The Nature Cure: Creating More Self-Disciplined Kids (and Adults!)

by Melissa Harding


“With self-discipline, most anything is possible.”
– Theodore Roosevelt

Self-discipline is not a fun topic to talk about; most people experience various lapses in self-discipline all time, whether it is sneaking an extra cookie or eating half of a cake. We tend to feel pretty guilty about them, as if it shows a weakness in our collective character. Truthfully and thankfully, research shows that the mechanism within us that helps us to be disciplined, to delay gratification or to concentrate on a boring project, can only take so much before it snaps. This “mental muscle” needs to be renewed after a long period of use, like a day at school or work. Unfortunately, self-discipline is the skill we use to achieve our goals, stay out of trouble and generally be more thoughtful about our words and deeds. It turns out that we really need it to get the job done. Luckily, there is a cure for this mental fatigue: nature! Research has shown that views of nature, as well as actually being in and interacting with it, can help us to restore our powers of focus and determination.

To begin, what actually makes us self-disciplined? It turns out that there are three main components to this trait: concentration, inhibiting initial impulse, and delaying gratification. These are each distinct forms of self-discipline that help us to over-ride unhelpful tendencies in favor of something better. Concentration requires keeping the mind from wandering and being able to focus despite being bored, frustrated or tired. When we are too mentally fatigued to concentrate, we can spend hours trying to accomplish a task and never truly finish it; this is true with children who stare at books for hours and never really learn. Inhibiting initial impulses requires the ability to ignore our first response to a problem and consider alternate solutions. It makes us more prudent; impulsivity is considered to be linked with risky behavior. Delaying gratification requires overcoming impatience and the tendency to favor short-term rewards over long-term goals. These three aspects of self-discipline are also linked with the ability to control anger and deal with conflict.


Research suggests that these three forms of self-discipline can be renewed by time spent in or around nature. This is not a new study, but the applications are timeless. Scientists from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign ran a study on underserved urban youth, trying to figure out what influences their self-discipline. Outcomes such as academic underachievement, juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy are risk factors for many underserved youth and can often be predicted by levels of self-discipline, so understanding how to increase this skill among teens is very important. For this study, researchers focused on residential views of nature; they measured the self-discipline skills of a sample of urban youth that had either views of nature or views of the built environment near their homes, examining participants separately by gender. The results show that, for girls, near-home nature was systematically related to each of the three forms of self-discipline; girls showed significant improvements in their testing scores over those with views of the built environment. Boys showed no significant relationship between near-home nature and any of the outcomes.

Why this relationship between nature and attention? Certain elements in the environment are effortlessly engaging and draw our attention involuntarily, such as moving objects, bright colors, etc. For things that do not involuntarily engage us, we use our powers of direct attention. Since natural settings often draw our involuntary attention, it assists in the recovery of the mental muscles that direct our attention. Exposure to nature and natural environments in multiple forms has been shown to be restorative. Research has also been done showing that children with attentional difficulties perform better than usual after participating in activities that take place in natural settings. The same study found that the greener a child’s usual play setting, the less severe their attention problems were rated in general. Taken overall, this evidence suggests that regular contact with nature is crucial to self-discipline and restoring directed attention in both children and adults. The disparity between girls and boys within the featured study has no definite explanation, though researchers strongly suggest that boys need more direct contact with nature to receive the same benefits as the girls.


Increasing the amount of nature that your child encounters daily is a great way to get the benefits that this study suggests. Children deal with stress and anxiety all the time; they are also expected to be able to sit still and process huge amounts of information all day long, then go home and do homework. This is a lot to ask of anyone and knowing how to restore their minds is an important skill for children. Additionally, children with greater self-discipline are more apt to resist negative peer pressure and achieve academically. Understanding how our brains work – and how to help them work at their most optimum level – is helpful to children and adults alike. We all can use a little nature in our every day; make sure that both you and your family get a daily dose of nature and keep your brain working at its best.

Here are some ways to increase your family’s exposure to the natural world:
1. Go outside: The best way to get the benefits of nature is to be in it. Play games outside as a family, read a book under a tree or just explore. Being outside together with family and alone are both great experiences for kids.
2. Bring the outdoors in: Views of nature can happen inside as well. Invest in some beautiful houseplants, try your hand at forcing bulbs, purchase or pick some flowers, or hang some nature-inspired art (or even make some together). Bringing a bit of the outdoors in is a good way to put a smile on anyone’s face.
3. Green your yard: You don’t have to be a professional landscaper to green up your yard. Even the smallest yard can be improved with a tree or some grasses. Consider adding a shrub or two to attract birds and other critters to your yard. Live in an apartment or other non-alterable space? Try adding some window boxes with flowers or stick a bird feeder to your window – every little bit of nature makes a difference!
4. Visit your local park or green space: Take a family field trip to your local park or other green spaces near your neighborhood. Don’t know where to go? Check out this great resource from Nature Rocks to find all the green places near you.
5. Read about nature: Get lost in a good book – visit the library as a family and check out some of these nature-themed classics: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, or Hatchet by Gary Paulson.
6. Advocate for natural views from schools: Nature views outside of schools are important as well. Advocate for courtyard and classroom plantings, volunteer to plant flowers in the spring, and get involved with your school’s parent association. The best way to fight for nature in schools in with other like-minded parents.

Read the featured study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and learn more about how nature refreshes our self-discipline skills.

Learn how a connection to nature creates confident, successful kids.

These restorative views of nature were brought to you by Science Education and Research staff.

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