BALANCING SCREEN TIME WITH GREEN TIME: Attention Retention Theory Helps Explain Why Nature Play Helps Learning

About the Author

Matt P. Stevenson, MSc, is a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen and upcoming postdoc with the Children’s Health and Education in School and Community Settings (CHESS) research team at Steno Health Promotion Research, Copenhagen, Denmark. Theresa Schilhab, MSc, Ma, PhD, Dr.paed., is Associate Professor at Future technologies, Culture and Learning, Aarhus University, Denmark. Theresa is research manager for the Nordea-funded project Natural Technology about children experiencing nature with the use of smart technology. Peter Bentsen, MSc, PhD, is Team Leader and Senior Researcher at Steno Health Promotion Research, Capital Regional, Denmark, and Affiliated Professor in Education Outside the Classroom at University of Copenhagen. Peter is a member of the TEACHOUT project group and Project Manager of the ‘Development of Udeskole’ project.

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Nature experiences can be a perfect antidote to the buzzing distraction of modern childhood. After a trip to the forest or the beach, the mind seems reinvigorated. Here’s why.

Attention Restoration Theory, first developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, asserts that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature. Turning the theory into practice, by encouraging people to spend time outdoors in urban parks or wilderness areas has been shown to help many people.

Students can experience significant benefits. According to Attention Restoration Theory, resting in green environments allows students to regain the attentional focus they need for academic success in school. Concentrating in the classroom requires the brain to work in a way that cannot be maintained forever. The longer the brain must hold focus and ignore distraction, the more it loses the ability to concentration.

Attention Restoration Theory predicts that when the student’s brain interacts with nature, there is a shift in the brain’s attention systems. This shift toward relaxation restores the lost mental energy. Allowing students to rest in green areas during breaks can rejuvenate them and improve their readiness to learn.

Today, the need for revitalizing the attentional focus is more relevant than ever. Worldwide, screens increasingly claim our children’s attentional resources during both school and leisure time. Although smart technology can be used for pleasure and social activities, studies suggest that overuse leads to smart technology-induced stress and addiction in students.

We don’t yet have a complete picture of why and how smart technology drains cognitive resources. But research has found that frequent use may result in long-term attentional disturbances, such as the so-called phantom vibration and phantom ringing hallucinations, where one becomes so preoccupied by the potential for an alert, that one begins to sense them when they do not exist.

Apart from its potential to induce stress, continuous stimulation by smart technology may have unwanted side-effects on how we manage our thought processes, including divergent thinking — self-generated thoughts which occur without a fixed course. Divergent thinking is linked to creativity, and is required for adaptation to future events, sustaining a sense of self-identity, and re-interpreting social encounters.

When using smart technology, hyperlinks, videos, and commercials mix with notifications and alerts, increasing the cognitive load on memory. Spontaneous and self-generated thoughts are therefore less likely to emerge.

This is where resting in nature comes in. In our recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, we describe how unthreatening natural environments sooth us and counteract the negative effects of smart technology. We propose that the mental work occurring during a restoration period — so-called mind wandering (off-task thoughts that occur either with or without intention) — is sustained by natural environments. And we point to the need for more research that relates to green environments, spontaneous thought processes, and divergent thinking.

Hence, coupling periods of smart technology use with periods of exposure to a natural environment may be optimal for children in the 21st century.

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As an afterthought, the consequences of using smart technology within natural environments are not yet known, although research on the effect of using Pokémon Go may give us some indications. Such smartphone games are likely to increase physical activity levels and may favor children who are already fond of both gaming and outdoor physical activities. Our future studies will identify how technology can be used to encourage different children to get outside.


Additional Reading 

LESSONS FROM DENMARK: The Benefits of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic in the Great Outdoors
GROWING THE UDESKOLE MOVEMENT: Finding Balance in School-Based Outdoor Learning
UDESKOLE IN SCANDINAVIA: Teaching and Learning in Natural Places
FOREST THEATRE: A Lesson in Letting Kids Self-Direct
THE SCHOOL OF NATURE: Greening Our Schools May Be the Real Cutting Edge of Education, by Richard Louv
Earth in Mind, by David Orr
Beyond the Rainbow Bridge, by Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley
Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Cornell
Problem-Solving in the Classroom: A Case Study from Georgia’s First Forest School by Jas Darland


Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of environmental psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

Schilhab, T. (2017). Adaptive Smart Technology Use: The Need for Meta-Self-Regulation. Frontiers in Psychology. Doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00298.

Schilhab, T. (2018, January 10). Can your child’s phone bring them closer to nature? ScienceNordic. Retrieved from

Schilhab, T.S.S, Stevenson, M.P., & Bentsen, P (2018). Balancing screen-time with green-time: A case for using smart technology and nature together to optimise learning processes. Frontiers in Psychology, section Educational Psychology.

Commentaries here and elsewhere on the C&NN website are offered to inform readers and to stimulate new thinking and debate. C&NN does not officially endorse every statement in every commentary.


  1. Matt, Peter and Theresa,

    Congrats on another great piece coming out of the Scandinavian countries!

    For those readers interested, Curriculum Perspectives (in Australia) just devoted a special issue to Outdoor Learning in the School Curriculum (and Peter has a paper there too!).

    Point and counterpoint

    Outdoor learning: not new, just newly important
    Tonia Gray
    Pages 145-149

    Don’t ask how outdoor education can be integrated into the school curriculum; ask how the school curriculum can be taught outside the classroom
    Karen Barfod, Peter Bentsen
    Pages 151-156

    ‘When are we going again?’ Investigating children’s responses to a new nature playspace at an environmental education centre
    Sue Elliott, Nadya Rizk, Subhashni Taylor, Julie Kennelly…
    Pages 157-162

    Take the class outside! A call for place-based outdoor learning in the Australian primary school curriculum
    Amanda Lloyd, Son Truong, Tonia Gray
    Pages 163-167

    Is school working for teenage boys? Outdoor learning and real-life skills could be the keys to re-engagement
    Jeff Mann Pages 169-174

    Affordances in nature: Australian primary school children identify learning opportunities
    Vinathe Sharma-Brymer, Keith Davids, Eric Brymer, Derek Bland
    Pages 175-180

    Vertical schooling and learning transformations in curriculum research: points and counterpoints in outdoor education and sustainability
    Son Truong, Michael Singh, Carol Reid, Tonia Gray, Kumara Ward
    Pages 181-186

  2. “Check out these tracks!” Who would have thought that we’d have a fox walk through one of our classrooms? 🦊 It does when the swamp becomes the 2nd grade afternoon learning space!

    Outdoor sit spots + journal writing + keyboarding skills = the perfect balance of green time and screen time. We’ve witnessed how time spent in creation helps restore and reinvigorate kids’ minds. Our second graders had so much to write about after a recent visit to our school’s nearby swamp. We shared this story link wit hour community to educate more about the important balance articulated through in this article.



  1. Screen-Free Week 2019 | Happy Dancing Turtle Blog - […] Research from the University of Copenhagen indicates that overuse of screen time can induce stress and addiction in children,…

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