The Potential Restorative Benefits of the Natural Environment: Investigation of the impact of outdoor play on attention in primary school children
The study is based on Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which offers an approach to understanding how natural environments can help children’s attentional functioning. It suggests that time spent in the natural environments results in increased attentional functioning due human beings having two types of attention – directed and indirected attention. Directed attention is employed by cognitive-control processes i.e. requires suppression of distracting stimuli which is effortful and tiring. In everyday life it involves writing, reading, driving, etc. Directed attention, however, is not a finite resource therefore when attention fatigue occurs individuals experience a condition often referred to as mental fatigue. Nonetheless, this resource can be restored when indirect attention is engaged letting the direct attention rest. Involuntary attention occurs when we automatically respond to patterns that are difficult not to attend to e.g. fire, running water, wild animals, etc. As a function of these fascinating objects/environments being so attractive people do not have to spend energy suppressing distracting stimuli therefore allowing their directed attentional system recover. Therefore theory as already proved by research shows that the simple act of giving a child a period of exposure to nature might relieve some of the constant pressures on their direct attention.
Present study aimed to replicate the findings and investigated the potential effect in the early years classroom settings. The study compared children’s attention measures following a regular school lunch break indoors and in the school yard to those of non-routine lunch time experiences, off the school premises, in the nearby Children’s Wood on North Kelvin Meadow. After each of the breaks, 25 children (5-7 years of age) rated their lunch break experience on a likert scale as well as had their attentional functioning measured using Digit Backward Span Test (DBS), a simple number game test. Mixed-method ANOVA showed significant results for the difference in the DBS scores between the three conditions tested yet no gender differences were found.
The experimental condition – lunch in the Children’s Wood – produced the best results in DBS scores and participants also rated this condition to be the most relaxing of the three helping us make strong conclusions that even half an hour in the natural setting, therefore, is sufficient in enhancing child’s attentional functioning.
The paper concludes with potential future implications discussed with a particular focus on implications for school and every-day practice such as school curriculums considering incorporation of larger time slots dedicated for outdoor learning, implementation of natural settings inside the school facilities as well as in the school playgrounds, etc.