Schools that Harness the Power of Nature

Last month I found inspiration for this post in an unlikely place: the December issue of Vogue magazine. The article was called “Natural High,” and it described a concept hotel that has opened in Sweden, the Treehotel. Based on the idea of the calming and restorative power of nature, the hotel features six unique, eco-friendly guest rooms, all suspended 12 – 18 feet above the ground in the pine forest. In Japan, people have been practicing shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, for years. Dr. Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has published studies showing that forest bathing significantly decreases anxiety, depression, and anger, while also strengthening the body’s immune system. What exactly is forest bathing? It is simply spending time in the forest, enjoying it through all of the five senses.

In September 2014, researchers from Carleton University in Canada conducted a meta-analysis of over 21 studies and 8500 subjects and found that a strong connection to nature is highly correlated with happiness. Over the past few years, there have been numerous studies that demonstrate that a short walk outside can significantly boost focus and performance not only for adults in work settings, but also for children in school. A report released in 2010 found that, aside from reducing stress, time spent in nature can help to lessen the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as increasing capacity for sustained attention and cognitive reflection. This research has been the basis for several school movements intending to increase children’s ability to experience nature: for example, the Boston Schoolyard Initiative has helped to revitalize playgrounds and reclaim asphalt at 88 public schools throughout Boston. (Unfortunately, the most wonderful playground in the world is useless if we keep decreasing recess time in schools.) It has also resulted in the founding of several “nature schools,” although most of them are geared more towards preschoolers and kindergartners.

As I reflected on the Treehotel and the research on the powerful effects nature can have on both mood and cognitive ability, I wondered what it would look like if our schools were designed to utilize the natural environment, rather than detract from it. I imagined a school that was designed in such a way that it required staff, faculty, and students to go outside in order to move from classroom to classroom. Yes, I know, that would mean that everyone would have to carry their jackets around with them – so every classroom would need to have hooks or cubbies in it. It would also mean that transition time between classes would need to be built into the school day; if there were 8 different classes in a day, allowing for 5 extra minutes of travel time between each class would add just 40 minutes on to the school day. Perhaps those paths between the classes would be surrounded by a variety of trees and bushes and flowers, attracting wildlife such as birds, small mammals, and insects, giving students a visual and acoustic break from institutional life, as well as a chance to breathe some fresh air.

Ideally, somewhere on the school’s campus there would be a natural playground, a place where students could interact with the environment. Natural playgrounds often feature things like boulders and logs to climb on, grassy hills to roll down, “streams” to float sticks and leaves in, shallow caves to hide in, planks and bridges to walk across, stumps to hop on, etc. There might also be benches in an outdoor classroom in the woods or near a garden, a place for a teacher to take a class so that students can find inspiration for writing poetry, creating art, or simply to work outside on a beautiful day. In addition, there would have to be time built into the school day for several short breaks, as I’ve suggested before.

Douglas Koehne, Director of K-12 Planning at KSQ Architects, is committed to incorporating the natural environment into his designs, and he often includes an outdoor classroom in his plans. However, he has found that modern concerns about safety and a reliance on conditioned systems to heat and cool schools have translated into more money spent on security and a reluctance to have windows that open. Mr. Koehne remarks, “The use of outdoor spaces is contingent not only upon the place being built; it also requires that the curriculum be set in place to take advantage of the space provided.”

Regardless of whether the school serves elementary, middle, or high school students, everyone can benefit from an educational environment that incorporates nature and provides meaningful experiences with the world around us. The school’s elements may vary based on the age of the students, but designing a school campus that is in harmony with the environment, while building a school schedule and curriculum which allows both students and staff members to go outside and learn in an environment that refreshes and rejuvenates them just makes good sense. Home design has changed over the years to reflect the way modern families use homes: for example, most homes built today have family rooms and large kitchens rather than formal living rooms or parlors, and sustainable eco-friendly materials are more popular. Similarly, we need to build or renovate our school buildings while we revamp our curriculum to incorporate new research on how students learn best. Large amounts of money are being spent on things like locks, fences, and metal detectors; perhaps we should spend that money on items that have a greater impact on the daily quality of students’ lives.

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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