Photograph by boonchai wedmakawand / Getty Images
Photograph by boonchai wedmakawand / Getty Images

Boost kids’ brainpower with nature.

A relationship with nature builds cognitive and emotional benefits in children. Here’s what’s going on when they’re outside.

Parents at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool in Milwaukee like to share the changes they notice in their children. After spending hours outside each day—clambering over logs, exploring under rocks, learning to quietly observe wildlife—shy children became bolder, and hesitation gradually morphed into confidence.

Teachers noticed a difference too: The kids could sit still when needed, became more attentive listeners, and could better regulate their behavior.

“I’d meet teachers at other schools who would say, ‘I know kids who came from that preschool,’” says school founder and former director Patti Bailie, now an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Maine. “They ask more questions, are willing to try new things, and are more caring with the other children.”

The idea of having children connect with nature has long been held up as beneficial for the body and mind. Time spent outdoors has been linked with improved attention spans, better memory, and enhanced executive function—how we learn versus what we learn. Bailie adds that nature experiences are positively linked to early brain development and provides opportunities to hone gross motor skills, stimulate brain-boosting chemicals that improve neuron-to-neuron communication, and help produce new cells in the brain.

“There’s now enough evidence that shows a very causal link between outdoor learning and academic achievement,” says Sarah Milligen-Toffler, executive director of the Children & Nature Network. “We know now there are very specific ways nature impacts our ability to learn and engage.”

Here are some insights from the experts about how weaving outdoor or nature-based activities into your child’s life can boost their brainpower.

Movement + mess = mightier minds

A central tenet of the “brain-based learning” theory is that movement can strengthen the brain’s ability to learn, retain, and recall lessons. The approach got its start in the mid-’90s, after studies showed that many of the same neural pathways in the cerebellum, a highly complex area of the brain involved in coordinating motor movements, are also related to learning processes.

Further research indicated that activities involving cross-lateral movement, or reaching across the body with arms and legs, specifically helps the two sides of the brain connect and communicate. That means that things like digging for treasure and crouching to inspect insects could be directly connected with improved reading and writing skills.

With apologies to neat freaks, that means that clutter that kids must interact with can actually be good—outdoors in a yard, in the corners of local parks, or other natural spaces you might have access to.

The key word is “unstructured.” Beyond just toys in the yard, it’s as much about supplying your kids with tools like shovels and spoons as it is about leaving sticks and brush in the yard to build with. Take kids to a nearby waterway to turn over stones and look for invertebrates and amphibians, or to unpaved hiking trails with plenty of logs and boulders to jump on and navigate around.

“What’s inviting to a child is the lack of adult dominance,” says Nooshin Razani, a pediatrician and founding director of the Center for Nature and Health at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. “It’s not too well-groomed and not barren. Plain grass is not that fun. It needs little things kids can move around and play with. Then it becomes a landscape for opportunity and creativity.”

Attention span and memory, thanks to nature

Nature provides many opportunities for close observation—and fostering this skill builds kids’ ability to concentrate and learn about the world around them. Think handheld magnifying glasses and microscopes; even inexpensive ones can reveal amazing details. Take a “micro-hike” in your yard, a local park, or even a weedy vacant lot and record what plants and animals you find along a 50-foot path.

Ask questions: What’s in dirt? How do leaves from different trees compare? What birds and insects can we find from the window, balcony, yard, or park?

These kinds of inquiry-based activities spark interest and curiosity—and don’t require trips to special places. In fact, one study looking at MRI brain scans of children in Barcelona found that merely having access to street-level green space, even being able to see trees and sky from a window, was associated with increased gray and white matter in areas of the brain linked to memory, attention, and cognitive test scores.

“There is a strong link between attention and learning,” Bailie says. “The idea is that when children explore the natural world, they do it with a lot of interest and attention. And things that grab your attention are connected to memory.”

Milligen-Toffler acknowledges that while getting out into nature isn’t always easy, literally anything your family has access to can be beneficial. Live in a city? Seeing the sky and trees, exploring what’s in the street below, or identifying local species are great ways to connect. And even books, TV shows, and apps can help.

“We often think of ‘nature’ as something on a huge scale—and certainly you experience that in the mountains or at the ocean,” she says. “But we know that even looking at pictures of nature helps the brain.”

Strengthening family ties

Rashani, well-known for her “park prescriptions,” says that one aspect to outdoor time often goes overlooked: its role in building and fostering healthy relationships.

In her clinical practice in the San Francisco Bay area, Rashani uses trips to area parks as part of therapeutic interventions to promote healing for families struggling with poverty, depression, and other issues.

In her research, she’s noted that the outdoor environment can help people build beneficial social ties. Her observations are backed by other inquiries: a 2018 study found that talking to kids while taking even short excursions resulted in increased talkativeness, responsiveness, and communication between parents and children.

Some of Rashani’s current work explores using nature as a dose—just like medicine. In clinical trials, she’s studying how the outdoors and nature can be used to treat depression and anxiety in kids as well as families.

“If we’re going to take nature seriously as a health intervention, we do need guidelines on how much, how often, and for whom nature can be of use,” she says. “And we know that just one strong relationship with a parent can do all kinds of good things for childhood brain development.”

She recalls a 13-year-old girl and her mother who were early participants in the parks prescription program. Living in a family shelter at the time, the daughter had trouble with anxiety and maintaining a healthy weight. But after they began going on nature outings, they were both able to tune in better to their own emotional needs, and the daughter’s anxiety and weight issues improved.

“The outdoors gives you a landscape for building that relationship within a family,” Razani says. “Families need to know that they have the right to take a bit of time off every day to be together—and that it has actual health benefits.”