Children learn better after they are taken outdoors for lessons in nature, according to new research.
They are much more interested and attentive, allowing teachers to instruct uninterrupted for almost twice as long during subsequent indoor schoolwork.
Dubbed the ‘nature effect’, it offers an inexpensive and convenient way to improve pupil engagement, a major factor in academic achievement. They said the results were “striking”, with the number of times a teacher had to redirect a child’s attention to their work roughly halved immediately afterwards.
Scientists have known for a while that natural outdoor environments can have a variety of benefits.
Physical activity increases among people exposed to parks, while levels of stress are reduced. They are more likely to feel rejuvenated and invigorated.
In children, studies have shown even a view of greenery through a classroom window could have positive effects on attention.
US research reported test scores improved by up to a quarter in classrooms with ample natural light.
Trials have also found plants in classrooms can lead to improvements in spelling, maths and science of between 10 and 14 percent.
But many teachers may be reluctant to hold a lesson outdoors, as they might worry it could overexcite the children, making it difficult for them to concentrate on their schoolwork back in the classroom.
But after years of experience in the field, psychologist Professor Ming Kuo believed the reverse would happen and set out to investigate the idea.
She said: “We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting.
“If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?”
Prof Kuo founded the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1993 to look into the relationship between people and the physical environment.
She tested her idea on nine to ten year olds in a school in the Midwestern United States, over a period of ten weeks, across ten different subjects.
An experienced teacher held one lesson a week outdoors and a similar one in her regular classroom while another, more sceptical colleague did the same. The outdoor ‘classroom’ was a grassy spot just outside the school, in view of a wooded area.
Prof Kuo and colleagues found the children were more engaged following the outdoor lessons.
Far from being overexcited and inattentive immediately afterwards, they were significantly more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork.
The number of times the teacher had to redirect a student’s attention to their work was roughly halved.
The nature lessons involved a five minute walk from the classroom out to the outdoor area with some nearby trees for a 30 minute instructional period, followed by a walk back and a five minute break.
The classroom lesson involved no walking, and a forty minute instructional period followed by a five minute break.
Prof Kuo said: “The nature advantage was substantial. Normally, these redirects occur roughly once every 3.5 minutes of instruction.
“After a lesson in nature, classroom engagement is such that teachers are able to teach for 6.5 minutes, on average, without interruption.”
She added: “Our teachers were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long at a time after the outdoor lesson, and we saw the nature effect with our sceptical teacher as well.”
After each outdoor or indoor lesson, the researchers measured engagement, counting the number of times children’s attention had to be redirected, using phrases such as “sit down” and “you need to be working”.
Prof Kuo’s team also asked an outside observer to look at photos taken of the class and score the engagement level without being told whether they were taken after an indoor or outdoor lesson. The teachers also scored engagement.
The researchers plan to do further work to see if the technique can work in other schools and for less experienced teachers.
If so, regular outdoor lessons could be an inexpensive and convenient way for schools to enhance student engagement and performance.
Added Prof Kuo: “We are excited to discover a way to teach students and refresh their minds for the next lesson at the same time. Teachers can have their cake and eat it too.”