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Smarter by nature: Does research suggest that young brains can be nurtured by nature? If so, why hasn’t this influenced school curriculum and pedagogy?

Written by: Gemma Goldenberg
6 min read

My first teaching job was at an inner-city primary school with a tarmac playground on the rooftop because there wasn’t enough space at ground level. Despite the lack of nature on site, it felt counterintuitive to persuade children to sit quietly indoors at a table for most of the day, while they seemed more naturally compelled to run, jump and chatter their way through their waking hours.

While as early humans our brains developed outdoors, today we seem to think that school is a building, and that learning is primarily an indoor pursuit. Nursery and Reception children typically have frequent access to outdoor spaces but this is often deemed unnecessary or counterproductive after children leave the foundation stage. Even prior to COVID-19 restrictions, a survey revealed that 12 per cent of children in the UK had not been in a natural outdoor environment such as a park, forest or beach for over a year, with children from ethnic minorities and lower income households even less likely to visit natural environments (Hunt et al., 2016).

Prioritising outdoor time in nature for all ages can be costly, and sometimes perceived as a radical commitment for a school to make. Reliable information about its likely impact, and understanding the mechanisms behind its effects, will enable educators to make informed decisions about how best to implement outdoor learning in order to reap the maximum benefits and avoid costly gimmicks. Some critics, for example, claim that the rapid expansion of forest school in the UK is under-theorised and has been commodified, with some teachers emulating Scandinavian practices without deeper understanding of their underpinning philosophies, which don’t translate easily to the UK context (Leather, 2018).

Existing research around the impact of nature on children is far from conclusive. There are many studies that evidence exciting links, such as children attending schools with more surrounding green space gaining better results on standardised maths and reading tests (Leung et al., 2019), and the finding that children who have more access to nature are better able to manage adversity and stressful life events (Corraliza et al., 2012; Feda et al., 2015; Wells and Evans, 2003). However, these studies are based on correlations. Therefore, any number of other factors might have influenced the observed links. While we can use correlational data to add to our broad understanding, it may not be robust or detailed enough to inform practice and pedagogy.

Despite these issues, a growing body of recent research has linked nature exposure to a wide range of benefits, including improved self-regulation (Weeland et al., 2019), socio-emotional development (Mygind et al., 2020) and higher levels of academic attainment (Khan et al., 2019).

One area that I found particularly salient was that nature might improve aspects of brain functioning, such as working memory and attention. For seven- to 12-year-olds with ADHD, a walk in the park was found to significantly affect scores on an attentional task. The improvements in attention were comparable to the peak effects of typical ADHD medications (Faber Taylor and Kuo, 2009).

A correlational study (Ulset et al., 2017) of over 560 pre-school children tested their attention skills over the course of four years and analysed this data alongside information about how many hours they spent outdoors at pre-school. Outdoor hours were significantly negatively correlated with inattention and hyperactivity symptoms at ages four, five and six, and positively associated with digit span scores (a test of attention and working memory whereby children repeat back a sequence of digits that increases in length) at ages five, six and seven.

These results suggest that there may be cognitive benefits to increasing nature access. However, these studies tend to use specific measures to quantify cognitive gains, usually in a one-to-one context with a researcher. They don’t relate closely to the social, complex and multifaceted learning that happens in school. Children may be better able to remember a specific sequence of numbers in the lab after a walk in nature, but does that also mean that they will be more likely to grasp a new concept in a science lesson?

Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed my own research plans to take groups of school children out into nature, the lockdowns piqued my interest into whether indirect access to nature – via images and videos – could also have a benefit. Many children were unable to physically access green spaces during lockdown, and I was curious as to whether they could still reap its benefits without leaving home. So, I set up a laboratory study at the Baby Development Lab at the University of East London. A parent and child (aged from five months to five years old) wore ECG equipment to monitor their heart rate whilst watching a five-minute video of either an urban or a natural environment in a ‘pod’ in the lab, which had television screens at child height on each of the walls. Following this, the child would take part in a short attention task, which involved watching a slideshow of detailed images on an eye-tracking device. After a short break, they then repeated the procedure, watching the alternative video.

While this study is still ongoing, and thus the results are yet to be peer-reviewed and published, preliminary data shows that, on average, children’s physiological stress levels were lower during the natural environment footage, and that they paid attention for longer during the attention task following the nature video. The lack of a baseline attention measure means that it’s not possible at this stage to determine whether these results point towards urban environments depleting attentional capacity or natural environments enhancing it.

In the meantime, I am soon to begin a more naturalistic school-based study in the Early Years classes of several schools in Newham, East London. Aiming to address the methodological issues mentioned above, the study will utilise wearable devices for children, comprising head-mounted cameras, microphones and heart rate monitors. These will enable micro-analysis of objective data, exploring the impact of outdoor time on children’s learning and attention, stress, self-regulation and language development. With activities and resources closely matched between indoor and outdoor settings, the aim is to isolate the specific impact of the outdoor environment. I will also investigate whether children have differential susceptibility to their learning environment. Some existing research suggests that outdoor time may be most beneficial for vulnerable learners such as those from challenging backgrounds (McArdle et al., 2013), those who are perceived to be underachieving (Maynard et al., 2013) and those with challenging behaviour (Roe and Aspinall, 2011). Could more time outside help to narrow the disadvantage gap?

At this stage, we don’t know enough about how and why outdoor time in nature is important for all children to access. Increasingly, research suggests that there are multiple benefits of outdoor time; we just need more work carried out to unpick the mechanisms behind this and to robustly evidence causation. I would urge practitioners to conduct their own informal research and observe the effects of nature access, whether it has an impact and whether it affects some children more than others.

A lack of time available when delivering a crammed curriculum is often cited as a barrier to outdoor learning. But many learning activities can be successfully transferred outside, particularly if schools are willing to invest in covering areas so that they can be used in wet weather. The box below details some ways in which outdoor time and nature exposure can be built into your existing daily routine without the need for extra time or expensive resources.

This figure shows a box listing eight bullet points. These are: "Have story time/independent reading outdoors", "Take the register outside", "Open window blinds and position seating to allow for green views where possible", "Spend circle time outside", "Bring plants into the classroom", "Allow children to eat lunch/fruit snacks outdoors", "Play a slideshow of nature images during transition times/classroom routines, e.g. register, lining-up time", and "Incorporate a regular nature walk and use it to cover aspects of the curriculum, e.g. identifying/caring for plants, observing weather/seasonal changes, exploring senses, singing".


Gemma posts updates on her research on Instagram at @phd_and_three

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    Author(s): Bill Lucas