The kids are heading back to school now. Did you make sure they have all their supplies? Book bags, notebooks, calculators? What about hiking boots?
September 2010 Issue
Good Natured: Making Room For Nature in Our Busy Lives
A back-to-school lesson: spending time outdoors recharges the brain's batteries.
Sturdy soles might not be the first thing on most parents’ back-to-school supply lists, but here’s what the science suggests: One way to improve your child’s performance inside the classroom may be to make some time for her outside the school building, off the playground, off the street and into the woods.
Or into the river. Or even your own back yard.
Because research shows that time spent outside in nature can recharge the intellectual batteries for all of us, including our children.
Researchers at the University of Michigan, for example, put students through a series of mental exercises designed to fatigue their brains. They then sent half their subjects on a walk through the Ann Arbor Arboretum, and the other half down a busy city street. After the hour-long walk the students returned, and were asked to complete a number of questions designed to test their ability to retain learned information.
Yes, the students who walked in nature “significantly improved” their performance, but those who beat the pavement did not. The researchers found that these results hold true even when controlled for variables like weather or mood.
“In sum, we have shown that simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control,” the authors wrote. “To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity fails to recognize the vital importance of nature in effective cognitive functioning.”
The University of Michigan study builds on many years of research, and you can read more about that here, but basically psychologists are learning that nature is rich with fascinating stimuli (sunsets, rippling rivers, singing birds), that capture our involuntary attention, but in a low-key way, restoring our ability to employ directed attention and working memory, both critical to learning. A hectic cityscape, on the other hand, triggers our directed attention — forcing us to think to avoid getting lost, or hit by a bus.
Given the research, it seems like parents would be getting their kids outdoors more. But other research suggests that’s not the case. Studies funded by The Nature Conservancy, for example, have shown a steady decline in activities like camping, fishing or visits to state and national parks.
Happily, we can solve this problem, at least for our own children. Even in a state that, like Ohio, has relatively little land set aside for the public, opportunities to get outdoors are plentiful. Many cities have parks plenty big enough for escaping the distractions of the urban environment — parks like Cincinnati’s Mt. Airy Forest, with 1,500 acres of woods and streams within a short drive of downtown.
Residents of the Cleveland area enjoy the famed Emerald Necklace of the Cleveland Metroparks, or can visit the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. In Columbus, the Metroparks offer hundreds of trails, including paths along the Big Darby Creek National Scenic River.
The more adventurous can camp, hike or fish in the Wayne National Forest or the many state forests and state parks. Or stay closer to home and find a quiet trail along a river — moving water silences many city distractions, even if it is relatively close to highways and homes. Witness the Towpath Trail of the Toledo MetroParks, which connects several towns along the Maumee River but is filled with quiet spots and access to the river.
The Nature Conservancy also offers several places to visit throughout the state, with trails passing through some of Ohio’s most precious natural gems.
Some parks are making it easier for kids (of all ages) to interact with nature. A few years back, the Columbus Metroparks designated “natural play areas” at several parks, where kids can go off trail, climb a tree, get their feet muddy in a creek, turn over logs to look for bugs, and do other things that stimulate their minds.
This idea that nature is restorative to the mind certainly is nothing new. Back in 1798, William Wordsworth, while standing a few miles from Tintern Abbey, along the River Wye, expressed his appreciation to Nature,
“…for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts…”
Find your own River Wye. Take the kids there. Let them turn over rocks and logs, and listen to the chatter of bird songs. Let them wonder at the appearance of stars in a sky not polluted with urban lights. Give them a whiff of rain-soaked soil, and let them crumble dried leaves in their hands.
And don’t do it just once, but often. Make it a part of your routine, as sure as homework, piano lessons and soccer practice. You may be surprised, when the grade cards come around, how nature has replenished their minds.