During the COVID-19 pandemic, in an effort to prevent the transmission of the virus, classes at some universities in the UK and Europe were held outdoors. For some students, this meant learning not in a classroom, but in university gardens surrounded by chirping birds, blooming flowers, and freshly mown lawns. In addition to potentially curbing the spread of COVID-19, might studying in a natural environment have had other, unforeseen benefits for these learners? And could children, too, reap these benefits when they play and learn in nature?

Could exposure to nature benefit children?

Spending time in nature seems to help adults be more active and less stressed, improving overall wellbeing. But when it comes to children, what is the evidence?

Green spaces at school, in the neighbourhood, or at home can certainly provide children with opportunities for learning and development. Kids can learn to take risks through adventurous play, such as climbing trees. Nature can inspire curiosity – watching an ant carry something triple its size is impressive whatever your age. Children can be creative and gain a sense of mastery by testing whether a leaf boat they have made will float. And there are opportunities to be physically active and sociable when playing outdoors with friends. All these are invaluable skills, but they are not necessarily built only in a natural setting. I’m interested in finding out whether nature really offers distinct benefits to children’s learning and wellbeing.

In one study, for example, children living in greener areas were found to have better working memory – the ability to hold information in mind for a short time – and to be more attentive in school than those living in less green areas. The authors of the study concluded that green surroundings can reduce children’s exposure to air and noise pollution, increase their physical activity, and strengthen their immune systems, all of which are likely to improve certain aspects of their cognitive development.

“Robust research is needed to establish the long-term benefits of nature-based learning.”

In another study, children living in green areas or near beaches were shown to have fewer emotional problems, less conflict with others, and fewer ADHD symptoms relative to children who have less contact with green spaces. This may be due to the fact that green environments are associated with increased physical activity, reduced stress and depression, and lower levels of noise and air pollution. It may also be why children with ADHD are better able to concentrate after taking a walk in the park than in an urban setting.

A review of many studies showed that access to green spaces is linked not only to children’s cognitive development, but also to their overall wellbeing and health. The review author argues that being around nature at home and in school can reduce kids’ stress levels. Spending time in nature as a child may also be associated with better mental wellbeing during adulthood – though the underlying reasons are not yet clear, and more research is needed.

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Learning to notice and connect with nature

Could learning in nature benefit children?

Learning in a natural setting may promote concentration, self-discipline, and interest in learning materials. Green surroundings are often calmer and quieter than a classroom, making it easier for some children to explore their creativity and cooperate with one another. Nature-based learning is practised in forest schools, where children are taught in natural outdoor settings. While robust research is needed to establish the long-term benefits of nature-based learning, the initial evidence suggests one such benefit – namely that this approach can help children develop a lifelong appreciation for the environment.

“Intuitively, many of us feel that children thrive in nature, but only limited research is currently available to support that assumption.”

What might research reveal about the role of nature in learning?

Intuitively, many of us feel that children thrive in nature, but only limited research is currently available to support that assumption.

New studies are exploring questions about the specific benefits of learning and playing in nature, and their findings may influence policy and practice.  Do children growing up in rural areas feel a stronger connection to nature than urban children? What is the effect of nature on children growing up in the city compared with children living in the countryside? Could socioeconomic status be driving some of the links between nature and children’s wellbeing?

And can we actually establish a positive connection between nature and brain development and wellbeing in children? The initial evidence is promising, and suggests that moving learning outside during the pandemic may in fact have benefited students in more ways than one. Over the next few years, we’ll start finding some answers to these questions, which could help us understand how we can best enable children to thrive.

Explore our ‘Learning to thrive’ materials, which are full of ideas for engaging young people in discussions and activities about their relationship with, and connections to, the natural world around them.

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