Back to Nature for Better Attention Spans

Time spent outdoors can improve symptoms of attention disorders, according to a new study of children in daycare centers in Norway.

Child making a snow angel

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Many writers and philosophers have lauded the healing benefits of time spent in nature. “The indescribable innocence of and beneficence of Nature,—of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter,—such health, such cheer, they afford forever!” mused Henry David Thoreau. And as Walt Whitman said, the secret to making the best persons “is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth.”

A new study examines children in daycare centers in Norway to understand the effect of between one and nine hours of outdoor time per day on children’s health and development. In a longitudinal study of 562 children between the ages of one and 6.5 years old, the team analyzed indicators of cognitive and behavioral functioning such as inattention symptoms, hyperactivity symptoms, and digit span, which measures executive functions like attention and short-term memory.

In Scandinavia as a whole, the quality of daycare is partially determined by the amount of outdoor time offered, and some daycares offer up to nine hours regardless of weather and season. In this particular study, the benefits of Norwegian daycare centers, according to the authors, include ample fresh air, physical activity, and space. They also tend to stimulate play and shield children from noise and traffic.

The results of the study show that as daily outdoor hours increased, inattention-hyperactivity symptoms decreased.

The results of the study show that as daily outdoor hours increased, inattention-hyperactivity symptoms decreased. “The relation was strongest when the children were five and six years old and decreased again when children entered elementary school.”

Increased outdoor time for children also increases outdoor time for teachers. The positive benefits might improve teachers’ moods and their ability to manage children’s inattention-hyperactivity disorder symptoms. As the authors point out, this may lead to bias in the study of children if the teachers then rate the children’s symptoms as better “because they themselves are better equipped to deal with such symptoms.”

Increased physical activity, better air quality, more light exposure, and more positive child-teacher interactions could all be mediating factors that contribute to these positive effects of nature on children’s development. Ultimately, though, access to the outdoors can be a relatively easy, safe, accessible, and environmentally friendly alternative to medication for children with attention disorders, and for healthier children overall.

Feature image: Snow Angel!, by Ethan Lee, used under CC BY 2.0, used for illustrative purposes only.