Bringing the Outdoors Indoors: Setting Up Your Classroom Environment to Maximize Students' and Teachers' Health and Well-Being

Fall 2019

By Josie Bahedry

I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in tune once more.—John Burroughs

As every student and educator knows well, summertime is an excellent occasion to reap the health benefits of the great outdoors. We look forward every year to the abundant opportunities to engage with the natural world—on vacation and in summer camps—that summer brings. But when the school year inevitably begins again, we leave all that healthy fresh air, restorative sunlight, and calming green environment behind. In the enclosed spaces of our school buildings, we are often far removed from this vital and innate connection with nature that Edward O. Wilson defined as “biophilia.” Poor focus, headaches, absenteeism, fatigue, stress, myopia, anxiety, and allergies are all health issues that are associated with living and working indoors. Research continues to confirm what we instinctively know about the important impact of nature—not only on the quality of learning but also on the health and well-being of both students and educators.

Dr. John La Puma, a board-certified internist, chef, certified naturalist, and creator of GreenRx.com, is on a mission to “identify nature-related interventions to prevent and improve symptoms and diseases.”1 In 2018, he gave a presentation at Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, California, where he shared his belief that nature is “information for the body and the brain” and that the “right information can transform … personal, physical and mental health.”2 Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, wrote about nature deficit disorder in children, which he argued reduced attention span and increased vulnerability to negative moods. He wrote that “there is a growing body of research that links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature in positive ways.”3

In a culture that asks us to spend the majority of our time indoors, we must find innovative ways to incorporate nature and its many benefits into our classrooms. Teaching a class outside is not always possible or practical, as much as we may wish to do this. So how can we take some of the health benefits of the outdoors and apply them to our everyday indoors classroom experience? By first identifying some of the advantageous elements of the outdoors, we can then find ways to infuse them into our classrooms and our schools.

Natural Colors (Green)

A little bit of green has a great effect on happiness.—Bobby Berk

Green is the dominant color of the natural world. It is associated with a host of positive attributes, representing healing, hope, harmony, growth, and renewal. Green is understood to be the most restful and relaxing color for the human eye. In fact, it takes up a larger portion of the spectrum of colors visible to the human eye than any other color.4 Proponents of color psychology say the color green is soothing, and, as such, it has been proven to affect us physically and mentally in several different ways.5

Some health and well-being benefits of the color green:

  • Stabilizing the nervous system
  • Alleviating anxiety and depression
  • Increasing self-control and compassion
  • Reducing irritability
  • Counteracting stress and exhaustion
  • Decreasing headaches
Other beneficial colors that reflect the natural world are yellow, which reminds us of sunshine and is associated with happiness, and blue, representing sky and water, which can lower blood pressure and provide a calming space, allowing for greater focus and concentration. On the other hand, white, a color that so many of our classrooms are painted, is associated with sterile, cold environments and for being understimulating, all of which can increase stress and contribute to eye fatigue.

What you can do:

  • Decorate your classroom interior with natural colors, especially on rugs and bulletin boards.
  • Minimize white walls and boards with accents of green, blue, and yellow.


Plants

Plants are good for our psychological development.—Jane Goodall

The addition of a few green plants into your classroom can make a positive impact on your health and well-being and that of your students. A 2010 study by the New University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, found that this can be achieved with as little as the addition of three plants.6 Environment and behavior researcher Frances “Ming” Kuo at the University of Illinois found that “access to nature and green environments7 yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.”8 Researchers  at the University of Technology, Sydney9 who examined students’ performance in a range of fundamental areas, such as spelling, mathematics, reading, and science, discovered that the introduction of plants caused performance to increase by 10 to 15%, a significant progress in terms of learning. NASA’s Clean Air Study has identified a list of plants considered suitable to help the health of the indoor environment; these include English ivy, spider plants, and rubber plants.10 The presence of plants can “result in a positive change in the psychosocial working environment,” reported Norwegian researcher Dr. Tøve Fjeld, who completed a study on the benefits of indoor plants.11

Some health and well-being benefits of classroom plants:

