Nature can have calming effects on the mind and body, especially in moments of overwhelming stress and anxiety. When we allow ourselves to take a quick nature break, even for just a few minutes, we can breathe easier and relax quicker. The brain’s reaction to nature is the precise theory behind the popular biophilic design trend making its way into schools across the nation.
By connecting your students with nature, both indoors and out, you can provide a calmer learning environment while helping your students achieve better overall mental health.
What is biophilic design?
Biophilia is defined as the human tendency to seek connections with other living things or, in other words, it’s our innate human attraction to nature. The idea was popularized in 1984 when author and biologist Edward Osborne Wilson published his book Biophilia, in which he described the biophilic hypothesis as the human need to commune with nature in order to flourish.
Research in support of Wilson’s theory suggests that humans receive almost instantaneous cognitive benefits when exposed to nature due to fractal fluency, or the brain’s ability to take in, recognize, and process scenery. Simply put, when the brain recognizes natural elements such as leaves, trees, or grass, it efficiently processes these patterns (or fractals) and innately lowers the body’s stress response to stimuli.
A widely popular interior design trend since the 1970s, biophilic design is more widely used in hospitals and office buildings, but experts believe it can have beneficial effects in schools, too. According to an article published by inpro® Architectural Products, by adding biophilic elements to your classroom you can:
- Improve student sensory and motor development and increase their ability to effectively solve problems
- Reduce student stress and fatigue with exposure to natural sounds and water patterns
- Improve cognitive ability and emotional well-being
- Increase student attention span and ability to focus
How to add biophilic design elements to your classroom
There are multiple ways to add biophilic design elements to your classroom without breaking your budget. To get started, consider the space you’re working with first, and then consider adding elements in at least one of the following three ways:
- Bring natural items into the space with plants, water, sound, or light.
- Consider adding materials that evoke nature, such as photography, paintings, or murals.
- Consider using natural earth-tone colors for walls, window shades, and flooring.
Ways to bring nature inside with biophilic elements
1. Adopt a class plant or grow plants together
One of the simplest ways to bring an element of nature into your classroom is by adding plants to your décor. Plants can be beneficial to our physical health by improving air quality, but they also help relieve stress and improve mental well-being.
If you decide to adopt a class plant, make a fun game of naming the plant, or create a lesson based on the plant’s origin. For example, if you decide to incorporate a spider plant in your classroom, first explain the plant’s South African origin, and then describe how the plant’s name is widely believed to be attributed to its appearance but it was actually inherited from a close relative to the spider plant, the St. Bernard lily.
During the 1700s the St. Bernard lily was used as an antidote to cure venomous spider bites, but the Chlorophytum comosum, though similar in appearance to the St. Bernard lily, did not have these same curing effects. Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg adopted the name anyway, giving the spider plant its iconic name.
You can also incorporate biophilic elements in your classroom by growing plants with your students. The TickleMe Plant™ Growing Kit is another fun way to accomplish this by offering a learning experience that promotes excitement and sensitivity toward plants. Students might find the TickleMe plant interesting because it quickly closes its leaves when touched, and it also appears to sleep at night by closing its leaves and lowering its branches.
2. Add biophilic elements and promote sustainability with hydroponics
Hydroponic systems are another creative way to bring biophilic design elements to your classroom. As one of the leading alternative farming systems, hydroponics is a method of gardening without soil, which can be done indoors or outdoors. With a hydroponics system, you can teach your students about the benefits of environmental sustainability, while bringing a unique natural element to the classroom that helps improve mental health, focus, and concentration.
The OPCOM® Farm GrowWall 3 Hydroponics System can be a great option for the classroom because the all-in-one unit has a space-saving vertical design, and the light and water circulation of the unit are controlled automatically. Your students can grow up to 180 small plants or 90 larger plants year-round while using 90% less water than outdoor gardening units. And, for an even larger approach, the OPCOM® Farm GrowWall Hydroponics System can grow vegetables and herbs year-round on five different levels while also creating a calming visual display in your classroom.
3. Incorporate biophilic design with aquaponics
A symbiotic relationship between plants and fish, an aquaponics system can add a natural, calming element to your classroom or learning space. Similar in theory to hydroponics in terms of growing plants without soil, aquaponics takes the concept one step further by putting fish to work. Since fish produce beneficial bacteria that converts ammonia into nutrients, fish help the plants in an aquaponics systems absorb natural fertilizer which is continuously recirculated through the aquaponics system.
The popular AquaSprouts® Complete Garden Kit can help you create a living ecosystem in your classroom using any standard 10-gallon aquarium. Or units such as the Countertop Aquaponics System, Aquaponics Kit, or the eye-pleasing AquaSprouts® Fountain can help engage your students in learning about ecology, biology, earth systems, math, history, and much more.
More ways to connect students with nature
Now that you understand the benefits of bringing the outdoors in with biophilic design, you can also help your students garner the mental health benefits of nature simply by bringing them outside.
Outdoor learning spaces became increasingly popular at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the concept isn’t totally new. Studies have been widely conducted on outdoor learning in public education since the early 2000s, and more and more schools are adopting the model due to its health and therapeutic benefits for teachers and students alike.
NatureBridge, the largest education partner of the National Park Service, strongly supports the therapeutic benefits of learning outdoors, especially when it comes to social-emotional learning. They indicate that learning outdoors is also especially beneficial to the emotional well-being of students from marginalized groups who tend to spend less time in natural environments. By working through activities and exploring the natural beauty of the outdoors, students tend to develop a better sense of inclusivity and representation.
To set up an outdoor learning space of your own, you just need to have a practical space and a good plan, then consider the following questions and ideas:
Define your objectives
This might seem like a no-brainer, but make sure you know exactly where you’re headed with the learning you provide in an outdoor learning space. Do you want to connect your students with nature, or are you trying to create a different, more-engaging learning space for your kids? Understanding the goal will help you achieve better success for your students.
Consider the location
Is the area you’ll be using as an outdoor learning space shaded, and does it have enough room to accommodate your students? Are you near a restroom? Safety should always be your primary concern, so make sure you have an easy way to keep track of your students.
Have the right materials
Nature itself is full of lessons, and as naturalist and author John Muir once wrote, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” So, whether you choose to bring nature indoors through biophilic elements or take your students outside to learn about the world around them, you are giving them a better understanding of who they are, and what they can achieve — and those are the most important lessons of all.