What is Biophilic Design and Why is it Important?

“Nature” much? If your answer is “no” then you are not alone. As a culture, we have erected artificial as well as actual barriers between ourselves and nature. Our houses, cars, roads, and even our shoes are all byproducts of us removing ourselves from the natural world that once surrounded us.  While this separation may have brought us many modern comforts it also left our souls with a strong  yearning for nature. This phenomenon even has a name: it is known as the biophilia hypothesis or BET. Many modern architects and urban planners are now taking this idea into consideration when building their cities and buildings. All over the world, biophilia has become a new and exciting phenomenon that has captured the hearts of millions. In a lot of ways, the people of the world are taking a new look at nature and ultimately, slowly bringing it back into their lives. 

With that being said, getting out in nature is easier said than done. As a student at the University of Illinois, I am often swamped with homework and I trudge through my days thinking I have no time or energy to go outside. I believe that many Americans share this attitude. “There are just not enough minutes in the day,” a fellow student told me as we walked to class together. “I am just too crammed with papers and tests. I have to stay indoors to get good grades!” Studies show that my friend and I are not alone in with this dilemma. Americans now spend approximately 90% of their lives indoors (Klepeis, et al., 2001). 

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Ikea’s indoor sphere garden design © Joany. via Wundr Studio on Office Snapshots

Biophilia is more than just a feeling– it represents our innate primal need to experience ourselves interacting in nature. We can do this in a variety of ways, from taking a casual stroll outside to hiking the great Pacific Crest Trail. In whatever way you can get it, obtaining your daily dose of nature is truly vital to your health and well being. Interaction in nature has been shown to improve a vast array of conditions from stress, aggression, and anxiety to depression (Frumkin, et al., 2017). If more of us ventured into nature every day, we would live in a much more happy and healthy society.

The compelling notion of biophilic design has been around for centuries. Throughout human history, artists and designers have taken inspiration from nature and incorporated it into their work. Some famous examples include the Alhambra garden courtyards of Spain, the hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the papyrus ponds of Egyptian nobles among many others (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014, p. 6). The peoples of these cultures lived in close proximity to nature and did not have to look hard to find it. They generally used nature for aesthetic appeal. Just like modern landscape architects, these people used their natural environment to their advantage to achieve their aesthetic goals. As it turns out, we can do the same thing in modern times, just using slightly different techniques.

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Hanging Gardens of Babylon © History.com

Biophilic design is composed of complex parts that each play a role in making us feel immersed in nature. The different types of biophilic architecture and landscaping can include both organic and vernacular design. Organic design is defined as using nature itself as well as naturalistic shapes and symbols in the built environment. This may include rocks, plants, water, lighting, and sometimes even living animals. Vernacular design focuses more on the local aspects of culture and tradition within the regional area. Usually, using this type of design means using resources from the geographical area. It could also mean decorating the built environment with native plants and local species (Kellert, 2006). Most architects use both techniques when creating a layout of their biophilic designs.

Your entire environment does not have to be completely redone to implement biophilia into your everyday life. One significant thing you can do is add a small native plant or orient your desk closer to a window to get the maximum amount of natural light. Even though these may seem like minor changes, the benefits can be enormous. A visual connection with nature can improve your mood, attentiveness, and may even lower your blood pressure. In addition, letting more natural light into your life decreases stress on your eyes and repairs your circadian rhythm (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014).

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Natural lighting and indoor plants are small ways to incorporate biophilic design © EarthTalk

There are several other things you can do to implement non-visual biophilic designs components into the workplace or home as well. This requires trying to engage the rest of the four main senses in the body. One easy way to do this is using water. Running water stimulates your senses of hearing, touching, and smelling. The resulting auditory stimulation tends to speed up the rate of recovery after a stressful event, although sounds are heavily correlated with visual aspects. Studies on the olfactory systems after exposure to nature have been shown to have a positive effect on the immune system. Sadly, the hepatic (touch) and gustatory (taste) responses have not been studied enough to form concrete solutions but studies to date suggest actions resulting from this induce relaxation, at the least (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014).

