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Nature & the brain - How seeing my children benefit from being outside, led to new PhD research.

By Gemma Goldenberg, Mum, psychologist and teacher @phd_and_three

I’ve spent most of my adult life being a teacher and it’s never seemed natural to me that we keep young children cooped up inside classrooms for most of the day, allowing children only outside to play or have a break- as if outdoors it isn’t the right environment for the learning itself.

With my own children, I noticed that outside their behaviour was always much easier to manage. Outdoors there are fewer rules! Throwing things, being loud, moving fast – it’s all acceptable outside!

But I had never thought much about whether outdoors is also better for learning, until I saw my eldest child reading outdoors on holiday one year. I had always struggled to get him to stick with a book, he enjoyed being read to but would quickly lose interest and concentration when reading alone, explaining that he couldn't 'take it in'. One year on holiday he started reading outside on a deckchair in the shade. It was the longest he had ever read for, I had never seen him so engrossed in a book before. I wondered whether it was a coincidence or whether something about being in an outdoor environment was less distracting, enabling him to focus better.

I looked for research on the impact of outdoor time and found hundreds of papers on the wide range of benefits of being outside. I soon found evidence that outdoor time not only helped with attention but could also support physical development, sleep, health and immunity, memory, self esteem, social skills, stress and even more. I couldn’t believe that after almost 2 decades of working with children, I had never come across this research before.

I decided to start a PhD researching the impact of increasing outdoor time in schools. In my research study, children wear heart rate monitors, head mounted cameras and small microphones so that I can analyse their stress levels, learning, attention and behaviour across indoor and outdoor settings.

The activities and resources set up for the children are the same whether children are indoors or outside, so that I can try to disentangle the specific impact of the learning environment itself. I use a decibel meter to measure whether its noisier learning indoors or outside and then use this alongside the heart rate data to see whether noise levels affect stress, and in turn, children’s attention. I use the footage from the head mounted cameras to analyse interactions between the children, looking at whether children more self regulated and prosocial outside, I also look at how long they spend focussed at each activity and how much time they spend looking at the teacher during lessons.

My aim is to make my research easily accessible to all, and to share what I find out along the way with parents and teachers, whilst raising awareness of how to interpret research. One of the most important things I had learnt during my studies was to critically interrogate research to make sure its findings were reliable and robust. I too often saw research findings misrepresented or over generalised online and felt like it was important to share some of the caveats of research in this field, as well as the headline findings. I do this via my Instagram account @phd_and_three.

Just a few months into the PhD, the Covid pandemic hit. I had a 1 year old son at the time and found myself unable to take him to any of the toddler groups and activities which had been so enjoyable and beneficial for my older sons. I was concerned about how his development might be affected by spending such a formative time of his life in lockdown.

However, no matter what the weather was, during lockdown me and my sons went out to the park or the forest every day. I noticed that my older boys would open up more and start discussions while we were walking, something they wouldn’t have done at home. They also rediscovered the joys of rope swings, puddle splashing and hide and seek – simple pleasures I thought they had grown out of.

I needn’t have worried about my youngest son either; the daily time with me and his brothers, away from the distractions of the home, meant he got so much quality interaction and 1:1 discussion. His speech and vocabulary developed rapidly as did his walking stamina. His balance was developing too, from walking over uneven ground in all sorts of weathers. I was seeing for myself the benefits I had spent so long reading about! His concentration and imagination outdoors were also fantastic, he would happily spend ages counting stones, balancing on logs and comparing leaves, as well as engaging in imaginative play. I realised that many of the toys I’d bought my older children, and the groups and activities I had paid to take them to were unnecessary, my youngest was finding everything he needed in the forest!

Those trips outdoors also saved my own sanity – juggling work, PhD studies, homeschooling 2 children and having a toddler at home all day too often felt like an impossible challenge, but daily time in nature helped me to reset and refocus each day and to manage some of the stress involved in the juggle. It’s one thing I actually miss about those times.

Sometimes getting out of the door when you’re feeling demotivated or stressed, or your children are being particularly challenging is really difficult – children often put up a fight about going out and it can feel exhausting before you’ve even left the house. But these are the times we often most need to push through and prioritise getting outside. If you, or your children are having a tough day, I strongly recommended trying time in nature as a ‘reset button’ – it impacts us on so many levels, from our physical stress to our attention and health.

And if you want to find out more about the science behind how nature does this, or about the research I am doing in schools and what we’re finding out about outdoor learning, please do come and join me over @phd_and_three!

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