Incorporate natural components into school site design to further the goals of Theme B (Protecting the Environment), but also to provide calming elements that reduce student stress and anxiety.
With many Fayette County schools due for expansion and/or renovations in the coming year(s) and the additional group of new schools slated for construction, consideration must be given to the significance of site design that extends beyond the building and into the natural landscape that immediately surrounds the property. While emphasis must be placed on creating classroom spaces with layouts and technology that support students’ intellectual growth, it is just as important to consider the influence of the natural landscape in creating an ecosystem where students can foster growth and resilience.
It has become increasingly apparent that a fast-paced, urban environment can have significant effects on students’ mental health. With children spending a greater amount of time indoors and in front of electronic screens – both at home and at school – there has been a marked increase in levels of stress, anxiety, and mental fatigue. If those concerns are left unmitigated, students may not be able to maintain the vigor, motivation, and attitude that is necessary for them to achieve a productive school day. The relatively cost-effective and surface-level solution of incorporating visible and usable greenspace on schools’ property has shown to foster a deep impact on student attitude and performance.
Studies have shown that classroom views and experiences with nearby nature may have a causal relationship to students’ mental wellness, cognitive performance, and overall resiliency to stress and anxiety. In February of 2018, the United States Forest Service published a research summary that synergized the findings of multiple studies for the purpose of effectively communicating the health benefits of both urban trees and greenspace. While much of the findings therein apply to people of all ages, particularly the linkages between natural areas, active living, and physical health, the relationship between children and nature was a topic of targeted investigation. The significant outcomes in multiple studies alluded to nature access as a potential vehicle for the improvement of cognitive function and stress recovery, specifically within the school setting.
One study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois Department of Landscape Architecture, found that classroom views of green landscapes can promote attention restoration and stress recovery. The results were obtained by placing students in different classrooms, without windows or with windows, which revealed either a build space or a green space. They were then subjected to various conditions that simulated classroom tasks and activities and completed questionnaires and attention tests to assess attention restoration and stress recovery. The study found that students with a green window view scored “significantly higher on tests of attentional functioning and recovered significantly faster for a stressful experience than their peers who were assigned to rooms without view to green spaces.” Such results have major impact on the importance of thinking quite literally outside of the box when it comes to school design.
Qualitative studies have highlighted these effects as well by narrating the positive mental impacts of schoolyard nature play through the lens of student experiences. In 2014, a study out of the University of Colorado used direct observations and interviews with students in different age groups to emphasize how the natural components surrounding their schools helped them find havens from stress, increase competence, and form healthy social interactions with their peers. For this reason, a balance of both active and passive recreation opportunities that involve interaction with nature within the schoolyard can yield measurable benefits.
In tuning into the implications presented by research in this area, Imagine Lexington gives weighted consideration of how greenery in the urban landscape, and the multi-faceted benefits it provides, plays an important role in shaping our future generations. There is great opportunity for renovation and expansion of Lexington’s centers of learning to further reflect environments that are conducive to the intellectual growth and emotional well-being of the students who learn and play in these spaces each day. Equal importance should be placed on creating and maintaining both built and natural components that inspire young minds.