Spending time on NKM and CW can improve attention in primary aged children

The Children’s Wood collaborated with Glasgow University Psychology Department on a study looking at attention in primary school aged children. The study explored the attention span of local children after being in the Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow. Attention span is an important ingredient for academic success and learning.

The study found that there was a statistically signifiant impact on children’s attention after spending time in the playgroup compared to after time in the classroom. There was an even bigger effect on attention after children spent time on North Kelvin Meadow and Children’s Wood. Below is a shortened report of the study by psychology student Ieva who led the study.

Investigation of the potential impact of outdoor play on attention in primary school children – Interim Summary of the Original Report

The present research has based its idea upon the Attention Restoration Theory and its potential value in the early years classroom settings. The research was conducted by a Year 4 Honours Psychology student at the University of Glasgow (under the supervision of a member of academic staff) in partnership with the Children’s Wood based in the North Kelvin Meadow. The purpose of this interim summary is to provide information on the underpinning theory, methodology, and results of the research mentioned as well as details of discussion points developed within the original write-up.

Attention Restorative Theory (ART) has emerged from the field of Environmental Psychology and it argues that human beings have two types of attention (Kaplan, 1995); one is called ‘directed attention’ and is directed by cognitive-control processes (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008) i.e. requires suppression of distracting stimuli and this is effortful and tiring. In everyday life it involves writing, reading, driving, etc. Directed attention, however, is not an infinite resource therefore when attention fatigue occurs individuals experience a condition often referred to as mental fatigue (Felsten, 2009). Nonetheless, this resource can be restored when indirect attention is engaged letting the direct attention rest (de Kort, Meijnders, Sponselee, & Ijsselsteijn, 2006), in other words, by engaging the other type of attention, so called ‘involuntary’ or ‘automatic’ attention. Involuntary attention occurs when we automatically attend to patterns that are difficult not to attend to e.g. fire, running water, wild animals, etc. In these cases, attention is drawn involuntarily because the stimuli are naturally fascinating. As a function of these fascinating objects/environments being so attractive people do not have to spend energy suppressing the distracting stimuli therefore allowing their directed attentional system rest and recover. Within this theory, therefore, it is argued that decreased exposure to nature and outdoor play has potentially impacted on children’s cognitive functioning and that this decline could be mediated if children could spend more time outdoors where involuntary attention is used by large (Taylor et al., 2002).

To investigate this, present research extended the previous research findings in the field by examining how natural environment during school lunch break time can support attentional functioning of primary school children. The study compared children’s attention after the usual school lunch breaks in the classroom and in the school playground to that of non-routine lunch time experiences, off the school premises, in the nearby meadow. The experimental design included three settings – a lunch break in the meadow, in the school playground, and lunch break inside the school in the classroom. Within-subject design was used where participants were tested after the exposure to each of the conditions with gender serving as a between-subject factor. The outdoor natural site was the North Kelvin Meadow and Children’s Wood, a large public green-space area and home for the Children’s Wood community initiative in Glasgow, located approximately 15 minute walk away from the school facility. Both the classroom and the playground settings were standard for a primary school in Glasgow. The participants in this study were 24 primary school pupils; 12 boys 12 girls. The average age of children was 6.6 years. Digit Backward Span (DBS) test was used to assess the changes in participants’ attentional capacities. It involved reading out loud a sequence of digits to an individual participant (e.g. 3-1-8) and asking him/her to repeat the sequence aloud in reverse order (e.g. 8-1-3). After a correct response, participants were given a new, longer sequence with series’ length increasing as the test proceeded; after an incorrect response, respondents were given a new but same length sequence to attempt. The overall score of DBS test was the number of digits in the longest sequence successfully reversed following the two consecutive failed trials (Wechsler, 1955). The procedure involved multiple researchers recording each child’s attention span using the DBS test after each of the lunch break conditions: indoors, in the wood and meadow, and in the school playground. Data collection took place between mid to late January once the children’s school routines were well established. After the test was finished, each child was then asked to answer four questions indicating whether their lunch break was – boring, relaxing, interesting and fun; all answers were recorded using likert-type scale from 1 to 3, where 1 indicated – not at all, 2 – a little, and 3 – very much. Once the questions were answered, the researchers then called the next child in the list and performed the same procedure.

