It had been raining for days. At first, it was cozy, playing games, watching movies, eating popcorn and drinking hot cocoa. But then, the humidity seeped into every corner of the house making it feel warmer than it was and we were ALL cranky. Me included. Cabin fever had arrived.
So, I pulled out the rainboots, umbrellas, and jackets — got everything on all of us and by the time I was done I was sweaty and more cranky. Then we stepped outside and instantly, I felt my mood lighten. The sky was so much brighter outside, even though it was dark with rain clouds. I felt the tension melt away as I looked up into that overcast sky. The air was fresher and cooler and the kids were entertained– and I saw their moods instantly lighten as well.
There really is one instant fix for crankiness, cabin fever, a bad morning, a child who is stuck in tantrum land, a baby who is teething and cranky, simply…
Why? Research supports this idea that our moods changes, even our brains change when we step outside. When nothing else worked to calm my son when he was a baby and fussing, stepping outside would always help. Even if it was in the middle of the night.
Four Benefits of Spending Time in Nature for Children
Being Outside Calms the Mind
Children with ADHD show milder symptoms when spending time in green spaces — spaces with plenty of green grass and trees. Concentration improves in children with ADHD after a walk in the park. Some research suggests that open fields are best for children with ADHD. Maybe it’s that open sky that helps reduce over-stimulation.
In a creative twist, Peter Aspinall and colleagues conducted a study in which they hooked up participants to a mobile EEG unit to measure brain activity as they walked in either a green space or in an urban area. They found that when people walked in a green space that activity in the areas of the brain associated with alertness, conscious processing of information and frustration lessened, while areas of the brain associated with relaxed alertness, daydreaming, and meditative states increased.
When I go outside, especially after being cooped up inside, I notice that something about the open sky lifts my mood, relaxes my brain and helps me remember how small I am, how insignificant my daily hassles are — how there is a whole wide world with bigger problems. It helps me simply be.
Spending Time in Nature Makes You Feel Good
A series of studies showed that being outside (and even being shown pictures of natural landscapes) can increase a person’s psychological and physical energy– make people feel more alive. Those studies controlled for the effects of physical activity and social interaction, thus, the effects on vitality were simply due to being in nature itself.
Studies have also found improvement in mental well-being after people move to a greener area — effects that were still true three to five years after their move. The more green space in an area, the lower the populations’ symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. And beyond green spaces, spending time in blue spaces — near lakes or oceans has an even greater effect on mood.
The relationship between living in a greener area and mental wellness is stronger for stay at home moms. Why? I am not sure — but perhaps it is because it has a double effect. Being outside not only lifts our moods but our children’s as well. When the kids are having fun, our daily grind is not only easier but also more enjoyable.
Nature Enhances Learning
I notice a change in my son after we get on our nature trail near our house. It takes a few minutes, but I notice his mood lighten and brighten. But something else happens too — he starts to play in ways that I don’t see him do in other environments. He whacks a stick on a tree, absorbed by the sound and then throws it into the water. Noticing the ripples, he throws another stick. Then a stone. He starts throwing them softer and harder — experimenting and exploring — most of the time without saying a word.
He is simply immersed in nature — connected to nature in a way that seems like it has always been that way with children and the natural world. That sense of wonder and creativity can be lost on kids in multi-media and technologically rich environments.
Ruth Atchley and colleagues have a theory that we are overtaxing the executive function part of our brain with the increased use of technology. All of those screens and all of that information places high demands on our attention system. She theorizes that spending time in nature can help restore and replenish our exhausted prefrontal cortexes.
She found that after four days immersed in nature (disconnected from media and technology) creativity and performance on a problem-solving task increased by 50%!
As the authors explain, “Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting. We anticipate that this advantage comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.” Atchley, Streyer, & Atchley, 2012 PLOS ONE
This makes me think of all the studies which show that ADHD is lower in children whose entry to kindergarten is delayed by one year. Perhaps, because they have more time to simply play outside.
Nature Boosts Well-Being and Kindness
Spending time in nature boosts self-esteem, mood, and relaxes your cognitive intensity. Perhaps all of this de-stressing leads one to be kind and generous. When exposed to more beautiful pictures of landscapes or beautiful indoor plants, participants were more trusting, generous and helpful.
Maybe this is one other reason that the effects on mood were higher for stay-at-home moms than other groups, perhaps when we go outside — we also go a little outside of ourselves. We aren’t focused on our phone or our to-do lists. Maybe we smile when we see out kids running so free ahead of us and maybe we all feel a little more kind, a little more generous towards each other.
While all of these studies have limitations and confounding variables, I know how I feel when I’m outside and I know what I see in my son. There is something here– and I think it’s always been there. We just need to tap into it.
Stepping outside is more than an instant fix for a bad day. It will do that and more. One study showed that spending even 5-minutes outside will improve mood. No excuses. When you are done reading this, simply step outside.