It’s time to take nature as a resource for learning seriously, research review finds

by Freya Lucas

March 15

A research analysis conducted in the United States, examining hundreds of previous studies, has unequivocally found that spending time in nature boosts children’s academic achievement and healthy development.

 

Ming Kuo, Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois and lead author on the Frontiers in Psychology study, says she expected the critical review to lead to more questions than answers. Instead, Dr Kuo said, all signs pointed to the same outcome:

“It is time to take nature seriously as a resource for learning,” she says. “In fact, the trend of increasing indoor instruction may be doing more harm than good.”

Dr Kuo and others involved in the review found eight key ways that nature boosts learning, finding strong evidence that time in nature has a rejuvenating effect on attention; relieves stress; boosts self-discipline; increases physical activity and fitness; and, promotes student self-motivation, enjoyment, and engagement, all of which have been shown to improve learning.

 

Authors also found that nature creates a calmer, quieter, and safer setting for learning; fosters warmer, more co-operative relations among children; and, affords more creative, more exploratory forms of play.

 

While none of these effects are entirely new, the researchers said, the analysis represents the first time all of the lines of evidence have been pulled together.

Collectively, the findings make a much stronger case for the importance of time in nature. They also provide an explanation for something that has been puzzling scientists in the field – why even small doses of nature sometimes have surprisingly large effects.

Key to utilising the findings, said the authors, is seeing how these effects work together, in individual children and in ECEC environments.

 

“If something not only makes a child more attentive, but also less stressed and more interested, then you can see how it could have a large effect on their learning. Furthermore, if you put a bunch of children in a classroom and they’re all attentive, absorbed, and interested, that sounds like a different classroom than one where they’re all stressed, agitated, not getting along, etc.,” said Michael Barnes, co-author on the study. “So you can start to see how these large effects could make sense.”

 

These effects extend beyond academic achievement, according to the review. Time in nature appears to foster personal skills and qualities important for future success, and may play a critical role in helping children grow up to be environmental stewards.

 

“Report after report – from independent observers as well as participants themselves – indicate beneficial shifts in perseverance, problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and resilience. All of these line up with skills we know are important for children’s ability to thrive in the 21st century,” said Catherine Jordan, co-author on the study.

 

The analysis suggests multiple benefits of greening educational environments and incorporating nature-based instruction in ECEC settings and schools.

 

“Even small exposures to nature are beneficial. If you’re indoors, having a view of your yard as opposed to facing the wall, that makes a difference. At the same time, more is better. That’s one of the things that gives us more confidence that we’re seeing a real cause-and-effect relationship,” Dr Kuo said. “The bigger the dose of nature we give a person, the bigger the effect we see in them.”

 

The article, Do experiences with nature promote learning? Converging evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship, is published in Frontiers in Psychology and may be accessed here.

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