Can going green improve student performance?
It has long been known that nature offers one of the most reliable boosts to our mental and physical well-being but do schools tap into this? Can nature help children feel better? Can it improve their thinking and behaviour?
There is strong evidence between exposure to natural environments and recovery from physiological stress and mental fatigue so nature has a restorative function. Even a small dose of nature can work wonders and a micro-break viewing a green scene sustains attention.
Going outside and taking a walk through some trees does have positive effects on us but not every school is blessed with being located next to a wood or beautiful surroundings.
Get the picture
Berto (2005) found that just viewing pictures of natural scenes had a restorative effect on cognitive function. She found that people’s performance was soon restored by picture of trees, fields and hills, but this isn’t the case looking at pictures of streets, industrial units or complex geometric patterns.
It is possible to design urban and indoor environments (schools, hospitals, environments for old people, etc.) to be more ‘comfortable’ from a cognitive point of view and to manage natural environments in ways to encourage recovery from mental fatigue, taking that mental fatigue is a fact of life in a world overflowing with information.
Looking at pictures containing nature can settle us and alter our mood and behaviour. Van den Berg et al (2015) showed that when people are shown natural images their stress levels lower thanks to the activation of their parasympathetic nervous system – which controls certain rest functions. They recommend that keeping some photos of greenery around us might not be a bad idea.
In another study, University of Michigan students were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around a park and the other half took a walk down a city street. They all did the test again on their return and those who had walked among trees did almost 20% percent better than the first time but the city walkers did not consistently improve.
Vogel and Schwabe (2016) note how stress alters the way we learn which can have catastrophic effects on memory quality. Children find tests stressful so it makes sense to explore ways to support them and sharing nature pictures on the whiteboard before a test may help reduce their anxiety so they can perform better. Retrieval is mood dependent.
We know that ditching the classroom boosts children’s mental health but if we don’t have that luxury then bring nature indoors and make the classroom a greener space with pictures and plants; they have “value beyond aesthetics” , promote more positive feelings and can improve curriculum performance.