Tuning Out to Tune In: How Time Outside Can Improve Readiness to Learn Inside
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by Andrea Laser
Outdoor time matters. I’ve certainly lost track of time and my thoughts and worries seemed to disappear - all because I was outdoors in a peaceful setting. As teachers we send wound up children outside to “burn off some energy.” And many of us plan our vacations based on the outdoor scenery. Our need to be restored by the outdoors and nature's almost magical effects may actually have its roots in brain research. As it turns out, the time we spend outside can do amazing work getting our brain ready for the time we spend inside. Several years ago, the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv was published that described much of the research about the powerful effects of being outside for children. His book has many studies that describe the power of benefits of being outside and in nature for children.
The Power of Outside
Nature has beautiful and unexpected ways of capturing our attention--the wind suddenly blowing across our face, our feet slowly sinking into the sand at the beach, or seeing an animal run in full stride in its natural habitat.
Researchers call this type of attention "involuntary attention" and believe that time spent in involuntary attention may actually be giving our voluntary attention an important time of rest (Kaplan, 1995, and Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001). Voluntary attention includes such activities as focusing on a math problem, or writing letters- basically tasks that make a person focus on what he is doing. Involuntary attention is when we don’t mean to pay attention to something, but our brain shifts our focus anyway (an animal making noise, the sound of thunder, the smell of lilacs, etc.)This research isn’t new, but as academic expectations are pushed down into earlier grades, sometimes what is considered the “non-essential” and non-academic parts of a child’s day, including recess, are tragically cut or eliminated. The reality is, outside matters, and children need time outside to be ready to learn inside.
How can you encourage this power of the outdoors for your children?
• Recess matters
Advocate for your child’s school to keep recess. If your school has cut or limited recess, ask to talk to the principal or director about why and how this decision was made. One guideline from SHAPE America (Society of Health and Physical Educators) is that children ages 3-5 years old should be engaged in 60 minutes of structured physical activity and 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity per day.
• Windows matter
Some research suggests that simply looking out a window can have some of the same revitalizing effects as being outdoors. When looking at schools and child care centers, notice how many windows there are and if children are to see out them (they aren’t covered, and they are low enough for children to see out).
• How you get to school matters
If you live close enough, try walking or biking to school with your child. Not only will this give your child’s brain time to revitalize, it also provides great opportunities for conversation and starting the day off right for both of you.
• Take time to revitalize your brain too!
Don’t forget that revitalizing your brain is important too! Take time for yourself to be in nature. Throughout your day spend a few minutes outside and see how you can benefit from the effects of time outside.
• If you can’t get outside as much as you’d like, try bringing some of the outdoors in
Both weather conditions and location can be a deterrent to safe outdoor play for children. If you cannot get outside, try to bring the outdoors inside- collect some natural materials for children to sort, count, pattern with, draw, and observe. In addition, consider having plants, fairy gardens, and observational areas where children can observe and have opportunities to document what they notice.
Andrea Laser is an Early Childhood Special Educator teaching in Colorado for her 14th year in public schools. She has her master’s degree in Early Childhood Education, recently completed the Buell Early Childhood Leadership Program, and is currently pursuing an educational doctorate in Leadership for Educational Equity with a concentration in early childhood. She has two boys, ages three and seven who simultaneously energize and exhaust her and her husband. She can be contacted at [email protected]
Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal
of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182. doi: 10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2
Taylor, A.F., Kuo, F.E., & Sullivan, W.C. (2001). Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77. Retrieved from: