A Natural Learning Habitat

Written By

Finbarr O’Dempsey

21.9.2020 Thinking

What makes a natural learning habitat? A growing body of research supports what we instinctively know, that learning outdoors in nature is good for our well-being (1). It can improve our recovery from stress, cognitive function and creativity (2). Parallel research into how environments affect our capacity to learn shows the importance of air quality, lighting and acoustics (3). Can we bring these bodies of research together to improve the connection to nature across our learning environments and create more effective settings that prioritise learner well-being? 

We took part in a Design Pop-Up panel event at the end of August discussing these questions with Jill Stevenson from University of Stirling and Stephen Long and Diarmaid Lawlor of the Scottish Futures Trust. The current COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on learning environments and how to provide a safe and healthy environment for learners of all ages. While the current focus may be on ventilation levels, hand hygiene and safe social distancing, we zoomed out to consider the topic from a wider angle. 

Karen Nugent, our Head of Education design kicked off the discussion, acknowledging the limitations of designers’ influence over curriculum and pedagogy but identifying where we can make a difference. We need to get the basics right in terms of light, temperature, air quality and acoustics but we can also remove barriers between inside and outside, making it easier to move between the two. We need to acknowledge our natural human desire to adapt our environments, giving users a sense of control and the ability to change the environment to suit their needs. We can take clues from research into how being outdoors in nature reduces stress levels with a softer impact on our senses. Perhaps our indoor environments, rather than bombarding our senses, can mimic that gentle level of stimulation that a natural environment provides.

Bringing a higher education perspective, Jill Stevenson, in her role as Dean for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion and Head of Student Support Services has a focus on creating an accessible inclusive environment but more fundamentally, helping build a sense of community and well-being. Stirling has an enviable landscaped campus and Jill outlined how the university have amplified the sense of connection to and use of their outdoor environment in recent years. From using the campus landscape as a teaching and learning resource, teacher training that embraces forest and beach schools, to providing nature trails and walking routes that encourage staff and students to incorporate the external landscape in their daily rhythms. Recent capital investment has also prioritised connection to the outdoors. Campus Central, which transforms the centre of the campus and is currently on site, aims to provide a better connection to the outdoors with new views out, natural materials internally and a new outdoor social space. 

Stephen Long gave some context to the recent drive to increase outdoor learning and looked at the factors that push and pull educators. We need to get beyond the mantra of outside good, inside bad, as it leads to a polarization of views between outdoor evangelists and indoor resistors. We must first ask what are we trying to achieve, how can we do that and where will it happen? If the curriculum answers what we are trying to achieve, pedagogy provides the how and our learning environments provide the where. Rather than seeing these three aspects in isolation, can we create a bigger overlap? He cautioned avoiding complete alignment as a perfect fit might stifle creativity and invention, we need to leave room for adaption. Designers can get under the skin of the curriculum by following the review of Curriculum for Excellence the OECD are currently undertaking while the latest Learning Estate Strategy published in 2019 sets out the government’s vision for our future learning estate with the Learner firmly at the centre. 

Sharing a photograph by Henri Cartier Bresson, Diarmaid Lawlor challenged our view of outdoor space as something soft and green. We live in constructed geographies. Much of what we call natural isn’t and most landscapes are at least people adjusted, many man-made. When we speak of nature, we should draw out understandings about the patterns of how our world is made. Living systems are about niches, habitats, edges, connections and the patterns of living systems can be described as ecology. That ecology extends to the social and cultural systems we create, something Cartier-Bresson’s photograph illustrates well, a place people can occupy naturally. Part of the importance of learning outdoors is the sense of freedom in a space less regulated by teachers or parents. Rather than focusing on how natural a space may be indoors or outdoors we should instead ask what is the quality of the experience? Echoing, the new Learning Estate Strategy, we should start with the person, understand how children and young people map and occupy their environments through movement, exploration and finding a space to feel comfortable. If we are willing to share power and trust young people to co-design their learning environment, we can build around their social ecology and make natural habitats that respond to their needs. 

Questions from the audience drew out further aspects for discussion, why does outdoor learning drop off the agenda when children reach their teenage years in High School and how can we do better? Perhaps we need to design environments that respond to the different rhythms and energy levels we experience at different stages in our life, across the rhythm of a day, a season or a year. While observing green space can have benefits to our well-being, participation in that outdoor environment goes much further. It’s crucial we give young people the spaces they need to develop their identities, to apply the lessons from the classroom and understand things in their own way. As our focus shifts from play to work we start to reduce time spent outdoors but as jobs change and the climate crisis demands our focus it will become more important to build that connection to our environment.

Leadership and culture are critical in showing what’s possible. We can have fantastic external landscapes and resources, but they’re no use if we don’t use them. Equally we shouldn’t think only of beautiful green spaces as useful learning resources. Children can learn as much about our society and culture from a deteriorated landscape if we allow them to explore and ask questions.  

While there is no ideal learning environment to suit all, we can draw lessons from the idea of natural habitats that are varied and flexible enough to accommodate different users’ needs or our own changing needs to suit changing moods and activities. Creating looser fit environments allows us to adapt those spaces to align purpose and place. 

Perhaps part of the issue is how we conceive of nature as something other, something we go and look at or experience on a day out rather than as something we belong to. Modern urban life allows us to operate detached from the natural rhythms of the day or season perhaps to our detriment. If we put ourselves inside nature and think of ourselves as part of it, we begin to think about our environment and ecology differently. If we can heal that disconnection, we have a chance of healing the damage we’ve done.

As designers we need to serve users’ needs for comfort, stimulation and calm, but we might serve them best of all if empower them to adapt and transform the space themselves. If we trust young people to co-design and adapt their learning environment, we allow them to build their own natural habitats.”

1 The Role of Nature in Coping with Psycho-Physiological Stress: A Literature Review on Restorativeness, Rita Berto
2 Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings, Ruth Ann Atchley, David L Strayer, Paul Atchley
The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature, Marc G Berman,  John JonidesStephen Kaplan
The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition”, Gregory N.Bratmana Gretchen C.Dailyb Benjamin J.Levyc James J.Grossd
3 The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis, Dr Peter Barrett, Fay Davies, Yufan Zhang, Lucinda Barrett
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