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When Nature Nurtures: Attention Restoration Theory:

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May 9, 2017

A few weeks ago, friends of our family went camping at a lake close to home. They invited us to come up and hang out for a day. While we sat together by the lake, we all felt the difference between this calm state and life back home.

The kids played well together, even our teenagers. The adults felt their stress melt away. It reminded me of this video that made the rounds a while back about “forest bathing” in Japan.

Sitting on the side of that lake, we all realized the positive effects of spending time in nature.

Experts agree. It all begins with focus.

Psychologists Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan introduced the idea of Attention Restoration Theory many years ago, citing two types of focus. “Directed attention” is the focus you need to complete routine daily tasks, including taking in and processing information, ignoring distractions, staying alert, engaging in creative activities, etc. Directed attention requires a lot of brainpower and can deplete your mental energy.

When our brains get too tired to maintain effective direct attention, we can recharge by shifting our focus. When we spend time in nature, versus in a city or other human-made setting, this activates our “involuntary attention”—or what the Kaplans dubbed “fascination.”

Research demonstrates that spending time in nature can make a major difference in our lives. A well-known study followed gallbladder surgery recovery patients, half of whom had a room that looked out on grass and trees. while the other half had a view of a wall. The patients with a natural view complained less, took less pain medication, and left the hospital nearly one day earlier!

The effects of nature on outlook, testing recovery, and stress levels have shown a positive correlation. Science has begun to back up what your intuition has told you since you were a small child: nature is good for you!

Here are some steps you can take to make nature a bigger part of your life—and your children’s too:

  1. Take breaks during the work day to go for a walk or spend time in a park, forest, or other natural environment.
  2. Encourage your kids to take breaks from homework sessions and to spend time out of doors.
  3. Add a natural touch to your indoor environment. Even pictures of nature can have soothing effects. The more dramatic the landscapes the better.
  4. Spend family time out of doors whenever possible. Spend weekend days at the beach or forest instead of the mall. Take the family camping for your next family vacation.
  5. Spread the word about the benefits of nature, and advocate for more greenery around schools and offices.

Do yourself a favor this week. Take time to watch a sunset, fly a kite, or lie in a field and stare up at the clouds. Your mind will thank you!

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