  • Decrease in fatigue
  • Increase in concentration, focus, and productivity
  • Reduction in dry skin and in irritation to eyes and nose
  • Encouragement of compassion and nurturing
 Plants also help reduce noise levels by acting as a buffer to sounds outside the classroom. Positioning larger plant pots in multiple locations around the edges and corners of a room has positive benefits, according to a paper presented by researchers from London South Bank University at The Plants for People Symposium.12 Plants can also boost creativity and community. The 2015 Human Spaces Report on the Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace found that in areas that included natural elements, there was a 15% increase in creativity over those spaces that did not include such elements.13 In schools, they can be used as a community builder by adding a nurturing element and giving students responsibility for caring for the classroom plants.

What you can do:

  • Refer to the NASA list to identify nontoxic plants that can thrive in your classroom.
  • Advocate for plants to be bought for the classroom.
  • Develop a roster of students to take care of the plants.


Air Quality

Put some fresh air in your brain.—Ernesto Bertarelli

Stuffy, warm classrooms filled with stale air and unpleasant odors are not conducive to learning or teaching! Neither are dirt and dust particles or harsh toxic odors. Young children are more affected by air quality than adults as they inhale at a higher rate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that the air in a typical classroom is polluted with toxins, reporting that at least half of the approximately 53 million students and five million staff in the United States “may be exposed to polluted indoor air, lead, asbestos, chemical fumes, pesticides, molds, and other toxins.”14 These are found in classroom cleaning products, furniture, and even in markers, glue sticks, and lunch boxes. The EPA now warns us that indoor air pollution is the nation’s number one environmental threat to health—and it’s from two to 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution.15

The quality of the air in our classrooms needs to mimic the outdoors as much as is in our power to do so. When windows are closed, the amount of CO2 increases—a sure way to encourage sleepiness in our students. Open your classroom windows, and allow fresh air to circulate if you can. If not, can you air out your classroom by opening the door when the students are at lunch and recess? Could you use a fan or the ventilation system to circulate air and add a gentle breeze? You can limit dust and dirt coming into the classroom by having a good-quality mat for children to wipe their shoes on. You may even want to follow the example of schools in Scandinavia where a decades-long study found that students who go shoeless in the classroom are more likely to exhibit improved behavior and better academic achievement.16

Some health and well-being benefits of healthy air quality:

  • Reduction in triggers for asthma and allergies
  • Less fatigue, nausea, and dizziness
  • Improved concentration and focus
  • Decrease in headaches
  • Reduction in absenteeism caused by spread of cough and cold germs
 
The air outdoors is filled with aromas, and it does not take much to introduce some olfactory stimulation to the indoors. Natural aroma therapy such as a cut orange, crushed mint leaves, or sprigs of rosemary and lavender can help change the quality of the air students breathe. Different smells can also help you create a variety of teaching moods. If you want the children to relax during quiet reading, then try lavender. Use citrus scents by cutting some lemons or oranges before a test to stimulate their focus. Mint can be an uplifting and invigorating smell to begin the school day. Fresh herbs, spices, and fruit aromas are best, but diffusers may also be an option.17 Do your research—as the natural oils can be concentrated and overpowering. Some of your students may also have allergic reactions. The addition of a tabletop water fountain not only helps clean the air but can provided a soothing sound while students work.18
 

What you can do:

  • Open windows and doors and let fresh air circulate.
  • Ask maintenance to clean filters on AC units and install screens on windows to inhibit insects.
  • Buy a small tabletop water fountain.
  • Inquire about the cleaning products used in the school, and if they are not eco-friendly, start a discussion about switching to a Green Clean program.
  • Be aware of the materials in classroom furniture and supplies. Read labels.
  • Advocate for policies for nontoxic supplies.
  • Make sure you have a heavy-duty mat for students to clean dirt off their shoes.
  • Try a shoeless day.
  • Unblock vents so that air can freely circulate.
  • Buy or grow a selection of natural air fresheners, herbs, spices, flowers, and fruits.
 

