By Jazmin Mendez and Parul Vyas
Pause for a moment and imagine yourself in a lush forest, hearing the gentle sound of water as it flows down the stream. Does this thought provoke a sense of calm and happiness? If the answer is yes, you are like most of us. Research shows there are important positive correlations between human wellbeing and time spent outdoors. With more than half of the world’s population now living in urban areas, people are spending less time in nature. Many of us have replaced this outdoor time with longer hours indoors in front of screens. Today, many children can no longer play freely in nature due to rapid urbanization, and there are fewer natural areas easily accessible to them. Moreover, children most likely to benefit from an outdoor play and learning environment are less likely to have access to one. The situation has worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic, as days spent on screens have become a new normal for early learners, and with many students taking at least a portion of their classes online.
Nature impacts the wellbeing and development in the early childhood years
Studies developed by the American Institutes for Research show that schools using outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education offer significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Learners in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27%. Natural elements added to the outdoor environment increase children’s spatial-cognitive awareness, physical competence and skills, and socialization. Time spent in green spaces, including parks, play areas, and gardens also reduces stress and mental fatigue. Additionally, early experiences with the natural world are positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder.
Natural design elements
As schools across North America work to reopen safely, there is an opportunity to rethink early childhood environments and expand the classroom environment to the outdoors in a meaningful way.
Research indicates that an outdoor learning and play environment with diverse natural elements advances and enriches all the domains relevant to the development, health, and well-being of young children and direct, ongoing experience of nature in relatively familiar settings remains a vital source for children’s physical, emotional, and intellectual development.
Recent research shows the many benefits that direct interaction with nature can have for the children’s wellbeing. Specific design characteristics from the great outdoors can help young children thrive in their learning environments:
- Play-based learning and student agency
In early childhood, play and learning are part of children’s everyday lives. At the same time, we know outdoor learning environments that provide a wide range of comfortable, accessible, safe, and diverse settings will facilitate richer playing and learning opportunities for children. Ideally, these environments will allow children to explore and discover freely but also should give them the ability to modify their environment: children who spend time playing outside are more likely to take risks, seek out adventure, develop self-confidence and respect the value of nature.
There are several ways we can include these ideas in the design of early childhood schools. We can provide space and elements that invite wildlife like native plants, rock piles, bird baths, and bird feeders; and offer outdoors zones for children to grow their own plants and vegetables. There is also value in offering a variety of gardens: herb gardens, flower gardens, rock gardens, and alphabet gardens.
We can include elements that draw attention to environmental features like green roofs, photovoltaic panels, thermometers, rainwater harvesting elements, grey water recycling, and wind turbines.
We can also incorporate components that encourage direct interaction with the natural environment like accessible sources of water and soil, and natural elements that they can manipulate such as rocks, shells, pinecones, or wood.
These interactive, natural features engage children, while fostering commitment and respect the environment and providing them with opportunities to practice independence.
- Sensory learning
Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development states that children move through different stages of mental development: for the young child, learning is experienced as sensory absorption. According to his research, during the early stages of cognitive development, perception conducts thought.
Learning environments designed to provide a wide variety of colorful natural elements, textures, smells, temperatures and sounds will stimulate the early learner’s senses. Examples of design features to put these ideas into practice are the use of natural tactile finishes with different temperatures to the touch in the interior design like stone or wood on walls. Texture can be used to provide variety, add interest, and create contrast in the interior design but also can be a powerful tool for the landscape design by using fine or coarse surfaces for plants or materials. Everything has a texture: plant foliage, flowers, bark, and the overall branching pattern. Water feature sounds can provide a tranquil background and plants that attract birds can also be simple ways to add the sounds of nature to early learning outdoor environments.
- Sense of place and the importance of local wildlife
Our connection to a place comes from a relationship — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — to a specific geographic area.
Piaget’s research shows that children begin developing their sense of place during early childhood as they explore and manipulate materials in their environment to understand the world around them. Outdoor play areas filled with native plants and wildlife provide habitats for native species and opportunities for children to develop appreciation and emotional connection with their context while reinforcing the message of sustainability.
A good example of efforts to restore this connection with the natural world is the “Pocket Prairie” initiative created in urban areas like Houston. According to Jaime Gonzalez, community education director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, pocket prairies are small pieces of land bursting with native grasses and wildflowers that are found on the prairie: one of the most humble, resilient and hard-working habitats that exist.
Pocket prairies, wild landscapes, migration patterns, and gardens with interactive components create the opportunity for education and exploration. Spatial connections between the school with the surrounding neighborhood and greater community can help children recognize where they are located within the larger context.
Jazmin Mendez is a designer based in Stantec’s Houston office. She is dedicated to creating innovative solutions for a broad range of early childhood, K-12, and higher education projects.
Parul Vyas is a principal based in Stantec’s Houston office. She partners with educators, facility planners, and community leaders to create dynamic learning environments for future generations.