Friday, April 17, 2009

Going Outdoors to Improve Attention Span


A recent article in the Journal of Attention Disorders, reports on the benefits of walking in a park to increase attention span. A small group of 17 children with ADHD, participated in a study comparing walks in a park, downtown and a neighborhood. The walks in the park resulted in a significant difference in concentration as scored on the Digit Span Backwards (DSB).

The article also discusses Attention Restoration Theory (ART). The basics of this theory is that interacting with nature results in a type of restoration for the body and the brain. Try to remember a recent event when you spent time outdoors in a natural environment. You may walk slowly and attend to all of your visual surroundings - a bird chirping, a sunset, the green grass of Spring. When you return indoors, you feel relaxed and calm. Now to try to remember that last time you were outdoors in a busier environment, perhaps a city. Your attention may be focused on planning when to cross a street, avoiding cars and other city obstacles. These two environments rely on your brain to use two different types of attention - involuntary and voluntary. Concentrating on topics that interest you or something that grabs your attention involves involuntary attention. Concentrating on blocking out distractions to focus on the topic at hand involves voluntary attention (which can fatigue easily). When the brain experiences involuntary attention it allows voluntary attention to rest and recover.

The authors of this study question whether children with ADHD experience deficits in voluntary attention resulting in the fluctuating attention span that you see in children with ADHD. Therefore, the Attention Restoration Theory when applied to children with and without ADHD can perhaps be very beneficial. Walks in nature are simple to carry out on a daily basis. The "restorative" action of the walks which call upon involuntary attention can possibly help to improve voluntary attention.

With the amount of television and computer time that children are exposed to daily, more time spent outdoors is essential. Here are several ideas to encourage increased nature time for all children:

1. Take hikes and short walks in the woods. If you need a wheelchair accessible path, search state parks for handicapped accessible trails or try bike paths that are paved.
2. Go letterboxing - Letterboxing is a great family activity for people of all ages. You can go to www.letterboxing.org for a list of clues throughout the USA. You print off the clues, walk to find them and stamp a marking in your log book.
3. Gardening - plant a garden with children. Plant seeds in pots so that all children can assist.
4. Go on scavenger hunts for outdoor materials - check out Scavenger Hunts e-book for ideas
5. Allow children to play outdoors in dirt, mud and puddles.
6. Go on a bug hunt - see how many different bugs you can identify
7. Start a nature collection such as rocks, acorns, leaves or pine cones.
8. Go fishing, frog hunting, horseback riding or birdwatching.
9. Build a structure out of natural materials i.e. fort, collage made out of sticks or leafs.
10. Encourage teachers and therapists to plan lessons outdoors.

Fresh air makes everyone feel healthier, relaxed and perhaps improves attention. It is a simple way to improve concentration with no side effects (except skinned knees).

References:
Faber Taylor, Andrea, Kuo, Frances E. Children With Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park J Atten Disord 2009 12: 402-409

Cimprich, B Attention Restoration Theory: Empirical Work and Practical Applications Retrieved from the web on 4/17/09 at http://www.umb.no/statisk/greencare/meetings/presentations_vienna_2007/cimprich_cost_pres_71007.pdf

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