How being outdoors supports children’s attention

May 5, 2022

Today we are thrilled to share a brand new guest blog post from Gemma Goldenberg, also known as @phd_and_three over on Instagram. We live for Gemma’s posts about research and studies into the benefits of nature for children and specifically outdoor learning, because each one reignites our own passion for it! So when Gemma agreed to write this post for us we jumped for joy! We are self-confessed ‘fans’ of Gemma’s work; it’s so important to the outdoor learning movement as it helps educators identify their ‘why’ for taking learning outside. Enjoy this informative blog post and let us know your thoughts afterwards over on social media.

How being outdoors supports children’s attention

The idea that contact with nature is beneficial for human wellbeing is not a new one. The use of gardening as a calming strategy has been traced back as far as 2000BC (Detweiler et al, 2012).  But more recent research has also started to explore the ways in which nature might not only affect stress and mood, but also cognitive functions such as memory and attention.

Whilst there is a common misconception that taking children outdoors results in them becoming over excited and unfocussed, a growing body of research suggests that the opposite is true, and that time outside in nature actually improves children’s attention.

One study of over 560 preschool children (Ulset et al, 2017) tested their attention skills over the course of 4 years and analysed this data alongside information about how many hours they spent outdoors at preschool. More outdoor hours were correlated with fewer inattention and hyperactivity symptoms at age 4,5 and 6.

Some of the largest studies on this topic explore whether children who spend more time in green environments perform better on cognitive tests than their counterparts from more urban areas. One such study (Dadvand et al., 2018) used satellite data to examine children’s lifelong exposure to green space around their homes. Children were given a set of cognitive tasks throughout the year to test attention skills, and brain scans to measure brain development. Results suggested that being raised in greener neighbourhoods was associated with better cognitive performance and differences in brain development- particularly in areas related to working memory and attentiveness.

However, one problem with such studies is that it may be the case that children living in greener areas tend to be from wealthier families, have larger homes or lead less stressful lives and it may be such factors which actually affect attention and memory. Whilst studies try to incorporate these other variables into their analyses in order to isolate the specific effects of nature, with correlational research we can never be certain that nature is causing the effects that are observed.

For this reason, experimental studies may provide more compelling evidence that nature directly impacts cognitive skills. In a study by Schutte et al (2017) 4-5 year olds walked for just 20 minutes in either a natural or urban environment before completing tasks to assess their memory and attention. Children performed significantly better on both tasks straight after a nature walk, compared to an urban walk.

Similarly, parental surveys found that children with ADHD who spent more of their free time outdoors in nature had milder symptoms than those who carried out the same activities indoors or in built up settings (Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2011). A short walk in nature was also found to improve attentional capacities in children with ADHD, equalling the effects of common ADHD medications (Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2009).

Unfortunately, due to the designs of these studies, we don’t know how long these cognitive improvements last for. Such experiments tend to only look at immediate effects of outdoor time rather than long term development.

Another issue is that the attention measures used in research often don’t reflect the sort of learning that takes place in schools. Just because a child performs better on a cognitive test, doesn’t necessarily mean their school learning performance such as their ability in phonics or their ability to pay attention during a maths lesson, would have improved.

School based studies are likely to create more naturalistic findings which will be relevant for teachers. Once such study (Kuo, Browning, & Penner, 2018) looked at how engaged 9 and 10 year old students were after an outdoor lesson, compared to an indoor one. This study found that the number of teacher redirects (the times the teacher needed to prompt/remind the class to pay attention or stay on task) after a lesson in nature was almost half that of redirects after a classroom lesson.

How does outdoor time support attention?

There are many more studies which suggest that being outside in nature does have cognitive benefits. But why would this be the case?

There are 2 key theories which seek to explain nature’s effect on the brain:

According to Stress Reduction Theory (Ulrich et al, 1983) humans have evolved to be most comfortable where they can seek food, water and shelter and therefore have an innate preference for natural settings. Natural environments thus reduce feelings of stress and low stress states are associated with improvements in people’s ability to pay attention, process information and remember things.

According to Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989) nature is beneficial because it allows our attentional capacities to rest and replenish. Busy urban or indoor environments place greater demands on our attentional control, compared to natural environments

It is also thought that content from natural environments, such as views of trees, may be processed more efficiently because the brain and senses evolved in natural environments. This idea has been supported by studies which show that processing nature scenes creates less cognitive load than processing urban ones (Valtchanov & Ellard, 2015; Grassini et al., 2019)

Ground breaking new research in this area

I am currently researching how indoor and outdoor learning environments impact children’s focus and attention.

Working with reception classes both in and outside of the classroom, I am using footage from head mounted cameras to record how long children spend at each activity during choosing time and how much attention they pay to the teacher during teacher-led sessions. I will be comparing the results for indoor and outdoor sessions to see how the children’s focus and attention might differ between environments, being careful to match activities and resources across each setting so that I can disentangle the effect of being outdoors from other variables.  

You can follow this research project on Instagram @phd_and_three where I also post summaries of related outdoor learning research and psychology facts for teachers.

Thank you Gemma for sharing a wealth of research with us and our readers!

If you would like to learn how to take more of your everyday lessons outdoors, we have upcoming training courses in South Yorkshire, with further locations coming soon.