Outdoor families are happier families

kids on the dock
© K Martinko

Researchers at the University of Illinois look at how nature restores social cues and makes people less irritable, improving how they relate to each other and establish important rituals.

When families spend time together outside, not only do they improve their individual attention and focus, but they also improve family relations, getting along better with each other. This intriguing concept has been investigated by researchers at the University of Illinois, who recently published a study in The Journal of Family Theory & Review. The researchers’ theory is described by study co-author and doctoral candidate Dina Izenstark:

“When your attention is restored, you’re able to pick up on social cues more easily, you feel less irritable, and you have more self-control… We theorize that when your attention is restored, it transfers to your family relationships and allows you to get along better with your family members.”

Already there exists plenty of research to show that being out in nature benefits individuals, even for a short period of time, but there is relatively little research to show how these benefits affect other people in a group. Izenstark and her co-author Adam Ebata are interested in this outcome, particularly because children are almost always accompanied by family members when outdoors.

It makes sense. We know that in our current state of technology saturation, human brains tend to be exhausted from engaging in ‘hard fascination’ – watching TV, computer screens, handheld devices, or other stimulating settings such as sporting events or amusement parks. These activities require direct attention, which may feel enjoyable but is actually fatiguing for the brain.

What we need to do is create opportunities for the brain to relax and recover in the form of ‘soft fascination,’ which occurs outdoors. Ebata describes the feeling of mental relief when a parent takes kids to the park and sits on a bench, watching them play. Despite still being in charge, there’s a clear sense of letting go that does not occur at home.

Furthermore, the researchers have found that the practice of family rituals in nature brings families closer. Something as simple as going to the park every weekend or walking the dog on a nightly basis can restore ‘attentional functioning’ and create a sense of belonging and identity among family members.

Izenstark explains: “Because they go regularly or repeatedly, it’s a family ritual, and in addition to the benefits of short-term exposure enjoyed during visits, they have a shared experience which helps make them who they are as a family, something that can be passed down through generations. Even if you have a bad day during a visit, say you get rained on and everyone gets soaked, the total benefit of that ritual for the family becomes larger than just individual, short-term benefits. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.”

In other words, spend time with your family, and spend it outside, if you really want it to take on greater meaning. Every little bit makes a difference.

Tags: Health | Kids | Natural Remedies | Nature

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