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Finding Focus in the Forest

I went for a Labor Day walk in the woods with two of my grown children on Monday, one of whom was celebrating her 23 birthday.  We thought we’d go to her favorite place for her birthday – which is, conveniently enough, outside, in the woods.

As I walked with my two big kids, I remembered nature walks with them when they and their sister were much younger, and felt gratified that they still loved being outdoors, quiet, curious and observant. It was lovely walking with them, enjoying the simple pleasures of easy conversation and shared discovery – bobcat tracks, a blush of Florida poinsettia, a branch thick with oakworms.  My adult children are good company; warm,  good-natured, thoughtful, unpretentious, kind and focused individuals.  They are, in short, nice, well-adjusted, successful young people, possessed of healthy measures of executive function.

Executive function and its role in our ability (or lack thereof) to focus on tasks at hand, was the topic of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.  Executive function, explained columnist Jonah Lehrer, in Learning How to Focus on Focus, is “a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses.”   Teaching children to resist the urge to run blindly out into the street after an errant ball, to wait their turn,  to keep their thoughts about others’ appearances or behavior to themselves, are all examples of ways we help children develop and strengthen their executive function.

Besides keeping us safe and building manners, research has shown that executive function also helps develop our focus and, ultimately, our success. Lehrer cites a New Zealand study that found that children skilled at regulating their impulses and attention were significantly less likely, as adults, to have criminal or drug addiction problems and less likely become single parents. Further, said, Lehrer, “In many instances, the ability to utilize executive control was more predictive of adult outcomes than either IQ scores or socioeconomic status.

That’s saying a lot about what’s clearly a critical human skill. The article goes on to talk about ways to help children develop executive function,  via activities that are “both engaging and challenging” like martial arts, yoga, complex board games and computer memory and skills games.  He also laments that, despite the evidence of the importance of fine tuning executive function in children, schools do little to support it, and funds are being cut in the very programs that help develop it, from the arts to physical education.

And yet the age in which we live, Lehrer points out, is filled with a “surfeit of information” that can feel overwhelming instead of enlightening, especially if we don’t have the focus to filter through it with discerning intelligence.   It’s an example, Lehrer says, of Herbert Simon’s observation that “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Walking in the woods with my children, though, it occurred to me that executive function – essentially self-control and restraint –  are things our children can and should learn at home, and in the everyday world outside of schools, in ways that don’t require a budget, nor suffer when said budgets are cut. And one of the best ways to develop self-control is through a low-tech, highly focused walk in the woods.

My children have been walking in the woods -and along shorelines, and mountain paths, and canoeing and kayaking , and any combination thereof –  almost since they could toddle. We taught them to walk quietly, so they’d see things, and to sit still, so the things they saw would stay a while.  For a small child, there are few rewards as great as a small live animal remaining near them.  A child with self-restraint gets to enjoy the wildlife. An impulsive child doesn’t.   Executive function rewarded!

Over time, children trained to the ways of the woods learn to see things others miss – tracks, flowers, strange wonderful awful amazing things like imponderable insects emerging from impossible places, or the delicate grace of a deer almost within reach, the rare bird singing at eye level, the otter fishing along the bank.  Those same children are more patient out in the world. They know the virtues of waiting because they’ve experienced the rewards.  A child who’s waited out a thunderstorm in an open forest, camped or kayaked along a wild river, fallen over roots and gotten up again to keep walking to get to camp before dark, can often better distinguish between real problems, and simple inconveniences.

Lehrer says “it’s not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope that they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills to develop executive function directly and creatively.  If we want our children to succeed in the age of information, we need to give them the mental tools that matter.”

I believe one of the best places to exercise those mental tools is right outside the door. Lehrer says the world has changed and that, commensurately, “the mind can’t stay the same.”

But I think what’s actually required is a return to observational and self-restraint skills that hail back to the beginnings of human development.  Only when we embrace our most basic human abilities, can we fine tune our minds to rise to the challenges of the information age, which is, when you get right down to it, just a different kind of wilderness.


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