Using Attention Restoration Theory to Provide Rich Summertime Learning

By Molly Breen

Using Attention Restoration Theory to Provide Rich Summertime LearningEarly childhood programs around the country are faced with a nearly constant deluge of ever-changing guidance for best practices in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Even as I write this, our program is uncertain if we will be able to provide our planned summer camp programming (or what the fall will look like, for that matter). This is disappointing for many reasons, including the special enrichment that we will not be able to provide through field trips and visiting experts and—on a practical level—the loss of income due to canceling programs. This is a time of bobbing and weaving and iterating new ways to learn together, coupled with a deeper sense of surrender to the uncertainty that comes with a worldwide health crisis.

For those of us who plan to offer summer learning, incorporating a social and emotional curriculum component is more important than ever! Children and families need the soft and intricate net of SEL to cradle the stress and mental fatigue of coping through the pandemic. How do we create enriched summer learning environments while weaving in relevant social and emotional learning connected to our current experience of the world?

A hoped-for component of any summer learning plan usually includes lots of time spent outdoors. We know the benefits of outdoor and risky play for the development of gross motor skills. And, particularly in the midst of the pandemic, we know the immense positive developmental impacts of being in natural environments. But are you familiar with the Attention Restoration Theory? This theory emerged from research that indicates that just being in natural environments compels our nervous system to relax into a state of more focused attention and stress recovery.

According to Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, the founding theorists for this body of research, there are four cognitive stages that lead to the resulting restoration:

  1. Clearer head, or concentration
  2. Mental fatigue recovery
  3. Soft fascination, or interest
  4. Reflection and restoration

If we imagine children playing in a grove of tall trees with low hanging branches, we can almost envision this process unfolding. The energy children have that was pinging off the four walls inside is suddenly diffuse and expands into space; they feel the sense of solitude and spaciousness of being outside and release thinking connected to any previous stressors. Then their attention turns to the trees—maybe they begin to touch them or climb onto the low branches, perhaps they sit alone for a while or call out to friends to join them.

This summer, I propose that we do our best to provide experiences like this one in our shared learning: spacious outdoor immersion that provides an inherent social and emotional process of stress recovery. We can build a framework of reflection to conclude our time together each day, asking questions like:

  • Where did you play today?
  • What did you notice about the space you were in?
  • How did you feel? (Help develop expressive vocabulary like soft, big, tiny, prickly, and emotional vocabulary like peaceful, content, curious, worried, and so on.)
  • How did you know?
  • Where did you feel it in your body?

Asking reflective questions like these at the close of the day helps children connect their cognitive states with their lived experience and can deepen the experience of being outdoors.

What about those of us who don’t have easy access to natural outdoor environments?

Really think about your setting and decide if it is actually true that no accessible natural spaces are nearby. Even in urban settings like mine, there are often gardens, groves of trees, or open meadow space not too far away. Think creatively about how to use the potential natural playscapes in your community. The site Children in Permaculture has great resources to help you think more expansively about environmental education in many settings.

Even if there is only concrete for miles around, you can provide a wonderful environmental education with a simple, small container garden. Although learners won’t be immersed within a physical natural environment, they will experience many of the same benefits of the Attention Restoration Theory through digging, planting, and tending a garden. With an edible container garden, there’s the added thrill of eating what you plant! If you don’t even know where to begin in gardening with kids, this site can help get you started, even including links to grants and other resources for support. I always like to “fish the close water first” when I’m starting a new venture for our preschool program. Ask parents from your setting if they might have a green thumb to help you get started growing a preschool garden.

Like immersive environmental education, gardening with kids has therapeutic benefits! Focused attention, communication, tactile/sensory experience, delayed gratification, and even fine motor skills practice are embedded in tending a garden. Planting seeds is an inherently hopeful activity, so you could build a question about hope or imagination into your reflection after garden work:

  • What do you imagine is happening to our seeds/seedlings now?
  • What do you hope will happen if we take good care of our garden?

While our planned-for summer programs may look different than we had envisioned, we can model resilience as we retool our vision, adjust expectations, and provide therapeutic and developmental learning experiences. Get outside in all kinds of weather this summer, plunge your hands into soil, climb a tree, talk about feelings! I am certain that we will all benefit from the resulting stress recovery.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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