Lessons in nature boost classroom engagement afterward, researchers report

Third-graders who spend a class session in a natural outdoor setting are more engaged and less distracted in their regular classroom afterward than when they remain indoors, scientists found in a new study.

This effect, reported in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, was large and occurred week after week, regardless of teacher expectations.

The study carefully matched lessons presented indoors and outdoors and controlled for teacher expectations, teaching style, time of day, week of semester and other factors that might have contributed to the differences observed.

“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,” said University of Illinois natural resources and environmental sciences professor Ming Kuo, who conducted the study with Matt Browning, a U. of I. professor of recreation, sport and tourism; and Milbert Penner, of the Cold Spring Environmental Studies Magnet School in Indianapolis, where the study was conducted. “We found just the opposite, however: Classroom engagement was significantly better for students after lessons in nature than after lessons in the classroom.”

The study relied on teacher ratings and outside observer reports of student attention in the classroom. Independent observers tallied the number of times a teacher had to interrupt a lesson to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand. Other observers who did not know whether students had been indoors or outdoors in a previous class evaluated student engagement based on photos taken in the classroom during classes. Students’ own reports were not useful because the students ranked their own classroom engagement as high, regardless of the condition.

Previous studies have shown that students in a variety of contexts benefit from exposure to green space. For example, a study conducted in Massachusetts public schools found that standardized test scores were higher among students in classrooms in areas with more vegetation nearby. The correlations held when controlling for income and other factors that might influence test scores. Kuo collaborated on a study led by U. of I. crop sciences professor Andrea Faber Taylor that found that children with ADHD perform substantially better on neurocognitive tests of attention after taking a walk in a natural area than after walking in an outdoor setting with few natural features.

One theory proposes that experiencing nature induces “a state of ‘soft fascination’ that allows the mental muscle underlying our ability to deliberately direct attention to rest,” the researchers wrote. This may enhance a person’s ability to focus again later.

Being in nature or viewing it from a window also is associated with lower heart rates and stress hormones in children and adults, other studies have found. Since stress can interfere with learning, factors that reduce stress likely also enhance the educational experience, Kuo said.

“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,” Kuo said. “The students simply paid better attention after being in the outdoor class.”

Kuo said she hopes the new findings will encourage teachers to experiment with outdoor lessons.

“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,” she said. “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.”

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