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  • Writer's pictureMichael Kennedy

What You Didn’t Know About Nature on Learning

Whether people get their dose of the outdoors on a trek through the wilderness or a jog through the city park, research suggests we should not overlook its potential as a psychological salve.” ~ Psychology Today

We’ve all experienced it: the euphoria from witnessing a dramatic sunset over the Lake… the sound of wind blowing through the forest… the earthy rich aroma of petrichor after a rainfall. When we breathe in the fresh air around us, it’s as if the earth exhales with a sense of satisfaction.

Our experience with nature has been put to the test and the results are conclusive: The natural environment plays a critical connection to psychology. And this psychology plays a substantial role with the quality of one’s education.

What are some psychological benefits of spending time in nature?

According to Psychology Today, researchers have found evidence that time spent in natural environments improves well-being, “including lower anxiety and depression symptoms—in a number of studies.”

A study was done for the International Journal of Medical Research & Health Sciences in 2015 showing when students were in a classroom with a view of the southern Rocky Mountains (classroom access to nature) they had better grades and better ratings of their learning experience compared to students who had no stimulating view of the towering mountains.

This is just one study elaborating on the powerful influences of a student’s environment and their direct contact with nature, not only on their grades, but on their overall enjoyment of their studies as well. And that’s with just a view of the mountains. Imagine how students are impacted by being immersed in the mountains!

As you might expect, research suggests that nature-immersion stimulates one’s imagination, eases stress, and helps one to relax and think more clearly. It also expands our creativity and gets us more engaged in learning.

Ming Kuo, associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at Illinois, found that the more tree cover around a school, the better its standardized test scores in both math and reading. The study included 450 middle schools and nearly 50,000 students in urban, suburban, and rural communities in Washington State.

Wait. Trees boost better test scores?

Kuo's previous work points to a cause-and-effect relationship between nature and learning, with more exposure to nature resulting in improved concentration, greater classroom engagement, and less disruptive behavior.

Yes. Trees boost better test scores and much more. No surprise that greener schools perform better.

Lake Tahoe Preparatory School (LTPS) is no exception.

LTPS is nestled among the High Sierra just inside the entrance of historic Olympic Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games. It’s a private, college-preparatory boarding school, which boasts a 100% acceptance to U.S. universities and 4-year colleges.

Here’s what several current LTPS students say about the impact of nature on learning from their perspective.

Eli Messick (11th grade student, LTPS): “Having school in such a serene place as Olympic Valley and Lake Tahoe benefits my learning in a way it wouldn’t have anywhere else. The air is much easier to breathe up here at 6,200’ making me more engaged and interested in the classes I'm taking. At public schools I would dread the mornings as they were the same every day, 8 hours in a boring building, nothing interesting to see. When I arrived in Tahoe to attend LTPS my perspective changed. I realized my environment really did impact my motivation when it came to school.”

Zack Berger (11th grade student, LTPS): “Olympic Valley offers a serene and unique take on education. As a student, I have always enjoyed the smell of fresh pine when going to class at LTPS. It’s easier to get out of bed in the morning when you know the air is fresh and clean outside your dorm. Olympic Valley and the greater Lake Tahoe area provokes thought, ideas, and a general sense of adventure. It’s also an environment which teaches you things about yourself you otherwise never would have known.”

Lily Blanks (9th grade student, LTPS): “In Olympic Valley, the flowers glisten among the scorching sunshine, the blueberry sky is a portrait, the grass is a delicate sense of warmth, like a cozy bed. It all feels right. I can wear comfortable clothes and hats. I can feel pretty and feminine, as my hair blows freely in the breeze. The Lake is shining, perfect for a frivolous swim, feet tapping against the sand. The forest is a world of whimsy and magic, close to shops and restaurants. Sometimes, I embarrassingly pretend I’m a princess here, my dress clinging onto branches and dirt. The weather feels like warm tea, a bakery, a cottage comfortably resting in a field, a nostalgic memory you can always turn to for stability. A healthy learning environment is an understatement.”

Akash Sharma (9th grade student, LTPS): “The breathtaking views of shimmering, snow crested peaks wrapping around Lake Tahoe never fails to amaze me. After school, within a 5-minute drive, you can enjoy some of the best skiing of your life. One of the great things about Tahoe is the aroma. Waking up in the mornings and smelling the cool, sharp pine, invigorates me to start my day on a good note. As the day goes on, the damp smell of petrichor moves in as the dew melts onto the soft earth. By midday, the water dries up, leaving way for a rich, earthy smell to rise. And, as the sun sets, the smell of pine returns in the air. I personally think going to school in Tahoe is one of the best experiences a student can have, and I strongly recommend it to others.”

Nicolas Senna (8th grade student, LTPS): “It’s like traveling to a different universe when you enter the utopia of Lake Tahoe. You get inspired by the environment whether you want to or not.”

Elevated by Nature

One can’t help but feel elevated by this historical location and the surrounding area of Lake Tahoe, a feeling that literally amplifies the learning experience. It’s a feeling that can’t be manufactured or denied.

Nature nourishes our soul. It promotes growth. It enhances the learning experience, and it serves as a bridge between us and the natural world.

LTPS students have embraced this form of ecotherapy.

In the words of Frank Lloyd Wright, “Study Nature, love Nature, stay close to Nature. It will never fail you.

Author's note: Special thanks to the LTPS students who contributed to this article, and to my daughter, Morgan Kennedy, recent graduate of University of Central Florida, with a major in Clinical Psychology... and new staff member at LTPS - where my wife, Nicola, and I teach.

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