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August 27, 2020

Students get a boost from outdoor connections

  • Designers and educators need to consider the potential of nature integration as a resource for learning.


    Do experiences with nature promote learning? Until recently, claims and anecdotal observations exceeded evidence. But the field has advanced with hundreds of studies that offer converging evidence of the cause-and-effect relationship between nature and learning.

    Research by educators, psychologists and social scientists alike demonstrates that experiences of nature boost academic learning, environmental stewardship and child development. Additional benefits range from physical fitness to stress reduction and emotional resilience, making outdoor connections an important design consideration for schools and families during the unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “In academic contexts, nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction,” said Ming Kuo, Ph.D. of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Landscape and Human Health Laboratory and lead researcher for multiple studies on the impact of nature on learning.

    Photo by Benjamin Benschneider [enlarge]
    The library at Blakely Elementary School features views into the adjacent forest, as well as biophilic design elements like tree columns and a timber reading “nest” that activate children’s imagination and provide a break from classroom learning.

    Nature helps children in key areas driving academic performance: restoring attention, relieving stress, developing self-discipline and fostering creativity. Quantitative metrics include higher standardized test scores and graduation rates within experiments spanning a wide range of instructional approaches.

    The average American child spends more time watching screens (1,200 hours per year) than in school (900 hours per year). With many Puget Sound area schools opening in a distance learning model this fall, the need to balance expanded on-screen time with outdoor exploration is of heightened importance, and these outdoor resources add programmatic and operational resilience as future re-occupation of learning facilities occurs.

    How can we strengthen outdoor learning opportunities and bring natural relationships into the built environment? Three case studies offer replicable strategies for schools from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

    Engaging senses

    Located on a wooded site on Bainbridge Island, Blakely Elementary School is designed to bring nature into the learning experience through diverse outdoor environments and biophilic strategies. Completed in fall 2019, the replacement pre-K-4 school maximizes views from classrooms and the library toward an outdoor learning courtyard and forest beyond to reinforce connection to nature throughout the daily experience. Significant open area is restored to a native forest condition with stormwater management to protect wetlands on the site and the adjacent IslandWood environmental education campus.

    The courtyard is designed to support STEAM curriculum and features activity zones that immerse students in nature, hands-on learning and quiet study. Outdoor play areas encourage exploratory play with natural materials and forms. Research suggests that kids are more engaged in learning not only during outdoor activities but also upon returning to their classroom afterward — even if the subject they return to is not nature-related.

    Image courtesy of Mithun [enlarge]
    Integration of the upper school expansion on The Bush School’s urban campus amplifies the connection between students and larger ecological systems of the city.

    Biophilic design elements are infused within the indoor experience to extend connectivity with the site. Stair guardrails are inspired by tree rings, digitally abstracted and modified to ensure structural integrity once the pattern is laser-cut from steel panels. Tree columns provide structural support along the primary circulation spine of the school, from the exterior front entry to the library at the rear.

    “When we think of our school as inspired by the forest, the library is certainly at the top with a full view of learning going on all around us while we curl up in ‘The Nest’ to share a story,” explained Blakely library media specialist Kathleen Pool. “It is a very natural place to listen, to use the imagination and to wonder. It is as if the room says ‘come and read...’ and the children do.”

    Building environmental stewards

    Not all schools have immediate access to forests and wetlands, but even the most urban settings afford opportunities to connect with the natural world.

    Located in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood, the densely programmed Northwest School 401 E. Pike building features a rooftop sports field, learning garden, solar thermal collection panels and “sky lab” with views across downtown, changing weather patterns and the urban tree canopy. These settings extend hands-on science exploration beyond the classroom, and invite students in grades 6-12 to engage with the school’s energy performance and the city fabric beyond.

    Another urban campus, the Bush School is aiming to foster stewardship through the integration of natural materials and elements in its upper school expansion. Observation and teaching porches provide opportunities for meaningful connection with the natural and urban environment as part of the learning process. Integrated stormwater strategies on display serve as keen reminders of the watershed location of this campus and its role in habitat protection.

    Bush School will be the first Salmon Safe certified school in this region. Through this program, students and staff will play an active role in protecting water quality and salmon habitat, reinforcing connections between classroom learning and community ecological health. Through environmental education and stewardship programs like this, schools are able to leverage their immediate natural surroundings as learning tools, and also to bridge to larger regional ecological systems.

    Accelerating child development

    After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana Children’s Museum re-envisioned its mission to holistically address the health and development of children in a state that consistently ranked among the worst in the nation for education outcomes. The health and development benefits of intentionally connecting children with nature led the museum to relocate from an indoor-focused experience in New Orleans’ Warehouse District to a new campus encircling a lagoon in the 1,300-acre City Park.

    The new campus presents a transformative model for children’s museums, one that weaves together indoor and outdoor learning opportunities along with literacy, parenting, early childhood research and environmental education activities to create a holistic and supportive environment for children and their families.

    A favorite among new interactive exhibits is the mighty Mississippi, which follows the river’s journey from its headwaters in Minnesota all the way to the Port of New Orleans and Gulf of Mexico. Reinforcing connections between indoor and outdoor play experiences, Mithun’s integrated design team extended the experience outside with a child-operable sluice gate that releases water flow into a shallow scrim and ends where kids can jump between small mounds surrounded by marsh plantings. Hands-on learning continues in edible and sensory gardens, music exhibits and a floating classroom.

    Photo by Kevin Barraco [enlarge]
    At Louisiana Children’s Museum, interior program areas open onto a courtyard and diverse outdoor activity areas that engage kids in hands-on exploration of natural systems among live oaks and at the lagoon edge.

    By providing multi-sensory environments that empower children to make their own choices, and enable and reflect children’s work and ideas, the museum encourages children and families to engage more deeply. As a result, staff have noted that interaction across multi-generational families has increased. Children remain engaged longer in the experiences — honing skills like perseverance, self-efficacy, resilience and collaboration that are essential to 21st century learning and life.

    The groundbreaking project has accelerated new investments in early childhood development in New Orleans and statewide, an exciting change from Louisiana’s historical ranking among the lowest in childhood development benchmarks. Continued momentum is anticipated. The Louisiana Department of Education initiated discussions with Louisiana Children’s Museum about two meaningful possibilities: a water management curriculum tied to the new science curriculum being shared by four states, and an early learning/school readiness initiative.

    Resilient schools

    Educational institutions that emphasize nature connections, even in the tightest of urban conditions, amplify the learning potential of their curricula and cultivate resilient learners with a greater capacity to meet challenges and thrive in adverse situations. Given the myriad cognitive, leadership and developmental benefits of nature experiences, it’s imperative that designers and educators consider the full potential of nature integration as a resource for learning. Amidst the realities of current online learning models and societal stressors, access to nature is a vital element in fulfilling the educational promise to current and future generations of learners.

    Brendan Connolly is a partner and education practice leader at Mithun.

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