Thoughtful Thursday: The Original Classroom

Published August 28, 2014

by Heather Doggett, Director of Visitor Programs and Staff Training

Homework, chores, dance class, basketball practice, play rehearsal, school events, guitar lessons and more! The school year is just starting and already we find most nights and weekends filled with commitments. But surely, all of these interesting and important activities are helping prepare our children to be successful, smart adults right? Maybe.

There is one important ingredient to cognitive super-strength that is often overlooked in a young child’s hectic, over-scheduled day – outdoor time in nature. So often, playing outside is reserved only after the child has completed everything on their to-do list. In fact, the promise of the tablet, phone, computer, TV and video games may become the most desired reward for a fully completed pile of homework.

Studies show us that time outside can increase a child’s brain function and attention span. For years, researchers have seen the correlation between children spending time in nature and how well they perform in the classroom. In 2002, A. F. Taylor examined the relationship between nature and concentration in children. They found that simply having windows in the home that looked out over a natural area resulted in a 20 percent variance in self-discipline scores in children.

In 2008, psychologists Marc G. Berman, John Jonides and Stephen Kaplan found that when volunteers  were asked to do an assignment that demanded memory and attention, taking a walk in a park resulted in better scores on the assignment, when compared to volunteers who walked in an urban downtown environment. 

In a follow-up study, they showed volunteers photographs of either nature scenes or city scenes and then tested them on tasks. Indeed, the volunteers who had viewed pictures of nature performed better. Both of these studies indicate that being around nature has a calming, restorative effect allowing a person to perform better when focus, attention and self-discipline are required.

The challenge is always how and when. With full schedules and working families, time is short and nature may seem to take a back seat. However, by making a few key choices through the day, we can help improve our children’s chances for success in the classroom. 

Here are some unique ways to spend time with one of the best teachers, nature:

  • Bring a blanket outside and have dinner picnic-style.
  • Schedule a nature play-date. Choose one night a week for unstructured play-time outside at a neighborhood park, in the woods or in the backyard.
  • Have your children do homework outside or with a view of nature.
  • Choose children’s books that feature positive stories and real photos of nature, animals and their habitats.
  • Volunteer to help your child’s school by brainstorming ways to incorporate nature into the classroom.
  • Challenge yourself to spend time un-plugged and in nature as a family. 

Does your family have a favorite outdoor activity? Share it with us in the comments section! 

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Heather Doggett

Director of Visitor Programs and Staff Training

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