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BUILDING EXECUTIVE FUNCTION SKILLS: How Time in Nature Enhances School Successs

About the Author

Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., served as founding President and CEO of C&NN from April 2006 to July 2013, and continues to serve as a consultant to the Network with a special focus on international activities. She is also Research Scholar and Executive Director of the Nature Based Leadership Institute at Antioch University New England. Cheryl is an innovator, entrepreneur, author, and educator who is among those instrumental in developing the worldwide movement to reconnect children and nature.

Back to school! It’s a busy time, the end of summer, with so much to do to get ready for another school year. For many, emotions are high.

Group of kids studying at the park
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 The littlest ones are so excited to be going off to their first days of class. Children are filled with anticipation and sometimes a little anxiety, especially the ones transitioning to new schools, facing the challenges of meeting and making new friends.

Teens are worried about nearly everything, from how they look to who will talk to them. Parents and other caregivers and guardians are trying to figure out how to juggle work, home, children, teenagers, bills, and expectations. And teachers and administrators are trying to fulfill their aspirations for children’s success while juggling reporting and testing requirements that too often seem to miss the point.

“Back to school” can and should be a time of joy. For many, however, the experience is a crazy combination of too much to do, with too little time, and too much expense — a recipe for stress. As a good antidote to stress, the Children & Nature Network recommend times in nature — during school, after school, on weekends and throughout the year. In addition to reducing stress and improving overall health and well-being, playing and learning in nature can contribute to school success, for children and teens (and teachers, too). That’s what a growing body of evidence indicates.

One of the most important contributions to success in school, in which nature time can play a role, is the development of what is referred to as executive function skills. Those skills include the ability to reason, plan, remember, use self-control and solve problems.

The Children & Nature Network is pleased to announce a new publication, Thriving Through Nature: Fostering Children’s Executive Function Skills (C&NN, 2015) by Chiara D’Amore, PhD. Intended to be of broad interest to adults responsible for the care of children — including parents, grandparents, teachers, educators, social workers and nature advocates — Thriving Through Nature describes why the development of executive function skills is important and how experiences in nature can play a critical and positive role in this process.

In this new C&NN report, research on the relationship between time in nature and executive function is presented, with a focus on cognitive benefits as well as the specific effects of physical activity and unstructured play on executive function development. Varied nature-based activities are offered as examples of ways to foster executive function throughout childhood developmental phases, from infancy and toddlerhood through early and middle childhood and beyond through the teen years.

When combined with a secure attachment with caregivers, the development of executive function skills not only helps children in school now, but creates a foundation that nurtures their life-long well-being. Both the development of secure attachment and the development of executive function skills can be enhanced through nature-based experiences for children.

In 2012, the Children & Nature Network published Together in Nature: Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family by Sara St. Antoine. That reader-friendly publication provides insights and activities for developing secure child-caregiver attachment along with other benefits associated with family bonding. C&NN’s new Thriving Through Nature is a companion publication. And yet another publication, C&NN’s Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit: Do It Yourself! Do It Now!, is now available in multiple languages. It provides everything you need to know to start your own nature club for families.

These are just a few of the many resources available to help keep nature in your family’s life, and in the lives of other children and teens you know and love, throughout the year. Each of these publications, in distinct ways, can help families and schools build stronger family bonds, a sense of community with other families, essential executive function skills, and lifelong curiosity about the world around us.

After the glorious days of summer, it’s too easy to consider time spent in the natural world as a summer past-time. One of C&NN’s core messages has always been that children who play and learn outdoors in nature tend to be happier, healthier and smarter. They do better in school, are more physically active, are more creative and less stressed. My husband, Bob Samples, said long ago, “The first classroom is outdoors. Get into it.” We have more reasons than ever to do so.

More Reading and Resources

Thriving Through Nature: Fostering Children’s Executive Function Skills (C&NN, 2015)

Back to School, Forward to Nature: Ten Ways Teachers Can Fortify Their Students With Vitamin N

The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need

You Can Get Your Students Outside — and Still Meet Your State Standards

Get Involved: C&NN’s Nature Teachers Network

Other C&NN Guides and Toolkits

Top photo © iStock.com/andresr

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