Can Time in Nature Inspire Young Innovators?
By Marilyn P. Arnone
Fifty children who were recognized inventors were interviewed for The Young Innovators Project (http://theinnovationdestination.net) funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. These youngsters have developed innovations in areas that include health care, safety, and household improvements; most have been technological in nature. This is not surprising as these children were born digital and they are more comfortable with technology than their grandparents and even some of their parents, although it is often at the expense of spending more time with electronic devices and less time in nature. Innovation spaces, STEM programs, and invention conventions across the country provide guidance and support for children to innovate. Yet, this author wonders if part of children’s preparation to innovate should also include both free and guided nature exploration and play. Can time spent in nature actually increase creativity and problem-solving so critical to innovation? The research suggests that this may actually be the case.
What the Research Says
Exposure to nature is important to creativity, problem-solving, and even intellectual development. In his acclaimed book “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age,” author Richard Louv discusses how creative people are often “drawn to the outdoors for refreshment and ideas” (2012, p. 35). There is a growing body of research that also suggests that being outdoors may be conducive to getting our creative juices flowing.
A study by Atchley, Strayer and Atchley (2012) found that a team of young adult backpackers scored higher in a test of creativity after spending four days on a trail hike as compared to a control group. Proximity to nature was also found to increase cognitive abilities, specifically a child’s ability to focus (Wells, 2000). This enhanced “focus” was also found in another study of outdoor play and learning (Nedovic & Morrissey, 2013). Even simply exposing high school students to nature imagery can enhance creative performance according to a study by van Rompay (2016). With several conditions that varied the unpredictability and spaciousness of the imagery, high school students who were exposed to imagery with the highest degree of unpredictability and spaciousness scored the highest on a measure of creative thinking.
Nature-based risky play is play in which children experience some degree of uncertainty or challenge and is positively associated with exploration and an understanding of the world. In one recent study, researchers examined the effects of an intervention to increase nature-based risky play; the intervention involved the redesign of an outdoor playspace to maximize natural materials and opportunities for exploration. The early childhood educators who participated in the study reported improvements in both problem-solving and creativity among other results such as a decrease in boredom and stress after the intervention (Brussoni, Ishikawa, Brunelle & Herrinton, 2017). Wells and Evans (2003) also found that life stress was lower in children with exposure to nearby nature. Kiewra & Veselack (2016) found that pre-school children’s creativity in terms of problem-solving and ingenuity were increased when outdoor classrooms included predictable spaces, ample and consistent time, open-ended materials, and caring and observant adults who support creative play and learning.
With the above studies in mind, it hardly seems like an intuitive leap that adding an element of nature to children’s innovative thinking activities might contribute to increases in their innovative thinking.
Getting Started: Promote Inventive Thinking in School and Public Libraries Through Connections with Nature
You can certainly start small by bringing what nature you can into your library. From a “nature loose parts” station (natural outdoor materials like stones, twigs, pinecones, shells, and more for children to combine, take apart, or design with) to providing visual stimulation influenced by nature throughout the library. Bring children outside to explore in nearby nature, take a nature walk, observe natural patterns and color, practice “reading” the clouds, collect natural artifacts, create a journal, draw what is seen. These and other simple outdoor activities will help open creative pathways in the brain and set the tone for more inventive thinking exercises.
There is another benefit to exposure to nature as part of an inventive thinking curriculum; it may trigger creative ideas in students for solving environmental problems in their own communities. Additionally, it has often been stated that children need to develop an appreciation for nature before we can expect them to become its future stewards. In fact, some research has shown that positive direct experience in the outdoors guided by a trusted adult is an important factor in later involvement in protecting one’s environment (Chawla, 2007). It stands to reason that this very connection to nature may inspire future young innovators to create the inventions that will protect and sustain our precious planet.
The benefits of spending time exploring in the natural environment have been shown to have dramatic benefits to both children’s and adults’ health and well-being. There is now ample empirical support for the potential to increase students’ creative performance by spending time in nature. Additionally, spending time exploring the outdoors also helps to develop an appreciation of nature in our children such that they are motivated to invent solutions to some of our planet’s most pressing environmental problems, locally and globally. All this is worth educators’ consideration as they develop innovation spaces and programs that inspire creativity and inventive thinking. Consider making just a few small changes to get started and if you see results, do some creative thinking yourself to see how you can expand your efforts to connect children to nature and, in so doing, unlock their creativity.
Dr. Marilyn Arnone is co- director of the Young Innovators Project, a professor of practice at Syracuse University’s iSchool, and a certified environmental educator in the state of NC. This blog post is the basis of a book chapter that the author is currently preparing.
Atchley, R.A., Strayer, D.L., Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLoS ONE, 7(12), 1-5.
Brussoni, M., Ishikawa, T., Brunelle, S., Herrington, S. (2017). Landscapes for play: Effects of an intervention to promote nature-based risky play in early childhood centres. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 54, 139-1550.
Chawla, L. (2007). Childhood experiences associated with care for the natural world: A theoretical framework for empirical results. Children, Youth and Environments, 17(4), 144-170.
Cszikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.
Kiewra, C., Veselack, E. (2016). Playing with nature: Supporting preschoolers' creativity in natural outdoor classrooms. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 4(1).
Louv, R. (2012). The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with life in a virtual age. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Nedovic, S., Morrissey, A. (2013). Calm, active and focused: Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment. Learning Environments Research, 16(2), 281-295.
van Rompay, T.J.L., Jol, T. (2016). Wild and free: Unpredictability and spaciousness as predictors of creative performance. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 48, 140-148.
Wells, N. M., Evans, G. W. (2003). Nearby nature: A buffer of life stress among rural children. Environment and Behavior, 35(3), 311-330.
Wells, N. M. (2000). At home with nature: Effects of 'greenness' on children's cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior, 32(6), 775-795.