Students Learn Better with Views of Trees
New York: What if what is outside a school’s windows is as critical to learning as what’s inside the building? A fascinating new study of high school students in central Illinois found that students with a view of trees were able to recover their ability to pay attention and bounce back from stress more rapidly than those who looked out on a parking lot or had no windows. The researchers, William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Dongying Li, a PhD student there, reported their findings in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.
Sullivan and Li argue that “context impacts learning. It is well-documented, for instance, that physical characteristics of school environments, such as lighting, noise, indoor air quality and thermal comfort, building age and conditions all impact learning.” However, schools’ surrounding landscapes have been too long overlooked for their impact on learning, and it’s time to understand what campus greenery — or lack thereof — means for student performance.
Looking at the effect of views of nature on both cognition and stress recovery, they test two theories: attention restoration theory and stress reduction theory. According to their report, attention restoration theory posits that “people use voluntary control to inhibit distractions and remain focused, and this capacity to remain focused fatigues over time.” But the theory also contends that even just a short period of time in nature (10 minutes or so) can renew our cognitive capacity to pay attention. Stress reduction theory looks at how nature supports psychological and physiological recovery, including lower blood pressure and levels of stress hormones.
Sullivan and Li say they found a causal relationship: “green views produced better attentional functioning and stress recovery.” Furthermore, viewing nature helps both cognition and stress recovery, but through separate mental pathways. In other words, nature’s ability to help us recover our ability to pay attention has nothing to do with whether we are stressed out or not, but nature, separately, also helps us recover from stress.
What’s important for designers, school principals, and educational policymakers is that this is yet another promising study that points to the benefits of exposure to nature for school students. Sullivan and Li argue that new schools, which are often placed at the “urban-rural fringe” need to be sited where there are a lot of existing trees, and, if that’s not possible, trees and shrubs need to be added. New schools should also be designed so they maximize views of trees and greenery from the inside; and existing schools retrofitted to improve the connection to nature. As Sullivan and Li argue, “architects should work to ensure every classroom has views of green space. Landscape architects should consider the location of classrooms, cafeteria, and hallway windows in the development of their campus design.”