The findings indicated the positive effects of the natural environment on DBS scores as can be seen in Figure 1. (Please email childrenswood@hotmail.com to access the graph as it couldn’t be uploaded!)

Expressed in terms of number of digits recalled at each occasion, the performance following exposure to the Meadow settings was higher than after the playground and the classroom conditions (Meadow – M = 3.54 SD=.736; Playground – M = 3.17, SD = .67; Classroom – M = 2.9, SD = .57).
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 lunch break in the meadow was also rated most positively.

The DBS scores for the three conditions were compared using a 3×2 mixed-design ANOVA. A statistically significant main effect was found between the types of environment participants experienced during their lunch break, where F(2,44) = 12.026, p < .001.

Expressed in terms of number of digits recalled at each occasion, the performance following exposure to the Meadow settings was higher than after the playground and the classroom conditions (Meadow – M = 3.54 SD=.736; Playground – M = 3.17, SD = .67; Classroom – M = 2.9, SD = .57).
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 lunch break in the meadow was also rated most positively.
The DBS scores for the three conditions were compared using a 3×2 mixed-design ANOVA. A statistically significant main effect was found between the types of environment participants experienced during their lunch break, where F(2,44) = 12.026, p < .001.

The result tells us that, regardless of the gender of the child, exposure to the natural surrounding affected the participants’ attention span more positively than indoor or school playground surroundings.

However, there was no statistically significant main effect for ‘gender’: F(2, 44) = .092, p = .764. This tells us that in general both boys and girls performed similarly across the three conditions and the predicted gender difference was not evident in this sample. Finally, there was no significant interaction between gender and the type of lunch break environment F=.513, p = .602. As a function of the condition experienced, both male and female children increased their attentional functioning equally. Finally, by large, the outdoor condition was consistently rated as more fun, interesting, relaxing and less boring lunch break setting than the other two.

To sum up, as predicted in the first hypothesis, following the lunch break in the natural outdoor setting, performances increased significantly higher than after the lunch breaks in the other two settings. The performances, however, increased significantly higher after the lunch break in the school playground as well, as compared to that of the classroom setting.

One of the key findings of this study, therefore, was that even though the attentional functioning was at its highest following the time spent in nature, the playground lunch break condition increased pupils’ attentional functioning as well which takes us back to the Attention Restoration Theory as follows. The school playground settings provide the hard type of fascination like sports and other kinds of entertainment and, therefore, have an intermediate restorative potential. Natural settings, on the other hand, being a source of soft fascination or, in other words, effortless attention that does not require inhibition of distracting stimuli, have the highest restorative potential, thus the results.

Finally, there were a number of implications for practice of the present study. If, as present study suggests, nature is a viable tool for enhancing one’s ability to attend in a school environment, there may be numerous ways in which schools could administer and modulate both the access to the natural areas and the presence of natural elements within school environment itself in order to boost this effect. School curriculums should consider incorporating larger time slots dedicated for outdoor learning. Physical education and/or environment based classes of curricula could all be delivered in an outdoor environment. It does not involve any unusual risks or side effects, there is no social stigma attached to the fact that one spends a lot of time in the nature. What is more, even if, as suggested by Waters & Maynard, 2010, pre-defined learning outcomes can only be achieved through the use of certainly ordered space, the ruff and unkempt space that is most stimulating may easily sit aside providing the same benefits. Schools shall consider implementing natural settings inside the school facilities as well as in the school playgrounds. Trees, shrubs, flower beds and vegetable gardens are all elements of nature that, according to this as well as numerous other researches (Rich, 2007; Shibata & Suzuki, 2001, 2002, 2004), will not only increase pupils’ attentional functioning but will also serve an educational purpose.

To conclude, the study, therefore, suggests that preserving this type of spaces in the inner city areas and organising children to access it on a regular basis is of high importance, given the profound impact that the ability to concentrate has on one’s educational achievement. Nature therapy shall be better integrated into the health-care system, experiences of the natural environments into our classrooms, satisfaction into our lives. And, it is not a matter of going back to the free-range childhood of the previous centuries but rather a better understanding of principles of healthy child development, were a sense of connection to the world is created through the use of outdoor natural spaces.

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