knowledge?

For example, researchers have learned that outdoor experiences improve focused attention–the kind of attention needed to sustain mental work, which includes any learning activity. This is true for children both with and without attention deficits: children with ADD and ADHD who play in and learn from green settings show some relief of their attention symptoms, while children without attention difficulties show improved motor coordination and a better ability to concentrate when they play outside every day, no matter the weather. 

Spending time in nature stimulates all aspects of a child's development, including independence and creativity. Photo by Stephanie Collins

How Nature Captures Kids Attention and Builds Confidence

Indoor and urban environments, on the other hand, tend to deplete our capacity to pay attention. As one group of researchers has noted, the natural environment has the ability to refill or rebuild focused attention, and not merely because nature is "restful" or "peaceful." Studies indicate that a natural environment outperforms a peaceful non-natural environment (such as quiet time at home) when it comes to replenishing our attention system. There is no environment comparable to a natural, outdoor landscape for improving a child's ability to focus and attend.

Beyond their cognitive boost, outdoor experiences also improve a child's hardiness and confidence. Hardiness is the ability to moderate negative effects of stress–to overcome and move on from difficult experiences. Hardiness is related to resilience: a hardy child has the inner strength to bounce back from disappointment and letdown.

Further, experiences outdoors develop self-confidence and self-esteem in children. While parents sometimes mistakenly believe that protecting their children from difficulty and failure fosters confidence, it turns out that the opposite is true: protected children often lack confidence and a strong self-concept. Spending time exploring the natural world, and especially developing the learning skills that wilderness experiences impart, helps children have faith in themselves and develop the belief that they are competent and capable.

Developing a Sense of Independence

Not surprisingly, along with a boost in competence comes the development of autonomy. While we all want our children to become independent and adept adults, our constant connection to them through technology, our insistence that they partake in only supervised activities, and our tendency to schedule their time can undermine their development into autonomous beings. Studies show that children who regularly interact with nature mature into more independent beings, able to take care of themselves and to take pride in that ability.

Ensuring that our children spend quality time every day in natural spaces will enhance attention and memory, develop resilience and self-confidence, reduce the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders or depression, and improve the quality of life.

If we give our kids "green" play and learning time every day, their growing minds will revel in the experience.

—Karen Sumner
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