An abundance of research has shown that spending time in nature—even just 5 minutes—can yield amazing benefits, such as: stress reduction, mood improvement, increased concentration, and a boost in overall wellbeing. And you don’t have to go to any extremes to reap said benefits either, you can simply go for a walk outside, take a trip to the park, or spend some reflection time by the lake. The only requirement is that you visit the peace and serenity of a natural setting.
Now, most bodies of research that support this finding have focused on individual benefits. But what happens when you indulge in nature with loved ones? Are there additional benefits? A new study “The Effects of the Natural Environment on Attention and Family Cohesion: An Experimental Study” from the University of Illinois explored this very question and found that spending time with family outside can strengthen that family bond significantly. Leaders of the study and U of I family studies researchers Dina Izenstark and Aaron Ebata created a new theoretical approach prior to investigating these benefits:
“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 believed they should get along better with other family members,” Izenstark explained.
In order to put this theory to the test, Izenstark, now an assistant professor at San Jose State University, and Ebata, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I, analyzed mother-daughter pairs (in which the children were 10-12 years old). The pairs were instructed to either go on a walk outside or walk around a mall. And after each go-around, the researchers simply observed the mothers’ and daughters’ attention, as well as their family interactions. Upon doing so, Izenstark and Ebata found that a walk in nature clearly increased positive interactions among the pairs. Additionally, the mothers benefited from a restored attention.
The latter finding is significant in itself, and Izenstark explained why: “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, out attention is taxed more than we realize. In nature, you can relax and restore your attention which is needed to help you concentrate better. It helps your working memory.”
The researchers’ efforts didn’t stop there: they went on to test the mothers’ and daughters’ cohesiveness. This part of the study demanded the participants perform attention-fatiguing activities (such as solving math problems or completing crosswords) while the sounds of loud construction were played in the background. These subjects were given a pre-attention test and then sent out to go on a 20-minute walk; one day to a nature center, and on the other, to a local mall. When they returned, they took a post-attention test and then were interviewed about which location they enjoyed most. And to conclude the experiment, they played a game that required the pairs’ teamwork.
Izenstark and Ebata made a couple observations: for mothers, attention was restored exponentially after the nature walk; and for daughters, attention was restored after both walks. “It was interesting to find that difference between the family members,” Izenstark explained. “But when we looked at their subjective reports of what they felt about the two settings, there was no question, moms and daughters both said the nature setting was more fun, relaxing, and interesting.” And finally, the researchers also made interesting findings as related to improved togetherness or cohesion. Upon watching the pairs complete the final task (the game), Izenstark and Ebata found that only nature had an effect and a positive one at that: the moms and daughters showed greater cohesion, closeness, a sense of unity, and ability to get along.
This particular study included only mother and daughter participants; however, it is purported by Izenstark to explore and reflect how spending time in nature can affect all family relationships. And he hopes that it motivates families to get outside for even just a small timeframe: “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.”