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Lessons in nature: What is the impact on children’s engagement during subsequent indoor lessons?

Written By: Gemma Goldenberg
5 min read
Original research by:

Kuo M, Browning MH and Penner ML (2018) Do lessons in nature boost subsequent classroom engagement? Refueling students in flight. Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2253) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02253


This research paper investigates what happens to pupil focus and behaviour in the classroom following an outdoor lesson in nature. I chose it because there is an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that outdoor learning has a wide range of benefits for pupils, yet the vast majority of learning in UK schools still happens indoors.

One possible reason for this is that teachers are concerned that outdoor learning will make children more over-excited and disruptive during subsequent lessons. This was the first study to directly examine the aftereffects of lessons in nature on classroom engagement.


What is the research underpinning the study?

Previous research suggests that lessons in nature have a wide range of benefits, including helping pupils to retain more information (Fagerstrom and Blom, 2012), improving attention, reducing stress and improving physical health (Chawla, 2015; Kuo, 2015). Positive experiences in nature during childhood are also thought to foster pro-environmental behaviour in adulthood, helping the next generation to better protect their planet in the future (Monroe, 2003).

‘Attention Restoration Theory’ (Kaplan, 1995) suggests that unlike urban environments, natural settings are gently absorbing and do not require effortful directed attention to process. Therefore, they allow our capacity for directed attention to rest and replenish. This theory is supported by studies demonstrating greater attention restoration effects after viewing greenery, instead of barren schoolyards, through classroom windows (Li and Sullivan, 2016) and after walking in green compared to less green settings (Faber-Taylor and Kuo, 2009).


How did they conduct the research?

The study took place in the USA, at a school serving a predominantly disadvantaged population. It involved two teachers and groups of nine to 10-year old students. Each teacher taught a pair of 40-minute lessons on the same topic, for example, on ‘pollution’. One of these lessons was taught indoors and one was taught outside in nature. The lessons in each pair were matched in terms of the resources used and teaching style. They were also taught at the same time of day and during the same week of the school term. Both lessons within the pair were taught to the same students by the same teacher.

Following the 40-minute lesson, there was a five minute break. Following this, there was an observation period of 20 minutes to measure classroom engagement during the subsequent lesson. This experiment was repeated 10 times across different lesson topics and weeks. Figure 1 illustrates how this was organised.

Figure 1: Lessons in nature experiment. Diagram from Kuo, Browning and Penner (2018). Reproduced under Creative Commons.

Classroom engagement was assessed using four measures:

  1. Teacher ratings: at the end of each 20-minute observation period, teachers rated the engagement of the class as a whole using a scale that ranged from much worse than usual to much better than usual.
  2. Student ratings: at the end of each 20-minute period, students rated how much of the lesson people had been engaged for. They rated their own engagement, that of the students sitting nearest to them, and that of the whole class using a five-point scale which ranged from being engaged for none of the time to the whole time.
  3. The number of ‘redirects’: each time the teacher stopped instruction to correct a student’s behaviour or redirect attention e.g. ‘I’m waiting…’ or ‘You should be working’, was counted and tallied by an observer. To reduce bias, the observer did not know whether the previous lesson had been taught indoors or outdoors.
  4. Independent photo ratings: 10 wide angled photos were taken of the class during each 20-minute observation period (400 photos in total). These were rated by an independent observer who familiarised herself with the entire collection of photos to gain an impression of the ‘usual’ engagement level of the class and then used the same scale as in the teacher ratings, to rate each observation period.


What were the key findings?

  • Lessons in nature showed an advantage in subsequent classroom engagement for four out of the five measures (all except the student ratings.)
  • The greatest effect was seen in the number of teacher redirects, which was significantly lower during lessons following outdoor learning. The number of redirects after a lesson in nature was almost half that of redirects after a classroom lesson.
  • Better engagement following lessons in nature held true across different teachers and across the initial and final five weeks of lessons. This consistency suggests that the advantage of learning in nature was not merely due to the novelty of the outdoor setting.


Were there any limitations to the study?

Students’ self-reported engagement levels were found to be unreliable as they consistently rated themselves highly and with very little variance. This data was subsequently not included in further analysis.


Impact on practice

What questions does the research raise for teachers? 

  • Are there opportunities for more learning to take place outdoors in nature?
  • What types of learning are best suited to the outdoors?
  • To what extent do lessons in nature enhance the learning of material in those outdoor lessons, and in subsequent indoor lessons?
  • Would more breaks, taken in nature, lead to better engagement during lesson time?
  • If using student self-assessment, what measures can be taken to assess whether this data is useful and reliable?


What are the limitations of this study for teachers’ practice? 

The taught lessons in this study were taken from an environmental education lesson guide (project learning tree). Therefore, the lesson topics were, to some degree, related to the outdoor natural setting which may have enhanced nature’s beneficial effect. It is unclear whether the same effects would be seen for lessons unrelated to nature e.g. history, mathematics etc taught in outdoor settings.

As this is a single study and the number of participants was small, caution should be taken when generalising its results. Whilst the study might raise ideas and questions worth exploring, evidence from a broader range of sources would be beneficial for evidence-informed changes to practice.


Want to know more?

Chawla L (2015) Benefits of nature contact for children. Journal of Planning Literature (30): 433–452. 

Faber-Taylor A and Kuo FE (2009) Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park. Journal of Attention Disorders (12): 402–409. 

Fägerstam E and Blom J (2012) Learning biology and mathematics outdoors: Effects and attitudes in a Swedish high school context. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning 13 (56–75). 

Kaplan S (1995) The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15: 169–182. 

Kuo FE (2015) How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology 6:1093. 

Li D and Sullivan WC (2016) Impact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and mental fatigue. Landscape and Urban Planning 148: 149–158. 

Monroe MC (2003) Two avenues for encouraging conservation behaviors. Research in Human Ecology 10: 113–125.

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