It’s the first week of a new school year. Children are busy reconnecting with friends, meeting new teachers and telling stories about their summer experiences. Parents are busy behind the scenes, making lunches, dropping and picking up kids, driving to sports practices and volunteering in the classroom. While the first week of school is a frenzy of fun, tests, projects, and balancing a burgeoning social life can add stress and make it difficult for students to concentrate and do their best in school. This of course has impacts on parents and their ability to perform their best at work. Thankfully, simply taking a walk through a park and connecting with nature can help reduce stress, help your brain rest and improve cognition.

Paying attention!

Our modern day-to-day lives include tasks that require us to think in a step-by-step manner, carefully controlling where our attention goes from one moment to the next. For instance, when learning to read, children have to learn to start at the upper-left side of the page, follow the text to the end of the line, and then go down to the next line and repeat the process. Solving a math problem involves a similar step-by-step process. To complete either you can’t let your attention wander. This is what psychologists call voluntary attention.

This step-by-step process doesn’t only apply to kids. Many jobs require us to focus our attention in a similar way. Anyone who spends most of their day working on a computer knows what I’m talking about.

We only have so much attention to go around. If you’re engaged in attention-demanding tasks, you’ll be less and less able to focus as the day goes on. This means you won’t be able to do your best, whether at work or at school. Just as your body needs a break after doing physical labour or playing sports, your brain needs a break from studying or working for hours at a time on a computer.

How can nature help?

Now imagine leaving your computer or textbooks for a moment to walk through a park. The sounds of acorns falling, squirrels scampering, and birds chirping all draw your attention without requiring any effort on your part. You’re free to let your attention wander –  from a cloud, to a flower, to a creek tree. Being in nature gives your brain a break and refreshes your ability to focus. This is what psychologists call involuntary attention.

Decades of research show that one of the best ways to reduce stress and restore your brain’s ability to concentrate is to interact with nature. Simply taking a stroll through the park can lower stress hormones, induce creativity and improve cognition.

This weekend, after the flurry of the first week of school is behind you, take a moment to walk, run or ride your bike through a park. Even better, bring your friends and family with you. Your brain will thank you.

Learn more about the connection between nature and health at EcoHealth Ontario. Find a conservation area near you where you can connect with nature.

Article by Kyle Menken, Events & Communications Assistant for Credit Valley Conservation.

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