Winter storm Nemo: Take the kids out, charge their creativity

Winter storm Nemo isn't necessarily cause to stay in: Some new research suggests not just holing up in the electronic world, but charging the creative batteries with some outdoor reality. Enjoy the storm, don't run from it!

Associated Press
Winter storm Nemo: The weather outside is frightful, but the benefits of the outdoors to kids' intelligence is delightful. Here, two boys play near Lake Michigan, where the snow storm hit this week.

Winter storm Nemo threatens to bury the Northeast in two feet of snow this weekend, initiating the obligatory pre-blizzard blitz on the grocery store as families scramble to stock up on cases of toilet paper, gallons of milk, and snacking provisions before schools close on Friday. The storm is likely to shut down much of New England, however for families, being snowed in does not have to mean the family has to be trapped inside.

It may seem like a distant memory for many New Englanders, but walking in a winter wonderland is what the Northeast is all about. So this weekend, as the snow piles up, bundle up the family, head outside and have a snowball fight, build a snowman, or just take a walk and enjoy the hush that freshly fallen snow brings. The kids may grumble at first, but in the end, you will all be surprised at how much fun they have. Beyond that, recent studies suggest they will learn a lot too. 

In December, researchers from the University of Utah offered up a study that says spending time in nature and away from electronic tethers to the civilized world actually boosts people's ability to solve problems creatively. 

The study's psychologists took adults backpacking into the Utah canyons for four days without their electronics. At the end of the trip, the participants actually scored higher on tests designed to measure their creative problem solving skills than they did before starting their hike. While this study focused on adults, there is good reason to believe that quality time outside could provide a similar benefit to children. 

In the age of electronics, kids have access to more information than ever before. They can look up photos, articles, and videos about any topic that interests them. However, this often obsessive pursuit takes away much of the need for creative thinking. Want to build a fort? No problem. Google will readily supply tried and true schematics. Want to tweak the flavor of a recipe? No problem. Extensive recipe sites offer endless variations 

These vast stores of information can be extremely valuable. On the other hand, such access reduces the need for creative problem solving. Why try to work out a solution by trial and error when you can just look up the answer? 

In the non-virtual world (aka the real world!)  kids are likely to face many problems that don't have concrete answers. Navigating the complex social tangles of adolescence while juggling academic and extracurricular responsibilities requires a strong set of creative problem solving skills. 

So how does spending time in nature help? 

A big part of the equation is likely removing the distractions of smartphones, electronic tablets, and televisions.

But there’s probably more to it than that.

Study authors speculate that the effect may be linked to attention restoration theory, the idea that spending time away from the noisy distractions of everyday life and experiencing nature. Spending time away from the noise of traffic and the bustling pace of everyday life promotes a sense of calm and mindfulness.

Families do not have to completely disconnect themselves from civilization for days at a time to benefit from experiencing nature. Spending an hour strolling along a river’s edge, an afternoon hiking through the woods, or even a few minutes playing tag in a field may help families to connect with each other and the natural world.

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