How Exposure To Nature Helps Us Learn

I wrote recently about the ability of nature to significantly improve our mental health.  The research came to a number of conclusions.  Firstly, being outdoors, hearing birdsong and generally feeling in contact with nature were linked with higher levels of mental wellbeing.  This impact was especially pronounced in individuals with impulsive characteristics, who were in turn more at risk of having mental health issues.

A second study, from the University of Illinois, highlights how nature can also affect our ability to learn.  The study found that when school children spent a class session outdoors in a natural setting, they were more engaged, not only during the class but also afterwards.  What’s more, the effect persisted week after week.

The researchers provided replica lessons in indoor and outdoor settings, with teacher expectations, style, time of day and various other factors that could influence proceedings all controlled for.

“Teachers hoping to offer lessons in nature may hesitate for fear that the experience will leave kids bouncing off the walls and unable to concentrate afterward,” the researchers say. “We found just the opposite, however: Classroom engagement was significantly better for students after lessons in nature than after lessons in the classroom.”

Natural benefits

The research relied upon a combination of teacher ratings and external observer reports of the student’s attention in class.  The observers were unaware of whether pupils had been indoors or outdoors in their previous class, and evaluated engagement using photos taken of the classroom during the lesson.

To an extent, this is not new, as a previous study found that test scores were higher in classrooms where vegetation was nearby.  Indeed, it’s even been found that children with ADHD do much better after a walk in a natural setting.

One theory is that being in nature allows the mind to rest, which in turn allows it to focus more effectively later when in class.  It’s also been proven that being in nature, or even viewing it from the window, is linked with lower heart rates and stress hormones.

“We found the teachers in our study were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long after the outdoor lesson than after an indoor lesson,” the researchers say. “The students simply paid better attention after being in the outdoor class.”

The researchers hope that their work will provide encouragement for teachers who want to try conducting lessons outdoors.

“They should try it a few times to get the hang of it and see what they notice. If it works like it did in our study, the benefits will be pretty obvious,” they say. “If it still doesn’t work after you’ve tried it a few times, I’d give up; teachers can tell what’s not working for them.”