The Attention Restoration Theory (ART) supports the idea that spending quality time outside or looking outside restores our mental capacity and focus aptitude (Kaplan, 1995). One can only attain full restoration though, when they give their “soft fascination” to nature (Izenstark & Ebata, 2016). Soft fascination allows the mind to wonder, without paying attention to one thing. Hard fascination, on the other hand, holds and keeps all our attention in one place at one time. This can be something as simple as reading a book. Studies have shown that nature helps restore our soft fascination which in turn restores our mental fatigue.  

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Biophilic architecture at Bosco Verticale, Boeri Studio in Miano, Italy © Pxhere

In one experiment, scientists asked 90 people to either look out a window at a natural landscape, watch a TV screen containing the same landscape as the window, or stare at a curtain after experiencing mild stress. The subjects heart rate recovery was then noted. The study found that the recovery rate of the people looking out the window and seeing actual nature, in-person, was much faster than the people looking at either the TV or curtain (Kahn, et al., 2008). The results of this experiment were touted as a reason to use biophilic design to improve productivity in the workplace.   

Biophilic design has become very popular in the last few years and use is projected to rise in the foreseeable future. As people become increasingly aware of the benefits of letting nature back into our lives, it is sure to become a much more widely used practice. Taking inspiration from past architecture may help us create new and innovative designs while helping us preserve traditions and cultures. With the help of biophilic design, employers can significantly improve the psychological and physiological lives of their employees and clients. You too can do many things to improve your life by letting just a little bit of nature back into your environment. And if all else fails, just try your best to #GetOutside! 

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Biophilic designs can include greenery, natural light, flowing water, air ventilation, nature sounds, natural materials, and much more © Home Stratosphere

For further reading:

  • Browning, W., Ryan, C., & Clancy, J. (2014). 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: improving health and wellbeing in the built environment. (A. Hartley, Ed.) Washington: Terrapin Bright Green LLC. Retrieved from http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/14-Patterns-of-Biophilic-Design-Terrapin-2014p.pdf 
  • Frumkin, H., Bratman, G. N., Breslow, S. J., Cochran, B., Kahn Jr, P. H., Lawler, J. J., . . . Wood, S. A. (2017, July 31). Nature and Human Health: A Research Agenda. Environmental Health Perspectives. doi:https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP1663 
  • Izenstark, D., & Ebata, A. T. (2016, June). Theorizing Family-Based Nature Activities and Family Functioning: The Integration of Attention Restoration Theory with a Family Routines and Rituals Perspective. Journal of Family Theory & Review (8), 137-153. doi:10.1111/jftr.12138
  • Kahn, P. H., Friedman, B., Hagman, J., Severson, R. L., Freier, N. G., Feldman, E. N., . . . Stolyar, A. (2008, May). A plasma display window? —The shifting baseline problem in a technologically mediated natural world. Journal of Environmental Psychology (28), 192-199. 
  • Kaplan, S. (1995, September). The restorative benefits of nature: toward and integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology (15), 169-182. 
  • Kellert, S. R. (2006). Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Renewable Resources Journal (24), 8-11; 23-24. 
  • Klepeis, N. E., Nelson, W. C., Rott, W., Robinson, J. P., Tsang, A. M., Switzer, P., . . . Engelmann, W. H. (2001, July 24). The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants. Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology, 11, 231- 252. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.jea.7500165
  • Rogers, K. (2010). Biophilia Hypothesis. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/biophilia-hypothesis

Outdoor Education and its Effect on Children, Teachers, and the School Community

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “traveling thousands of miles is better than reading thousands of books.” Essentially, this famous saying means that individuals learn more from traveling and being outdoors as opposed to reading materials from books indoors. While being outside, students are able to experience things themselves, learn more by taking advantage of their learning space, and interact with their surroundings to fully experience the educational objectives. Inspired by this famous proverb, I began paying more attention to the how nature is being included in different educational settings. Today, many elementary schools, high schools, and even universities are incorporating outdoor learning as part of their curriculum. Schools across the nation are adapting to this new type of learning style in hopes of seeing a positive effect on students’ learning behaviors. Based on current research, it seems that learning outdoors can really produce positive behavioral changes in students, parents, and community leaders. 

