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Educational establishments are constantly under pressure to perform. Schools are continually striving for better results, but, while primary schools appear to be performing well, Ofsted has warned that the progress of secondary education has ‘stalled’. What if the simple addition of greenery and vegetation into a school could make a positive difference to the performance, attention and productivity of children?
Poor air quality, especially related to particulate matter (or air pollution) is associated with increased school absenteeism and poor health – both of which have impacts on educational achievement and attainment. Urban vegetation, especially low-hanging greenery, is effective at reducing particulates and absorbing other pollutants. Integrating green walls, live pictures and green screens (desk dividers that are made out of plants) can make a big difference to the indoor air quality of a school as well as relieving some of the symptoms associated with sick building syndrome (SBS) in classrooms. SBS is a situation whereby people experience symptoms of ill health that seem to be linked to spending time in a particular building. If educational institutions adopted more of a ‘green approach’, the benefits could be significant in the long run, and for just a small percentage of their building and maintenance budget.
Attentiveness in lectures and classroom situations has been shown to improve when interior plants are present, and students themselves have reported a difference as well. Feedback has shown that learning experience and teaching quality is better when plants are installed or if there are natural views of greenery through windows. One example is the Leigh Academy School in Kent, which in its prospectus, places a lot of emphasis on broadening the pupils understanding of the world around them. Their students are actively involved in a variety of community projects relating to protecting and conserving the environment. The school believe that happy staff make for a happy learning environment and allow both students and staff to generate new ideas and get involved on all levels. It is not just primary and secondary schools that are noticing the difference: studies have shown that university students are less stressed when working in a green environment.
In a recent study entitled, “The Relative Benefits of Green versus Lean Office Space”, it was found that workers in green offices (those decorated with plants) were 15% more productive than those in a lean office (one with no plants). Improved air quality, better concentration and increased workplace satisfaction were also added benefits. Even though these findings are within an office scenario, they clearly demonstrate that those individuals working in green spaces have a more positive attitude to their environment. Theoretically, the same idea should translate into schools.
Another factor which can be improved with plants is noise. Noise can be brought on by nearby traffic or road works and can be extremely distracting and disruptive in lessons. This is clearly more of an issue in urban areas, where schools are often closer to busy roads. Green screens in classrooms can be effective at absorbing loud sounds, resulting in a 50% - 75% reduction in perceived sound reported.
Past research has shown that health and wellbeing can be improved when people are exposed to nature. Simple pleasures such as a walk in the woods or a visit to a park have been shown to reduce stress and feelings of anxiety. Our need for nature was identified by the American biologist, Edward O Wilson, who developed a hypothesis called ‘Biophilia’, which he defined as the “innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world”. When given the choice, people tend to gravitate towards natural views of water or landscapes.
Creating a healthy and green learning environment in educational institutions can pay huge dividends in terms of wellbeing, productivity, attention span and teaching quality. This can deliver a real return on a relatively small investment for the school, and can make a massive difference to the most important years in a student’s development.