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Walking in Natural Environments Nourishes Parent-Child Bonds

Spending time together in nature increases family cohesion, a new study finds.

Source: KonstantinChristia/Shutterstock

Spending time in nature with your kids—even if it’s just a 20-minute walk in a nearby park—can strengthen parent-child bonds and help family members get along better with one another, according to a new study on natural spaces and development from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This experimental research was recently published in the journal Children, Youth and Environments.

This new research is based on the "Attention Restoration Theory" (ART) (Kaplan, 1989, 1995) which posits that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in, or looking at nature. According to Kaplan, the natural environment must have four properties in order to provide the ART restorative effect: (1) Extent: the scope to feel immersed in the environment, (2) Being Away: providing an escape from habitual activities, (3) Soft Fascination: aspects of the environment that capture attention effortlessly, (4) Compatibility: Individuals must want to be exposed to, and appreciate, the environment.

In recent years, a variety of studies have supported Kaplan's ART theory by examining how spending time in nature enhances an individual's attention. That said, the new U of I study is the first to explore how natural environments influence family dynamics and parent-child dyads. For this pioneering study on ART, co-authors Dina Izenstark and Aaron Ebata developed a new theoretical approach to studying the benefits of family-based nature activities.

"Past research shows that in nature individuals' attention is restored but we wanted to know, what does that mean for family relationships? In our theoretical model we made the case that when an individual's attention is restored, they are less irritable, have more self-control, and are able to pick up on social cues more easily. Because of all of those dynamics, we believe they should get along better with other family members," Izenstark said in a statement.

Izenstark and Ebata tested their theory by looking at over two dozen mother-daughter dyads (child’s ages 10-12 years) who were asked to take a 20-minute walk together in nature and also in a mall. Then, the co-authors tested both the mothers' and daughters' attention while observing their familial interactions after each walk.

The results were striking: A walk in nature restored attention and increased positive interactions significantly more than walking inside the mall. Also, after the nature walk, mothers and daughters displayed greater cohesion, a sense of unity, closeness, and the ability to get along, compared to the indoor walk. As the authors write in the abstract, “Results showed that exposure to nature restored individual attention, especially for mothers; was perceived as more fun, relaxing, and interesting; and contributed to greater dyadic cohesion.”

In a statement, Izenstark commented on the findings, "We know that both moms and daughters experience mental or attentional fatigue. It's common especially after a full day of concentrating at work or at school. If you think about our everyday environments, not only are you at work, but maybe your cell phone is constantly buzzing, and you're getting emails. With all the stimuli in our everyday environments, our attention is taxed more than we realize."

Izenstark recommends that in order to relieve some of this mental fatigue, people need to restore their directed attention by spending time in green spaces. She says, "In nature, you can relax and restore your attention which is needed to help you concentrate better. It helps your working memory."

Although this particular study only focused on mother-daughter dyads, Izenstark says that the overall aim of the research is to examine different ways in which nature affects family relationships overall. "First and foremost I hope it encourages families to find ways to get outside together, and to not feel intimidated, thinking, 'oh, I have to go outside for an hour or make it a big trip.' Just a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood before or after eating dinner or finding pockets of time to set aside, to reconnect, not only can benefit families in the moment but a little bit after the activity as well."

Anecdotally, I can corroborate these findings based on both my own childhood experiences and walking with my 10-year-old daughter in urban cityscapes compared to natural environments. As I was writing this blog post in the predawn hours, I purposely put on some 1970s music that reminded me of the “warm glow” and sense of unity I felt when exploring nature with either of my parents as a kid. Because I grew up in Manhattan, most of the time I spent with my parents was surrounded by skyscrapers. Sadly, our day-to-day life in the city often seemed like a pressure cooker marked by lots of familial infighting.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
I took this snapshot at sunrise on a "dyadic bonding" mother-son walk with my mom a few weeks ago.
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Luckily, whenever my sisters and I escaped the concrete jungle of the Upper East Side to Central Park or the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts (individually or as a triad) with mom and/or dad, something about our family dynamics changed for the better.

The music of this childhood era was always in heavy rotation on the 8-track of our wood-paneled Chevy station wagon. My mom idolized the singer-songwriters of the '70s and their music became a soundtrack of my youth. To this day, these songs give me flashbacks to my exuberant adoration of nature as a kid and the family cohesion we experienced on road trips from NYC to the Berkshires.

My personal "attention restoration" playlist includes Joni Mitchell’s "Big Yellow Taxi,” Carly Simon’s “It Was So Easy,” James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” John Denver’s “Rhymes and Reasons," Kris Kristofferson's "Jody and The Kid," Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Puff, the Magic Dragon," and Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." What songs would you put on a playlist about the awe of spending time in nature?

As a side note: Recently, I've tried to subtly infuse the innocence of a bygone era into my daughter’s day-to-day life by playing these songs in the background. But, this type of music is way too hippie-dippie and "kumbaya" for her tastes at this stage of life and doesn't seem to resonate. Oh well.... For any readers out there who do identify with the nature-loving music of the 1970s, I leave you with Cat Stevens' gem "Morning Has Broken." This anthem to the "sense of wonder" found in nature sums up the findings of the latest study by Dina Izenstark and Aaron Ebata on ART. Watching this video on my computer makes me want to get up from my desk and go for a walk outside as the sun comes up this morning. Which is exactly what I'm going to do!


Izenstark, Dina, and Aaron T. Ebata. "The effects of the natural environment on attention and family cohesion: An experimental study." Children, Youth and Environments (Published: November 17, 2017) DOI: 10.7721/chilyoutenvi.27.2.0093

​Ohly, Heather, Mathew P. White, Benedict W. Wheeler, Alison Bethel, Obioha C. Ukoumunne, Vasilis Nikolaou, and Ruth Garside. "Attention restoration theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential of exposure to natural environments." Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2016) DOI: 10.1080/10937404.2016.1196155

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