Students more focused, less disruptive after class held outdoors, study finds

CHAMPAIGN, III — The next time a teacher nixes a student’s request to go outside, the student might just have an argument that stands to benefit the class and the teacher. A recent study found that students who went outside for a school lesson were more attentive and focused when they returned to normal studies indoors.

Researchers at the University of Illinois say this so-called “nature effect” allowed teachers to instruct uninterrupted for twice as long indoors after an outdoor lesson.

Student bored in classroom
Tired of students not paying attention in class? A new study finds that holding outdoor lessons significantly improves students’ focus and engagement.

Many studies have shown the positive effects that being in and around natural green spaces can have on one’s mental state. The “nature effect” has been shown to reduce stress and rejuvenate attention. Even a view of the outdoors through a window can improve one’s attentiveness.

This latest experiment tested the effect of holding class outdoors for 9- and 10-year-olds from one school over a 10-week period. The researchers had a teacher familiar with teaching children outside the classroom hold one lesson per week outdoors and a similar lesson indoors, while a teacher who was more “skeptical” of such a practice was instructed to do the same. Students were moved to a grassy area outside the school that gave them a clear view of nearby woods.

“We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting,” explains study co-author Ming Kuo in a media release. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?”

The researchers tested for engagement after the indoor and outdoor lessons. They counted the number of times the teachers had to stop their lessons to redirect attention from unruly students. Kuo and her team had outside observers look at pictures of the class during observation and judge the level of class engagement. They also had the teachers score overall class engagement.

The results showed that students were noticeably more attentive after the outdoor lesson and delved into their work with more enthusiasm, while giving the teacher a greater deal of focus.

“Our teachers were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long at a time after the outdoor lesson,” says Kuo, “and we saw the nature effect with our skeptical teacher as well.”

The researchers say the findings could lead to low-cost ways educators can use to improve classroom engagement.

“We’re excited to discover a way to teach students and refresh their minds for the next lesson at the same time,” says Kuo. “Teachers can have their cake and eat it too.”

The study’s findings were published this month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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Ben Renner

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