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School instructors leading students to learn in outdoor classrooms at a youth center © Stephanie Jacobs 2010

As someone possessing a dual-citizenship, I was immensely fortunate to have a five-year long study abroad experience in Hong Kong. The first thing I noticed there was a higher emphasis on outdoor education. Teachers were always actively looking for new local parks for their students to explore and new materials they could observe as a class. These elementary school experiences resonated with me the most out of all that I have learned overseas.

Fieldtrips such as these are more memorable to us compared to other learning experiences because of our sensory awareness of our surroundings. Individuals tend to remember concepts for a longer amount of time after learning them outdoors because we generally associate this new knowledge with the in-depth and meaningful experience that activities such as fieldtrips provide (Mahar, 2011). I encountered this firsthand because the focus on outdoor education declined as I continued my high school and college studies in the United States. Students here are not engaged with nature nearly as much as most other students around the globe, and there are a lot of different factors that contribute to this issue.

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Outdoor learning not only benefit students, but it also benefits teachers and the community as well © Krystle Crossman 2016

As technology is becoming more advanced, “the average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen, often at the expense of unstructured play in nature” (O’Mara 2018). Socioeconomic and geographical factors influence opportunity for nature play as well. Because of pressures of work and lack of time, most parents do not have the time to take their children outdoors. Parents worry that allowing children to stay outdoors for extended periods of time can pose a risk to their child’s safety, and so the children remain indoors. Metropolitan neighborhoods also have a shortage of child-friendly parks and green areas in general. Because of issues like these, it becomes the teacher’s responsibility to debunk negative stigma about children spending time in nature and learning outdoors. Thankfully, teachers in the United States are currently being encouraged to add more outdoor learning opportunities to their curriculum. Large amounts of research data have indicated that outdoor education positively challenges children both intellectually and emotionally (Duncan et al., 1988).

One of the strongest appeals to outdoor education is its macroscopic focus on the learning curriculum. Outdoor education is generally facilitated through the laissez-faire leadership style. Students are encouraged to work on their own projects. The assignment expectations are more hands-off too. Teachers give a lot of autonomy to the students to work independently and diligently in order to accomplish their set goals, targets, and deadlines. In comparison, indoor education has been suggested to be destructive and potentially harmful in the long run, since it forcefully changes students’ working styles (Oberbillig et al., 2014). There is no one cookie-cutter way of learning and placing students in a confined learning environment with strict guidelines can interfere negatively with the classroom enjoyment and productivity.

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Children learning about wildlife in groups ©Kit Harrington 2015

In fact, a recent research article published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment addressed the difference in classroom engagement between classes taught indoors and outdoors. Dr. Ming Kuo and Dr. Matthew Browning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study to examine whether and how lessons in nature boost classroom engagement (2018). They hypothesized that “lessons in nature have positive – not negative – effects on subsequent classroom engagement” (2018, pp.1). The total study group had 100 indoor and outdoor lesson plans for the first five weeks. As predicted, “in 48 out of 100 paired comparisons, the nature lesson was a full standard deviation better than its classroom counterpart; in 20 of the 48, the nature lesson was over two standard deviations better” (Kuo & Browning, 2018). Teachers also discovered that students were able to engage in future lessons after learning in nature much better than after learning in an indoor classroom. Research has shown that physical activity might play a part in this boost of classroom engagement (Mahar, 2011). Spending sufficient time moving around in nature can rejuvenate both the teacher’s and student’s attention span and interest level.

