The tonic of wildness


It started with a friend's 5-year-old son mischievously brandishing a water bottle to sprinkle it on another little boy's back. The "prey" dashed off -- squealing and grinning -- and the chase was on. Soon my own little rascal joined the frisky fracas, and the three boys scurried around the school's lawn like frenzied squirrels. I glanced at the parents in the group; we'd all spontaneously gathered at dismissal, sharing pleasantries and animal crackers. No one tried to control the somewhat wild play. An unspoken understanding seemed to ripple through the group: They need this.

Soon more kids had organized themselves into spur-of-the-moment races down the subtle slope of the hill to the school's sidewalk. Again and again they raced. The dashes revealed an undeniable instinct to move. The kids made their own rules and ultimatums; they argued over fairness and who was "boss." They ran, rolled or just flopped down on the grass to steamroll each other. Their zip was enthralling, and -- admittedly -- sometimes barely controlled. After much gleeful gamboling, the 3-and-under set wandered off to explore the school's garden, and some of the older kids scrambled up into welcoming tree branches. I checked my watch: Nearly an hour had passed since dismissal. It was if we'd been under an enchantment. Romping in the outdoors can be like that -- captivating and restorative. We don't do enough of it.

A study from the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan -- which carefully tracked the habits of over 2,000 families -- concluded that today's American kids, on average, spend only four to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors outside of the school day. And school recess time itself has been drastically cut nationwide as schools have felt the crunch to adhere to the strictures of No Child Left Behind. Our kids' lives are much more structured and scheduled than children a generation ago; few have the opportunity to just "play" in the outdoors.

But outdoor play seems to be just what the doctor should order. A 2011 study -- published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being -- tracked over 400 students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and monitored whether daily exposure to "green spaces" would help ameliorate symptoms. What the researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discovered was that regular exposure to natural settings significantly reduced symptoms of ADD in students. Drawing on the work of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan and their Attention Restoration Theory, the Illinois researchers discovered that just as adults concentrate better after exposure to nature, so, too do children benefit from regular exposure to natural settings.

The Kaplans were greatly influenced by the ideas of philosopher and psychologist William James -- often referred to as the "Father of American Psychology." James asserted that humans have two different types of attention: voluntary and involuntary. We use voluntary attention, or directed focus when we attend to a task that requires deliberate attention, like problem solving or driving in heavy traffic. But prolonged voluntary attention fatigues our minds. Conversely, James contended that certain elements of the natural world involuntarily drew our attention -- "strange things, moving things, wild animals, pretty things ..." -- and these do not require the same mental effort. Using James' framework, the Kaplans hypothesized that exposure to natural-world diversions greatly rested and restored our directed attention.

And simply moving our bodies -- even indoors -- also helps us to focus. A study, presented in May at the conference of the American College of Sports Medicine, found that fourth and fifth graders who exercised vigorously for at least 10 minutes before a math test scored higher than those who sat quietly before the exam.

An acquaintance whose daughter attends the Chinese Immersion charter school in Hadley, Mass., recently told me that her daughter gets regular exercise and movement "breaks" throughout the day. Although my mind immediately went to those unsettling Maoist mass exercise drills -- shown on U.S. news clips from China throughout the Cultural Revolution -- it certainly makes sense to me that moving your body clears the mind. I could not focus enough to write this column each week without feeding my exercise habit. And I would not survive the 3 to 5 p.m. "witching hour" of parenting without getting my kids outside; we are all "bears" then. Bears are decidedly happier moving their bodies outside than leaping from my couch and nearly missing the coffee table.

With the dramatic rise in the use of antidepressants among preschoolers--use among preschool age boys is up 64 percent in recent years -- it is hard not to think that many kids simply need to be outside moving their bodies more. Richard Ryan -- professor of psychiatry, psychology and education at the University of Rochester -- co-authored a paper describing four experiments that indicate that the benefits of being outdoors are not simply salubrious. They also shape our values. Participants exposed to the natural world tended to be happier and demonstrated more generosity. They also rated community and personal connections as more important than those who did not spend time outdoors.

Although I would love to see all our kids in schools that resemble the Ewok Village of "The Return of the Jedi" -- glorious tree houses set amidst a lush emerald timberland -- schools can't take this on alone. There are simply too many demands placed on schools already. Communities -- neighbors, relatives, caregivers -- must take the initiative.

This Wednesday is International Walk to School Day. If you have neighbors who can't walk their young kids to school, offer to walk with them or help organize a group from your area to walk together. If you're a spry retiree looking for a workout, this could be the incentive you've sought. Get outdoors and move your body while modeling great habits for students.

As Henry David Thoreau insisted, "We can never have enough of nature."

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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