January 19, 2010
Homeschooling or not, parents across America recognize that short attention spans plague many of today's children. Between flashing television images, text messaging, pre-digested information, and sound bytes, young people are surrounded by opportunities for distraction.
Focus is a key skill for young people who look forward to a life of meaningful work. The ability to stick with something, to persevere, is a piece of this. However, focus is more than simply a character issue. Brain development and function is a critical piece of developing the ability to focus.
Common sense tells us that a child's environment plays a key role in the development of attention span. I know that, you know that, even the reknowned 19th century educator, Charlotte Mason, predicated her education writings on that. Homeschooling families are instinctively drawn to Mason's teachings on the benefits of fresh air and nature walks. We know that nature has the power to sooth.
I was curious, then, to see how that intuitive knowledge played out in the research community. As I poked through some literature, I stumbled on an article in the Journal of Attention Disorders which dealt specifically with the affect of nature on the attention spans of children. Researchers at the University of Illinois gave children time outdoors – in various settings - before taking a series of tests. While controlling for other variables, including medication, time of day, and noise levels, the research team looked for a connection between the amount of 'green' children were exposed to and their ability to focus on the subsequent tests.
So, does 'green' really matter? Can a walk in the park really increase a child's focus?
It appears that way. "What this particular study tells us is that the physical environment matters," said Frances E. Kuo, co-author of the study. "We don't know what it is about the park, exactly — the greenness or lack of buildings — that seems to improve attention, but the study tells us that even though everything else was the same — who the child was with, the levels of noise, the length of time, the time of day, whether the child was on medication — if we kept everything else the same, we just changed the environment, we still saw a measurable difference in children's symptoms. And that's completely new. No one has done a study looking at a child in different environments, in a controlled comparison where everything else is the same."
Study subjects were all children with ADHD, placing them on the focused-challenged end of the attention span spectrum. However, "we're all on a continuum of attention so this study has implications for all of us," said Andrea Faber Taylor. "ADHD is just at the far end of attention functioning, but there are plenty of us who fall somewhere close to that end of the continuum, and we all experience times when we're mentally fatigued — times when we're less able to focus and do tasks and get easily distracted. The evidence suggests that natural settings can benefit everyone, even children (and adults) who have not been diagnosed with ADHD."
Timeless wisdom and current research align and give us important insight to keep in mind for us and for our children. Homeschoolers have the unique opportunity to take this research and apply it to day-to-day life. We have greater leverage over the time our children spend outdoors than parents in a school setting.
Later this week, I'll be posting some practical tips on how to increase your child's attention span using nature. In the meantime, send them out to play. Better yet, go outside and play with them!