Like any other research project, there are some limitations to this study as well. To eliminate any other factors that might affect classroom engagement, the researchers should have asked the same teachers to teach the same topics with the same instructional approach for the most accurate data results. Instead, they gave out different lesson plans, and tested different education styles with different sets of instructors and students. Nevertheless, this research adds to the growing body of research that points towards the obvious benefits of learning outdoors.

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Outdoor learning class in progress ©First Things First 2018

 

Types of Outdoor Education

Historically, there have been two types of outdoor education. These two types of education include outdoor pursuits and environmental education. Outdoor pursuits refer to the “skill-based approach to outdoor activities such as canoeing, climbing, camping, and orienteering” (Smith, 1987). This type of outdoor education is similar to fieldtrips that students participate in, which provides them with in-depth practical experience. Supporters of outdoor pursuits argue that learning outdoors can promote personal and social growth, as well as autonomy. According to scientists, one secret to student satisfaction is sense of autonomy in the activities they are involved in (Huff & Lash, 2017). Generally speaking, disengaged students are the ones who are more likely to be absent and are less productive in school. When students feel that their contributions and ideas matter, then they are more likely to put forth the effort to contribute.

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Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone for independent learning ©Ithaca Children’s Garden 2018

The other type of outdoor education known as environmental education uses a similar learning approach but with a different area of focus. Environmental education, also known as outdoor education, elevates educational objectives better than indoor education. This is largely because learning outdoor allows students to hold themselves accountable for their own work. The curriculum for working outside cuts back on management and improves efficiency with the coursework too. Teachers are also impacted positively. Adopting this style of learning means that teachers and professors are able to lead the class in “more engaging ways after a bit of walking, a bit of a breather and change in scenery, [which] can reduce their stress levels” (Kuo & Browning, 2018, pp.11). Another research study discovered that outdoor environmental education has a positive impact on teachers’ behavior as well. North Carolina State University handed out a survey with teacher interview data about their impressions of outdoor programs and the experiences of their students. The teachers’ responses indicated that outdoor education was a more effective method for instruction, especially when it came to science classes (Moore et al., 2016). Outdoor education not only has a positive effect on children, but on teachers and the school community as well.

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Students study macro-invertebrates found in nature © Hagerty Ryan 2016

The implementation of outdoor learning has skyrocketed in the past few decades. Researchers and scholars have identified plenty of benefits to outdoor education, specifically for outdoor science lessons. A study conducted at the North Carolina State University discovered that “teachers’ enthusiasm about the students’ excitement for outdoor lessons and learning about science were apparent during the field observations and were common themes in their reflection papers as well as their verbal feedback (Carrier, 2009). Generally, outdoor education is believed to promote personal and social development of students by increasing their knowledge and understanding of their self-identity, as well their role as a member of the community. Learning outdoors not only benefits children, but it also aids teachers in decreasing the level of stress and increasing job satisfaction. According to the school principal of the Natural Connections Project, a 4-year outdoor demonstration funded project, working outdoors creates engagement, heightens interest, and fosters better participation (Carlill, 2011). Higher engagement from students, in turn, empower and motivate teachers to plan more creative curricula.

Currently, there are several environmental education programs that are taking place in elementary schools. One example is the Lenoir County summer programming in North Carolina. This program explicitly highlights partnerships between schools and informal science organizations. A Time for Science Nature and Learning Center partnered with the Lenoir County School system for a six-week Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) camp that allows public school students to do many fun outdoor learning activities. The North Carolina Arboretum in Ashville is also organizing a similar outdoor learning program. Their initiative for young children is called Project EXPLORE (Experiences Promoting Learning Outdoors for Research and Education). This program reached over 98 teachers in 22 countries and more than 4500 students over the past three years (Duncan, Beck, Granum 1988). Teachers have their students to do weekly field observations on activities such as a “Tree Phenology Project”, a “Squirrel Population Density Project”, or a “Bird Population Occurrence Project”. These types of outdoor learnings include many discussions and team bonding activities. Thermo Fisher Scientific and many other science facilities have shown their belief in this by generously providing grants for schools to fund these successful initiatives.