Light

Come forth into the light of things/Let Nature be your teacher.—William Wordsworth

Natural light is an easy and no-cost boost to your students’ health and well-being, and to yours too. As tempting as it may be, don’t cover your windows with posters and the children’s work. Where possible, turn off the harsh overhead lighting and open the blinds. If your school uses fluorescent bulbs, be aware that they not only give off light that causes eye fatigue but can often cause distractions by flickering and making humming sounds. LED bulbs last longer, give a better light quality, and are more cost-efficient than traditional fluorescent bulbs.

Using high-definition overhead projectors can allow blinds to remain open when you are projecting images or using white boards. Vertical blinds collect dust, so if it is within your power, remove these and install louvered blinds that still allow diffused light into the classroom but can be adjusted to cut glare. In a recent study titled “Effect of Daylighting on Student Health and Performance,” researchers found that having adequate daylighting is an efficient method for providing better learning conditions and health in schools.19 In a study of 90 Swedish elementary school students, researchers tracked behavior, health, and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels over the course of a year in four classrooms with varying daylighting levels. The results indicated that work in classrooms without daylight may upset the basic hormone pattern, influence children’s ability to concentrate or cooperate, and have an impact on body growth and absenteeism.20
 

Some health and well-being benefits of daylighting:

  • Increased production of Vitamin D
  • Improved focus for learning
  • Decreased depression
  • Improved sleep by helping to regulate the circadian cycle
  • Better attendance
 
If it is not practical to have your blinds open all day, then lamps scattered around the room, with cords well-secured and blue-enriched bulbs, can set a different mood from overhead lights. Battery-operated candles and twinkling lights are a fun option too. Having the ability to change up the lighting in your room allows you to send subliminal signals to your students to quiet down or show focused attention.
 

What you can do:

  • Keep windows clear and blinds open.
  • Know the time during the day that direct sunlight enters your classroom.
  • Introduce flexible lighting options, lamps, dimmer switches, occupancy sensors.
  • Reduce laminated work on the walls as they increase glare.
  • Discover what bulbs are being used, and advocate for LEDs and blue light options.
 

Nature (Awe):

Wisdom begins in wonder.—Socrates

Awe is defined as the feeling we have when we are in the presence of something greater than ourself. It increases connection with others and soothes and calms. Awe, which is most commonly experienced in the natural world, “inspires kids to find a sense of purpose in life,” according to Vicki Zakrzewski of University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action.21 Attention Restoration Theory is the ability to restore attention by looking at nature or images of nature. Researchers have shown that it can shift the brain into a different processing mode. In one study, participants’ brains were scanned after they were randomly assigned to look at a picture of a green meadow or a concrete roof for 40 seconds. Researchers found that this micro-break of looking at a natural scene was enough to shift the brain into a more relaxed state.22
 

Some health and well-being benefits of nature:

  • Decreased errors
  • Increased sense of calm, purpose, and self-esteem
  • Reduction in fight/flight instinct
  • Improved attention and intellectual curiosity
  • Rise in positive moods, such as happiness, empathy, and compassion
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Decreased inflammation
 
Several other studies that included participants listening to the sounds of running water or rustling leaves and being exposed to forest smells reveal that exposure to nature not only decreased stress but also improved physiological factors, like heart rate and blood pressure.23, 24 Natural environments turn out to be a necessary component for restorative experiences.
 

What you can do:

  • Collect pictures of awe-inspiring nature, and have an awe picture of the day.
  • Plan for micro-breaks during your lessons.
  • Reorient desks to outdoor views.
  • Play soundtracks depicting natural sounds.
  • Start the day with a short video depicting awe.
  • Take the awe quiz at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/take_quiz/awe.
  • Meditate mindfully with natural objects such as an acorn, pebble, or leaf.
 
For learning to take place, a student needs to be feeling healthy—physically, mentally, and emotionally. There is, of course, no substitute for the real thing, and finding ways to get outside to learn and teach is highly recommended. However, in lieu of being outdoors, if we can create an indoor environment that provides many of the health benefits of the outdoors—the color green, plants, fresh air, natural light, and the sounds and sights of nature—then we can maximize the health and well-being of all who work, learn, and play in our schools.
 

