As early human brains developed outdoors, it is safe to say that this is the environment we were made to be in. But today we seem to think that school is a building and that learning is primarily an indoor pursuit. Older children typically only have access to outdoor spaces during break times at school and outside of school it can feel like a huge effort to get out and about. Especially when children are in after-school care, have weekend activities or are often occupied with screens and toys at home.
Research suggests that today’s children spend less time outside than previous generations (Baines & Blatchford, 2019; Natural England, 2009). A survey showed that 12% of children in the UK had not been in a natural outdoor environment such as a park, forest or beach for over a year, with children from ethnic minorities and lower-income households being even less likely to visit natural environments (Hunt et al., 2016).
Some parents worry that being outside in cold weather will make their children unwell, or that playing in the dirt is unhealthy when actually the opposite is more likely to be true!
Many, however, instinctively feel that nature is good for children. Despite an overall trend towards less outdoor time, there are pockets of schools and individuals fiercely advocating for children to get out into nature as a matter of urgency (read Louv’s ‘The last child in the Woods’ (2008) for a compelling case about ‘Nature-deficit disorder’). Outdoor nurseries and Forest schools have seen a huge surge in uptake over the last decade, but these are often disproportionately accessed by more affluent families.
When I saw how being outdoors positively impacted my own children’s behaviour and well-being, and became increasingly frustrated by being expected to make children sit down indoors all day at school, I left my job as an Assistant Headteacher and began my own PhD research on outdoor time.
I spent the first year of my PhD reading every paper I could find on the impact of nature on children and soon learnt that time spent outdoors was associated with a huge range of benefits from improved self-control to better immunity and from social skills to improved sleep, mood and physical development.
There is also evidence suggesting that ‘green time’ can counteract some of the negative effects of ‘screen time’ (Oswald et al, 2020).
One area I found really interesting was that nature might improve some aspects of brain functioning like memory and attention. I had often experienced remembering a forgotten task, solving a problem or coming up with a new idea when out walking in the forest. Could nature actually be improving my thinking?
Delving into this research unearthed multiple studies evidencing links between nature and the brain. A study of high school students compared the attention of those in a classroom with a window view of nature, compared to a view of a built space or no window at all. The study found that attention was over 14% better in the classroom with a nature view (D.Li and Sullivan, 2021).
For 7-12-year-olds with ADHD, a walk in the park was found to significantly affect scores on an attention task. The improvements in attention were comparable to the effects of typical ADHD medications (Faber Taylor and Kuo, 2009). A correlational study (Ulset et al, 2017) of over 560 preschool children 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.
Children who spent more time outdoors performed better in a memory test and were less likely to have inattention and hyperactivity symptoms even 3 years later. Armed with this information about how beneficial time outdoors can be, I became alarmed at how often missing break time was used as a punishment in schools. Children who struggle with their attention or behaviour are having outdoor time taken away from them, which only compounds their difficulties. We need to stop seeing outdoor time as a ‘treat’ and recognise it as a vital part of development and wellbeing.
So why does nature have a positive effect on the brain? According to The Biophilia Hypothesis (Kellert & Wilson, 1993) humans have an innate affinity to nature and feel happier and less stressed in natural environments.
This positive state allows their brains to function more optimally. Another possibility is that the shapes and colours in natural environments are easier to process visually and therefore are less cognitively taxing, leaving more resources for other functions. Attention restoration theory suggests that nature enables our attentional capacities to replenish and provides a ‘wakeful rest’ for the brain (Kaplan, 1995).
Nature may also act as a buffer against other environmental influences which have a negative effect on brain functioning - such as air pollution, and noise (Weeland et al., 2019). Access to nature is also thought to improve gut microbiota and emerging research in this field suggests this may be linked to brain changes (Clarke et al., 2014; Sobko et al., 2020; Tang et al., 2022).
I would encourage parents to prioritise outdoor time with their children – even 15 minutes spent outdoors can make a difference. Take that walk in the forest, get off the bus a couple of stops early, and go to the park for a quick kickabout. As parents we are always striving to do the best for our children but can overlook some of the simplest and easiest ways we can help their development- nature is a free and accessible resource which can make a big difference.
You can follow my research on outdoor learning and get ideas for outdoor activities for children of all ages on Instagram @phd_and_three
About The Author: Gemma Goldenberg is a PhD candidate in Psychology with a focus on the impact of natural outdoor environments on children’s stress, cognition and behaviour. Formerly a primary school teacher and assistant headteacher, Gemma has worked in schools for almost 20 years and also worked as a Research and Learning specialist for The Chartered College of Teaching. She writes regularly for publications in the UK such as Early Years Educator and Nursery World and co-authored the book ‘Powering up your school’ with Professor Guy Claxton. Gemma is Mum to 3 sons and runs an Instagram account @phd_and_three aimed at parents and educators who want to know more about outdoor learning research.