The start of a new school year always sparks anxiety around hoping for a cool teacher, making friends, and getting good grades. This year, with in-school instruction on hold in many places, there’s a whole new level of stress for parents setting up home classrooms.
Whether you’re planning a pandemic pod with friends or converting a corner of the dining room, you may want to enhance your learning space with elements from the natural world. Researchers found that when a math classroom at Green Street Academy in West Baltimore was infused with natural designs and views, students were less stressed and they learned more. The 2018 experiment was a test of biophilic design, a philosophy that believes humans need a connection to nature to thrive and be happy.
Jim Determan, lead architect of Craig Gaulden Davis, started the project because he believes in the power of “design to contribute to the learning and wellbeing of students,” he says. He gathered a team that included a neuroscientist, a public health social worker, an architecture professor, and green building consultants Terrapin Bright Green to redesign the charter school’s classroom with easy and relatively inexpensive biophilic elements in four areas of the room:
Designers covered windows with Mecho Shade Systems ThermoVeil white 3% shades with a custom custom tree pattern of tree shadows. The shades automatically raised and lowered to maximize sunlight. Recreate the effect with sheer custom roller shades with a tree shadow pattern.
They added wavy Swell acoustic ceiling tiles by Turf Design. Students would look at the waves for 10 seconds when they started to feel anxious. Do the same with Whisperwave ribbon acoustic ceiling foam, this bamboo tile, or Fasade Dunes ceiling tile.
Designtex created a custom repeating leaf pattern wallpaper for the top border of the room. Recreate the effect with a natural print, like the iconic Martinique pattern from CW Stockwell, or a leafy choice below.
Next–and this was big–they removed the charts, rules, and posters that clutter the walls of a typical classroom. Simplifying the room makes it easier to focus, says Salk Institute neuroscientist Tom Albright, PhD. Instead, students kept class announcements and reminders in a binder.
But the most profound change may have been the garden with flowering bushes and trees planted outside the classroom. Just spending 40 seconds looking at a natural scene can lower stress. “It’s not just about accessories and interior design or the materiality of the room,” says Maryann Akers, dean of the School of Architecture at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “It’s actually being immersed in nature. That really helps kids.”
Social epidemiologist Paul Archibald used a finger pulse monitor to track the heart rate at the beginning, middle, and end of the day for students in both the biophilic classroom and the control math classroom, which had none of the nature-inspired changes. By the end of the year, just 35% of the students in the biophilic classroom said they were feeling stressed, compared to 65% of students in the control classroom. The biggest drop in stress levels happened in April, when the garden was blooming. And on average, students in the biophilic classroom improved their test scores 3x more than those in the control, so they were learning more.
“By the end of the year, the math classroom was the classroom they were excited to get to,” says Crystal Harden, CEO of Green Street Academy.
Determan loved hearing students say the classroom felt peaceful and restful. He hopes the success of their biophilic classroom experiment, which was funded by the American Institute of Architects, can be a model for redesigning classrooms everywhere. “We know the design of the physical space contributes to better learning,” Determan says. “Once you know that, it’s almost malpractice not to apply it.”
Maria C. Hunt is a journalist based in Oakland, where she writes about design, food, wine, and wellness. Follow her on instagram @thebubblygirl.
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