Nav: Home

Lessons in nature boost classroom engagement afterward, researchers report

January 17, 2018

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Third-graders who spend a class session in a natural outdoor setting are more engaged and less distracted in their regular classroom afterward than when they remain indoors, scientists found in a new study.

This effect, reported in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, was large and occurred week after week, regardless of teacher expectations.

The study carefully matched lessons presented indoors and outdoors and controlled for teacher expectations, teaching style, time of day, week of semester and other factors that might have contributed to the differences observed.

"Teachers hoping to offer lessons in nature may hesitate for fear that the experience will leave kids bouncing off the walls and unable to concentrate afterward," said University of Illinois natural resources and environmental sciences professor Ming Kuo, who conducted the study with Matt Browning, a U. of I. professor of recreation, sport and tourism; and Milbert Penner, of the Cold Spring Environmental Studies Magnet School in Indianapolis, where the study was conducted. "We found just the opposite, however: Classroom engagement was significantly better for students after lessons in nature than after lessons in the classroom."

The study relied on teacher ratings and outside observer reports of student attention in the classroom. Independent observers tallied the number of times a teacher had to interrupt a lesson to redirect students' attention to the task at hand. Other observers who did not know whether students had been indoors or outdoors in a previous class evaluated student engagement based on photos taken in the classroom during classes. Students' own reports were not useful because the students ranked their own classroom engagement as high, regardless of the condition.

Previous studies have shown that students in a variety of contexts benefit from exposure to green space. For example, a study conducted in Massachusetts public schools found that standardized test scores were higher among students in classrooms in areas with more vegetation nearby. The correlations held when controlling for income and other factors that might influence test scores. Kuo collaborated on a study led by U. of I. crop sciences professor Andrea Faber Taylor that found that children with ADHD perform substantially better on neurocognitive tests of attention after taking a walk in a natural area than after walking in an outdoor setting with few natural features.

One theory proposes that experiencing nature induces "a state of 'soft fascination' that allows the mental muscle underlying our ability to deliberately direct attention to rest," the researchers wrote. This may enhance a person's ability to focus again later.

Being in nature or viewing it from a window also is associated with lower heart rates and stress hormones in children and adults, other studies have found. Since stress can interfere with learning, factors that reduce stress likely also enhance the educational experience, Kuo said.

"We found the teachers in our study were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long after the outdoor lesson than after an indoor lesson," Kuo said. "The students simply paid better attention after being in the outdoor class."

Kuo said she hopes the new findings will encourage teachers to experiment with outdoor lessons.

"They should try it a few times to get the hang of it and see what they notice. If it works like it did in our study, the benefits will be pretty obvious," she said. "If it still doesn't work after you've tried it a few times, I'd give up; teachers can tell what's not working for them."
Editor's notes:

To reach Ming Kuo, call 217-244-0393; email

The paper "Do lessons in nature boost subsequent classroom engagement? Refueling students in flight" is available online and from the U. of I. News Bureau. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02253

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Related Stress Articles:

Captive meerkats at risk of stress
Small groups of meerkats -- such as those commonly seen in zoos and safari parks -- are at greater risk of chronic stress, new research suggests.
Stress may protect -- at least in bacteria
Antibiotics harm bacteria and stress them. Trimethoprim, an antibiotic, inhibits the growth of the bacterium Escherichia coli and induces a stress response.
Some veggies each day keeps the stress blues away
Eating three to four servings of vegetables daily is associated with a lower incidence of psychological stress, new research by University of Sydney scholars reveals.
Prebiotics may help to cope with stress
Probiotics are well known to benefit digestive health, but prebiotics are less well understood.
Building stress-resistant memories
Though it's widely assumed that stress zaps a person's ability to recall memory, it doesn't have that effect when memory is tested immediately after a taxing event, and when subjects have engaged in a highly effective learning technique, a new study reports.
Stress during pregnancy
The environment the unborn child is exposed to inside the womb can have a major effect on her or his development and future health.
New insights into how the brain adapts to stress
New research led by the University of Bristol has found that genes in the brain that play a crucial role in behavioural adaptation to stressful challenges are controlled by epigenetic mechanisms.
Uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain
Knowing that there is a small chance of getting a painful electric shock can lead to significantly more stress than knowing that you will definitely be shocked.
Stress could help activate brown fat
Mild stress stimulates the activity and heat production by brown fat associated with raised cortisol, according to a study published today in Experimental Physiology.
Experiencing major stress makes some older adults better able to handle daily stress
Dealing with a major stressful event appears to make some older adults better able to cope with the ups and downs of day-to-day stress.

Related Stress Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Moving Forward
When the life you've built slips out of your grasp, you're often told it's best to move on. But is that true? Instead of forgetting the past, TED speakers describe how we can move forward with it. Guests include writers Nora McInerny and Suleika Jaouad, and human rights advocate Lindy Lou Isonhood.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#527 Honey I CRISPR'd the Kids
This week we're coming to you from Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. There, host Bethany Brookshire led a panel of three amazing guests to talk about the promise and perils of CRISPR, and what happens now that CRISPR babies have (maybe?) been born. Featuring science writer Tina Saey, molecular biologist Anne Simon, and bioethicist Alan Regenberg. A Nobel Prize winner argues banning CRISPR babies won’t work Geneticists push for a 5-year global ban on gene-edited babies A CRISPR spin-off causes unintended typos in DNA News of the first gene-edited babies ignited a firestorm The researcher who created CRISPR twins defends...