We know that the capacity to self-regulate—to focus one’s attention and control one’s behavior—is really important. Self-regulation in early childhood is linked with later academic success and general well-being. But we tend to think of self-regulation as something that’s generated internally, through an exertion of will or “grit.” A new study suggests that the resources that allow a child to self-regulate can be drawn from an external source: exposure to nature.
Researchers at the University of Illinois reported that kindergarteners who spent time during the school day in outdoor green spaces were better able to regulate themselves—that is, “better able to attend to social cues, not act on impulse, [and] delay gratification.”
One explanation for this finding may be found in what’s called “attention restoration theory.” The idea here is that the kind of hard-edged focus students must bring to schoolwork demands a lot from the brain, quickly depleting its resources. When this happens, mental resources must be replenished, and natural settings are ideal for this purpose. They supply stimuli that are interesting and yet non-demanding—think of watching a tree’s leaves rustling in the wind, or clouds moving across the sky.
Being outside may also lead children to be more physically active, and physical activity is associated with improved self-regulation.
The researchers conclude: “Results suggest that green schoolyards support children’s self-regulation development, and the higher the frequency of visits, and the more minutes weekly, the greater the gains.”
One more point: in this study, the effects of spending time outdoors were more pronounced for girls than for boys—a finding that has shown up in other research as well. The University of Illinois researchers offer a speculation: “It may be that girls increase their physical activity levels when in green spaces and as a result experience greater gains in self-regulation, whereas boys are physically active regardless of greenness, and thus a change in setting does not foster improvements.”
“Self-regulation gains in kindergarten related to frequency of green schoolyard use”
Andrea Faber Taylor and Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer, in Journal of Environmental Psychology