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Nature Games

by Michael E. Kirk, PhD
Dr. Kirk is a local clinical psychologist, father and grandfather, who specializes in working with families, adolescents, and children.

It is a Saturday afternoon; the breeze is cool; the sun is warm. It is a beautiful day, and Allen is inside in his room playing Battlefield 3, a shoot-‘em-up video game. Sandy is at the computer playing Sims 3, and her brother is in the family room watching Fan Boy and Chum-Chum on Netflix. Nothing is really wrong with this picture, except that these children indulge in these activities all day, every day. When a parent requests assistance with a task, the child groans, because he is being asked to “tear yourself away from that video game and come with me to your grandmother’s!”  When the parent leaves without the child, then “Houston, we have a problem.” Data suggest that, overall, children today spend only 15–25 minutes a day in outdoor play and sports, and this number continues to decline.

Children and their parents seem to be spending much more time with media and technology and much less time participating in activities outdoors. While this life-style change has significant consequences for your child’s physical well-being, what impact does this change have on your child’s level of cognition? Higher order cognitive functions including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking are all heavily utilized in this modern technology-rich world. While we become so overwhelmed with this technology frenzy, it is important to know that our brains require a break, a rest, a time-out, or vacation. Research suggests that exposure to nature can restore pre-frontal brain decision-making processes and indicates that exposure to natural settings like the beach, parks, and camping seems to replenish some lower-level functions of the executive attentional system, again in the frontal lobe.

Research shows that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized when your child spends time immersed in a natural setting. Thus, engagement in nature and a disconnection from iPads can increase your child’s performance on imaginative and problem-solving tasks. It is thought that this advantage comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and under-arousing with a matching decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology. Interestingly, the relaxed brain mode can be disrupted by multimedia use, which requires an external attentional focus, so hiking while using the cell phone is out.

There are cognitive costs for your child associated with constant exposure to a technology-rich environment, as contrasted with exposure to the natural environment that a child experiences when she is immersed in nature. When individuals have spent some days in a natural setting, absent all the tools of technology, the surrounding natural setting allows them to bring a wide range of cognitive resources to bear when asked to engage in a task that requires creativity and complex convergent problem solving. Summer time is coming. Perhaps, we should unplug our children and ourselves for a while. Their brains will appreciate it.

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Tags: Featured Story, Parenting

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