Named the ‘Greenest School on Earth’ in 2012 by the U.S. Green Building Council, Green School is a pre-k through grade 12 international school sustainably built along a lush river in Bali, Indonesia. There, students are immersed in the natural environment, with bamboo classrooms that are open on all sides to the sights, sounds, and smells of the surrounding gardens and jungle. Experiential learning and creative arts are at the core of its teaching, with a ‘Green Studies’ curriculum infused into traditional subjects in order to fulfill its vision to 'empower and inspire students to be creative, innovative, green leaders.'
The open-walled classrooms at Green School were the backdrop for my graduate research into the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional benefits of nature immersion for students with learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD. In 2011, I spent a week observing in classrooms and interviewing parents, teachers, and students in an effort to understand whether this type of environment would be beneficial to students with learning differences.
What I witnessed exceeded my expectations. Students of all ages were passionately involved in learning about their world, inspired to do something about the environmental problems that the rest of us prefer to ignore. They really get that they are citizens of the planet, that they are intricately connected to the environment and that their actions matter. I talked to children with academic challenges who had transformed from shut-down learners into enthusiastic, motivated students who want to be at school every day.
A parent said to me:
The thing I was worried about with [our son] is he’s very easily distracted. He’s dyslexic. And being in a classroom with lots of things on the wall is terrible for him, because it’s sensory overload. I thought, ‘Well, what’s it going to be like being surrounded by nature? Is it going to be more distracting?’ Because you’ve got things going on around you all the time, people walking through, bees buzzing around, but it doesn’t seem to distract him the way the fluorescent lights and visual displays do... He doesn’t find it as distracting as being in a white box.
There are many factors that affect students at Green School, but after analyzing the interview data, I found that because of connection to nature, sense of community, and opportunity to learn, students have better behavior, are more motivated to learn, and have higher self-esteem at Green School. Related to connection to nature in particular, students learn by doing, are more resilient, have less distractibility and less stress, and feel calmer.
Now, I didn’t hook these kids up to brain scanners, so I can’t really know what’s happening on a neurological level, but the best explanation I could find in the existing literature is a phenomenon known as Attention Restoration Theory. It’s based on the idea that natural environments enhance mental functioning. According to researchers (Wells and Evans,2003):
Exposure to nature bolsters one’s cognitive resources by allowing neural inhibitory mechanisms to rest and recover from use. A person whose attention resources have been restored will be able to inhibit the urge to respond to potentially distracting stimuli, able to focus attention, and able to more effectively manage the challenges of daily life.
In other words, nature reduces stress. There are numerous studies showing a relationship between being outside and enhanced memory, attention, and cognitive ability. Also, research across multiple disciplines points to the physical, physiological, social, and emotional health benefits of outdoor play. Since students at Green School are immersed in nature all day every day, it offers the ideal laboratory for inquiring into the short- and long-term effects on these students’ lives. My research only scratches the surface of what we could learn.
Students with learning differences are often the hardest to teach and the hardest to reach. So if a place like Green School can keep these kids engaged and wanting to be at school, then clearly typical learners are going to get the same sort of benefits. Meanwhile, we continue to build schools that shut nature out - concrete boxes with windows that don't open.
When we talk about environmental education, we need to be talking about education in the environment – not just an occasional fieldtrip or fair-weather use of an outdoor classroom – but classrooms that separate the outside from the inside as little as possible, and school campuses that are self-sustaining laboratories for learning about our world.
Check out Green School’s website for some inspiration: www.greenschool.org