Strengthening the family bond is as easy as spending time outside in nature, even just a 20-minute walk, together, according to a recent study.
The University of Illinois research is based on the attention restoration theory which describes how interaction with natural environments can reduce mental fatigue and restore attentional functioning.
Researchers Dina Izenstark and Aaron Ebata believed that if this theory worked for individuals it might also work for families and help to facilitate more positive family interactions and family cohesion. So last year they developed a new theoretical approach to studying the benefits of family-based nature activities.
"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 believe they should get along better with other family members," Izenstark explained.
In a new study, researchers tested their theory by looking at sets of moms and daughters (ages 10-12 years) who were asked to take a walk together in nature and a walk in a mall. The researchers then tested both the mothers' and daughters' attention and observed their family interactions after each walk.
The results were clear; a walk in nature increased positive interactions, helping the mothers and daughters get along better. It also restored attention, a significant effect for mothers in the study.
"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," Izenstark noted. "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, our attention is taxed more than we realize."
Izenstark added that in order to relieve some of that mental fatigue, people need to restore their directed attention. "In nature, you can relax and restore your attention which is needed to help you concentrate better. It helps your working memory."
Although the study only focused on mothers and daughters, Izenstark noted that the overall aim of the research is to examine different ways in which nature affects family relationships in general.
"First and foremost I hope it encourages families to find ways to get outside together, and to not feel intimidated, thinking, 'oh, I have to go outside for an hour or make it a big trip.' 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."
The study is published in the journal Children, Youth and Environments.