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Why when there’s so much focus on the benefits to children of being outside in a natural environment, is there so little focus on extending those same benefits within classrooms?

We recently visited a school that had a beautiful amazing outdoor space with trees and plants and a stream running through it that was quite wonderful. But when we ventured inside we were met with the same image from decades ago. The classrooms had rows of desks, very little natural light, were visually busy and distracting and generally not inspiring to the students or their educators. The contrast to the senses was quite extreme as well, outside was fresh and airy, but when inside the toxic off gassing from furniture was quite pronounced.

There has been extensive research into, and I think we can all agree, that it really is beneficial for children to be outside and preferably in nature each and every day. For many schools this is now a priority and action is being taken. That’s wonderful and a great step forward. But there is very little attention being given to students interior learning environments and that’s actually where they are still spending the majority of their time.

Firstly let’s look at the benefits to students of being in a natural environment:

It improves children’s resilience to stress. Nature reduces the impact of life’s stresses on children, Research has also shown that even a view of nature – green plants and outside views – helps reduce stress among highly stressed children. The more plants, green views and access to natural play areas, the more positive the results. (Wells & Evans, 2003)

It reduces attention disorders, depression and anxiety. Research has found that spending time in nature can help children with attention deficit disorder. And living close to green space has also been shown to lower anxiety and depression in younger children. In other words, nature undoubtedly helps us tune into the present moment, and practice mindfulness organically — without even having to think of it in those terms!

It supports children’s creativity and cognitive functioning. Research shows that children are more creative when exposed to nature. Furthermore, recent research has also highlighted that daily exposure to nature increases children’s ability to focus and concentrate and therefore enhances their cognitive abilities (including problem solving).

Being outside increases student’s physical activity. Getting regular exercise helps to reduce longer term health risks. Nature encourages exploration, play and movement. These positive qualities should be the words we use to describe exercise, as the majority of time that children are outside, particularly younger children, they tend to be running, jumping, digging and climbing.

It aids environmental education and stewardship. It’s been shown that if children have regular contact with nature during early childhood, they will more likely grow up with a love and respect for nature and a stronger sense of environmental responsibility.

All of the above benefits are clearly very important when supporting a child’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. I think we can all agree that students really do need to be exposed to nature as much as is feasibly possible. So then shouldn’t we be looking at how we can create similar outcomes and benefits for students within their interior learning environments? There is definitely a disconnect here, especially considering classrooms are still where students and educators spend the majority of their time.

So what straightforward, simple changes could be made to re-address the balance?

  • Firstly, allowing as much natural light into learning environments as possible and accessing any views of greenery or nature.
  • Another effective and simple thing is bringing plants into the classroom and common spaces, and creating a whiter calmer space with thoughtfully curated walls with inspiring artwork or information rather that lots of distracting clutter.
  • Then have a look at re-configuring the classroom layouts. Stress, anxiety and distraction can be significantly lowered by accommodating different styles of learning by defining various areas. Define an area for individual learning, another for collaborative group projects and maybe a quite space where overwhelmed or stressed children can find some calm.
  • Also looking at the furniture in your classrooms, are they made from natural healthy materials or do they contain lead paint? Are they recyclable or will they end up in a landfill? These questions not only potentially lead to creating a healthier, more natural environment for students and educators, but they also aid environment education and inspire environmental stewardship for the very generations that will be most affected by climate change.

At Natural Pod we strongly believe in creating better healthier inspiring learning environments while simultaneously promoting environmental responsibility and sustainability. All Natural Pod wood products are made with FSC-certified materials and are ethically manufactured providing furniture that is not only long lasting, but also recyclable and 100% compostable at the end of its life-cycle. In the classroom the pieces tell a story and are a great aid to environmental education. Educators and children can learn where the products come from, what they are made of, and how the choices they make can impact their learning environment and the natural world.

Here are some great examples of learning environments that have re-created the benefits of being outside, inside their classrooms.

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