Bibliography

Notes

  1. John La Puma, “What Is GreenRx: Five Parts”; online at https://www.drjohnlapuma.com/cancer/what-is-green-rx-5-parts/.
  2. John La Puma.Alternative and Complementary Therapies.Apr 2019.ahead of print http://doi.org/10.1089/act.2019.29209.jlp.
  3. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005).
  4. Jennifer Bourn, “Color Meaning: Meaning of the Color Green,” Bourn Creative, January 25, 2011; online at https://www.bourncreative.com/meaning-of-the-color-green/.
  5. Kendra Cherry, “The Color Psychology of Green,” Verywell, November 5, 2018; online at https://www.verywellmind.com/color-psychology-green-2795817.
  6. A. Craig, F. Torpy, J. Brennan, and M.D. Burchett, “The Positive Effect of Office Plants,” Nursery Papers Technical, July 2010; online at https://www.greenlifeindustry.com.au/Attachment?Action=Download&Attachment_id=1430.
  7. ttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448497/.
  8. 8 Debra Levey Larson, “Green Environments Essential for Human Health, Research Shows,” Science Daily 26 (April 2011); online at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110419151438.htmhttps://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/206035.
  9. http://www.wolvertonenvironmental.com/Plants-Classroom.pdf  University of Technology, Sydney.
  10. B.C. Wolverton, Anne Johnson, and Keith Bounds, “Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement,” NASA Technical Reports Server, September 1989; online at https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19930073077.pdf.
  11. Tøve Fjeld, “Health and Well Being and the Benefits of Office Plants,” IEQ Indoor Plants, May 13, 2018; online at https://www.ieqindoorplants.com.au/benefits-of-office-plants/.
  12. Peter Costa and R.W. James, “Constructive Use of Vegetation in Office Buildings,” Presentation at the Plants for People Symposium, The Hague, Holland, November 23, 1995; online at https://greenplantsforgreenbuildings.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Silence-of-the-Palms_Costa1.pdf.
  13. Interface, “Global Study Connects Levels of Employee Productivity and Well Being to Office Design,” Human Spaces Report on the Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace, Cision PR Newswire, March 31, 2015; online at https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/global-study-connects-levels-of-employee-productivity-and-well-being-to-office-design-300058034.html.
  14. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Creating Healthy Indoor Air Quality in Schools”; online at https://www.epa.gov/iaq-schools.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Rachael Pells, “Children With No Shoes on ‘Do Better in Classroom,’ Major Study Finds,” Independent, May 24, 2016; online at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/schools-encouraged-to-adopt-no-shoes-policy-to-improve-pupils-learning-and-behaviour-a7044576.html.
  17. Lisa Evans, “6 Scents That Can Transform Your Mood and Productivity,” Entrepreneur, October 10, 2012; online at https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/224575.
  18. Kevin Fleming, “Fountains May Improve Classroom Learning and Retention,” ESL Teachers Board.
  19. Seyedehzahra Mirrahimi, Nik Lukman Nik Ibrahim, and M. Surat, “Effect of Daylighting on Student Health and Performance,” Computational Methods in Science and Engineering (2013); online at http://www.wseas.us/e-library/conferences/2013/Malaysia/MACMESE/MACMESE-20.pdf.
  20. Patricia Plympton, Susan Conway, and Kyra Epstein, “Daylighting in Schools: Improving Student Performance and Health at a Price Schools Can Afford,” Presentation at the American Solar Energy Society Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, June 16, 2000; online at https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy00osti/28049.pdf.
  21. Project Yose, “Awe Video,” Greater Good in Action: Science-Based Practices for a Meaningful Life, University of California, Berkeley, May 5, 2013; online at https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/awe_video.
  22. Kate E. Lee et al., “40-second Green Roof Views Sustain Attention: The Role of Micro-Breaks in Attention Restoration,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 42, June 2015; online at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494415000328.
  23. https://www.nature.com/articles/srep45273 ijerph-14-00864-v2.pdf.
Josie Bahedry

Josie Bahedry (jbahedry@me.com) has taught and held administrative roles internationally and in independent schools in California.