By Gail Farmer, Director of Education
My son is in first grade and he is struggling. Struggling to sit still, struggling to be quiet, and struggling to give his teacher the long periods of undivided attention the schools are asking of our young children. His teacher has employed several positive strategies to try and help him meet the school district’s needs: he has a “wiggly seat” on his chair that helps him to stay in his seat, she has star charts for attending to the teacher, and most recently, a star chart to reward being “calm and quiet.” While I appreciate his teacher’s efforts to address her expectations of him in a positive way, I am dismayed that the school fails to understand their role in his struggles.
In a typical kindergarten or first grade classroom, the children are almost constantly attending – paying attention during morning meeting, to a book being read, to a worksheet to be completed, to the lesson being taught, to the reading and phonics activities, to the art projects. The ability to direct our attention to a chosen focal point (called “directed attention”) is an incredibly important neurological capacity. Directed attention is under voluntary control, which means that we can choose to focus our attention and resist our impulses when needed. These abilities allow us to be perceptive and observant, behave in socially appropriate ways, to be reflective before taking action (i.e. not acting out on every emotion), to sit still, pay attention, and concentrate. Directed attention is hugely important to learning and school success.
The trouble is, directed attention is fragile and the neurological processes that result in directed attention are easily fatigued. Humans can exert amazing depths of directed attention – but only for short periods of time. Within an hour, the inhibitory neurons associated with directed attention become fatigued and they stop working well. When directed attention becomes fatigued, guess what happens – we become restless, impulsive, easily distracted, we have difficulty concentrating and we struggle to control our emotions. Sound familiar?
Thankfully, there is an antidote to directed attention fatigue. Psychologist Steven Kaplan, who studied directed attention fatigue in the 1980’s and ‘90s, developed the Attention Restoration Theory providing an analysis of the kinds of experiences that lead to recovery from directed attention fatigue. Kaplan concluded that “natural environments are particularly rich in the characteristics necessary for restorative experiences.” Let me explain.
We have this other form of attention called “fascination attention.” Fascination attention occurs when something captures our attention; it’s involuntary and uses completely different neural pathways than directed attention. So, when we are engaged in fascination attention, our directed attention gets to rest. Nature is rich with sights, sounds, and smells that capture our attention. This attention restoration benefit of nature has been demonstrated in several studies (some of which are summarized here) and even simply a view of nature out a window has some restorative benefits.
Some school systems already value the need to restore and refuel the mind through nature experiences. In Finland, which is consistently ranked as one of the top three countries in the world for academic performance, students get 15 minutes of outdoor nature play after every lesson (in addition to recess!). This practice comes from a cultural heritage in Nordic countries that value daily experiences in nature, they call it Friluftsliv, which literally means “free air life.” Friluftsliv is an ancient Nordic philosophy that values returning to nature as returning home, and that every person has a right to roam and explore nature (more on that here). This philosophy is ingrained in the cultures of Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Unfortunately, in the US our cultural relationship with nature is quite different…but that’s a topic for another blog.
My son struggles at school because after an hour or so of attending to his lessons, he becomes physically incapable of continuing to utilize his directed attention capacities. No amount of star chart motivation is going to help him be able to control himself – what he needs is attention restoration. His day, like all of our days, needs more opportunities for fascination attention to take hold, so that his directed attention can rest. Ten minutes outside, exploring the grass, or the bark on a tree, or watching the way the clouds move in the sky, would be an incredible investment in any child’s academic success, because he or she would return to the classroom focused and ready to learn.