In a new study, researchers at the University of Illinois wanted to know how a mother-daughter walk through nature would compare to a walk in the mall when it comes to mental and relational benefits.
Their findings show that the walk in nature led to more positive interactions and a greater sense of unity between moms and daughters, compared to the indoor mall walk. The nature walk also restored attention, particularly for the mothers in the study.
The study is based on the “attention restoration theory” which holds that natural environments can reduce mental fatigue and restore attentional functioning. Many studies have supported this theory, but most, if not all, have only looked at the attentional benefits of spending time in nature alone.
Family studies researchers Drs. Dina Izenstark and Aaron Ebata believed that if this theory works for individuals it might also benefit families and help encourage more positive family interactions and cohesion. 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?” said Izenstark.
“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.”
For the study, Izenstark, now an assistant professor at San José State University, and Ebata, an associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at University of Illinois, tested their theory by observing sets of moms and their 10- to 12–year-old daughters as they took a walk together in nature as well as in the mall.
A total of 27 mom-daughter pairs met at a home-like research lab on campus before each walk. For 10 minutes they participated in attention-fatiguing activities (i.e. solving math problems, word searches) while a recording of loud construction music played in the background.
The researchers gave the participants a “pre-attention” test, and then set them out on a 20-minute walk, one day to a nature arboretum, and then on another day to a local indoor mall.
After returning from each walk, the moms and daughters were interviewed separately. They were given a “post-attention” test and were asked which type of walk they found the most fun, boring, or interesting. They were then videotaped playing a game that required them to work together.
The findings were clear; a walk in nature boosted positive interactions, helping the moms and daughters get along better. It also restored attention, a significant effect for mothers in the study.
For moms, attention was restored significantly after the nature walk. Interestingly, for daughters, attention was restored after both walks, which Izenstark says may be a result of spending family leisure time with their mother.
“It was unique that for the daughters walking with moms improved their attention,” said Izenstark. “But for the moms, they benefitted from being in a nature setting. It was interesting to find that difference between the family members.
“But when we looked at their subjective reports of what they felt about the two settings, there was no question, moms and daughters both said the nature setting was more fun, relaxing, and interesting.”
Izenstark added that in order to relieve mental fatigue, we need to restore our directed attention. “In nature, you can relax and restore your attention which is needed to help you concentrate better. It helps your working memory,” she said. “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.”
“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,” said Izenstark.
The last aspect of the findings looked at improved cohesion or togetherness in the mom/daughter pairs. After analyzing the videotaped interactions during the game, the researchers only found an effect for nature. For example, after the nature walk, moms and daughters showed greater dyadic cohesion, a sense of unity, closeness, and the ability to get along, compared to the indoor walk.
Although this study only focused on mothers and daughters in particular, Izenstark says 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,’” she said.
“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.”