Nature Increases Self-Discipline of Children

Self-discipline has been described as a limited but renewable resource.

In other words, you can only be self-disciplined to stay focused on a certain task for so long. Eventually, you become mentally fatigued and no longer have the ability to think clearly or critically about the task at hand. Simply put, it’s like your car running out of gas after a long trip.

We can all relate to this.

But the good news is that you can recharge and refill your self-discipline tank whenever you feel low. There are many ways to do this – go on a walk or hike, meditate, get a relaxing massage, read a good book, go on vacation – recharge strategies will look different for everyone.

For example, I recharge by spending time alone and outdoors. Before I had kids, I would drive to my family’s cabin in Northern New Mexico and spend days there by myself – hiking, writing, reading, playing my guitar. I was highly productive while also having plenty of time to relax. Of course, my oldest child is 5, so I’m 5 years overdue on alone time. (And my youngest is 1. It’s going to be a while before I can get outside by myself again!)

The research I will be discussing here describes nature as a tool to help recharge self-discipline in children. The results are only significant for girls, but I think we can assume there may be similar benefits for both genders given that this is a single study. So, if your kids have problems focusing or live on impulse, give the following a read!

Do you have the same experience that I do when you’re in nature? Are you able to reset, recharge, and tackle all the things on your to-do list? Do you notice your kids acting differently after playing outside? Add your comments below or start a discussion on my Facebook page!

Everyday Takeaways from Science

  • If you’re feeling easily distracted at work and can’t seem to concentrate, go on a 10-minute walk outside. It should help you clear your mind and give you a little recharge to get through the afternoon.
  • If your children are having a hard time focusing on their homework after school, let them play outside for 30 minutes first. They’ll expend excess energy, recharge, and be more prepared to tackle their work.
  • If you’re a teacher and your students are getting restless, take them outside for a 15-minute break. They might just return to the classroom prepared to pay attention, suppress disruptive impulses, and wait patiently for future breaks.

Your Ray of Sunshine

We are intimately connected to nature, so it’s no surprise that nature can be used as a tool to help us with many of life’s issues. Add a little nature into your life when you feel like your self-discipline is waning.


The Research

The authors of this study investigated 3 types of self-discipline: concentration, inhibition of initial impulses, and delayed gratification. First, let’s define these terms so we’re all on the same page.

Concentration is defined as “overcoming the tendency for the mind to wander, and sustaining attentional focus despite distractions, boredom, frustration, or fatigue.” Inhibition of initial impulse is defined as “overcoming the tendency to jump to conclusions or to act on impulse and involves overriding one’s initial response to a problem or situation, in order to consider alternative or the potential costs and benefits of a course of action.” Delayed gratification is defined as “overcoming impatience and the tendency to favor short-term rewards over long-term goals and involves internalized standards and morals.”

Now that we have definitions out of the way, let’s talk about how self-discipline and nature are related. The researchers base their study on the Attention Restoration Theory coined by Kaplan (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan 1995) but it was initially described by William James (1962). This theory (better described as a hypothesis) states that nature is effortlessly engaging and draws on involuntary attention. We are easily and involuntarily captivated by new and strange things in nature, wild animals, moving objects, new smells, etc. The opposite of involuntary attention is directed attention – tasks that require concentration and focus, like attending to your work emails or kids doing their homework.

These researchers suggest that directed attention is equivalent to self-discipline, and that directed attention (self-discipline) can be renewed through involuntary attention which is effortlessly accomplished in nature. In other words, nature fills your self-discipline tank when it’s low.


This study looked at families living in identical housing units in inner city Chicago. The housing units only differed according to the views from the occupants’ windows – parking lot or green space with trees and grass (not parks). There were 169 participating families, all of whom were African American, low-income, and had children between 5-14 years old.

Four variables were measured: nearby nature, concentration, inhibition of impulse, and delayed gratification. Nearby nature was measured by asking the parent to rate the amount of nature outside their window. Concentration was measured by asking the child to complete four assessments: Symbol Digit Modalities Test, Digit Span Backwards, Alphabet Backwards, and Necker Cube Pattern Control. Inhibition of initial impulse was measured by asking the child to complete three assessments: Matching Familiar Figures Test, Stroop Color-Word Test, and Category Matching. Delay gratification was measured by asking the child to complete a version of the Rodriguez et al. (1989) task.


When the researchers compared girls with nature views verses girls without nature views, results showed that nature views had a significant impact on all three forms of self-discipline. In fact, it explained 20% of the variance in total self-discipline scores. Boys, on the other hand, showed no significant differences on any of the self-discipline measures when comparing nature views.

When they took age into account, it did not change the overall results. Nature views were consistently linked to self-discipline for girls and not for boys.

If you’re confused at this point, you wouldn’t be the only one.

The researchers stated that there was little theoretical or empirical evidence that nature would only improve self-discipline levels in girls and not boys. In fact, all adult studies found that nature helped males and females with directed attention (self-discipline).

Another possibility is that boys tend to play further from home, and girls play close to home suggesting that the boy’s play space may have more of an impact on their self-discipline rather than their natural view from a window. The researchers reported one study that supports this hypothesis. They suggested that further research should measure boys’ self-discipline in relation to their typical play spaces.


Although these results were only significant for girls, theoretical and empirical evidence suggest that nature may play an important role in attentional restoration (and therefore, self-discipline) for all children. It would be imprudent to assume that nature was only restorative for girls and therefore treat the genders differently.



Faber Taylor, A., Kuo, F.E., Sullivan, W.C. (2002). Views of nature and self-discipline: evidence from inner city children. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 22:49-63.

Other References

James, W. (1962). Psychology: The Briefer Course. New York: Collier Books. (Original work published in 1892.)

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: a Psychological Perspective. New York: Cambridge.

Kaplan, S. (1995) The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 15:169-182.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Jenny


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