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Children learn imaginative play, science, and exploration at a school fairy garden ©Kit Harrington 2018

 

Additionally, there are college and university sponsored nature-based programs that serve students and teachers as well. MYLES offer a variety of field science expeditions for high school students in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and Mt. Mitchell. Similarly, Montreal College highly advocates for student development through outdoor education. They provide a field based intensive environmental training and research program for high school students across the state of North Carolina into different outdoor programs. High school students in the program can experience studying a variety of ecosystems and collecting scientific data as they learn more about nature. The program’s mission is to “expand on high school students’ interest in science and science related careers through living, studying, and hiking in the natural world” (MYLES of Science, 2019). Students work closely with professional scientists and science faculty in outdoor research.

These program shows that using outdoor resources as ways to learn fundamental STEM concepts is very effective. Programs such as these have been found to have not just terrific academic outcomes, but they help to properly cultivate strong civic attitudes and behaviors among children as well. Outdoor education also enhances the important role that students play in the community. These programs are great ways to build a foundation for the next generations to learn through taking initiative.

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Outdoor education is the most effective when learning STEM related materials ©Gary Chancey USDA 2017

All in all, outdoor education has a positive effect on children, teachers, and school communities. It is apparent that outdoor education allows many populations to grow dynamically. Students are able to develop a stronger sense of self, confidence, problem solving skills, as well as decision making skills. All these transferrable skills are not only beneficial to learning new material in class, but also readily prepare students to learn outside of school. Teachers are more engaged with the children when teaching outdoors, which yields a higher job satisfaction. All the advantages of an outdoor learning curriculum create a strong sense of community and belonging that develops a safe space for everyone. The joy of outdoor learning is much more rewarding than learning through textbooks. In the future, outdoor education should continue to be encouraged in all curricula for more efficient and productive learning.

For further reading:

  • Carlill, E. (2011, July). Natural Connections Demonstration Project. Retrieved February 9, 2019, from Learning Outside the Classroom website: https://learningoutsidetheclassroomblog.org/history/
  • Carrier, S. (2009). The Effects of Outdoor Science Lessons with Elementary School Students on Preservice Teachers’ Self-Efficacy. Journal of Elementary Science Education,21(2), 35-48. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43155850
  • Duncan, K., Beck, D., & Granum, R. (1988). Project Explore: An Activity-Based Counseling Group. The School Counselor,35(3), 215-219. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23900902
  • Huff Sisson, J., & Lash, M. (2017). Outdoor Learning Experiences Connecting Children to Nature: Perspectives from Australia and the United States. YC Young Children,72(4), 8-16. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90013699
  • Kuo, Ming, et al. “Do Lessons in Nature Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement? Refueling Students in Flight.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 12 Dec. 2017, http://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02253/full.
  • Mahar, M. T. (2011). Impact of short bouts of physical activity on attention-to-task in elementary school children.  Med.52, S60–S64. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2011.01.026
  • Moore, A., Lynn, K., and Thomas, A. K. (2016). Engaging students in science through a nature hike: a case of two students with ADHD.  J. Undergrad. Res.13, 73–80.
  • MYLES of Science. (2019). Retrieved February 18, 2019, from https://www.montreat.edu/about/event-services/myles/
  • Oberbillig, D., Randle, D., Middendorf, G., & Cardelús, C. (2014). Outdoor learning in formal ecological education: Looking to the future. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,12(7), 419-420. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43187839
  • O’Mara, Collin. “Kids Do Not Spend Nearly Enough Time Outside. Here’s How (and Why) to Change That.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 May 2018, washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2018/05/30/kids-dont-spend-nearly-
  • Smith, P. (1987). Outdoor Education and its Educational Objectives. Geography,72(3), 209-216. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40571620
  • Van Deman, B. (1974). With Feeling Comes Understanding: Sensory Awareness of the Environment. Science and Children,12(2), 13-13. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43147565
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Learning in nature, a hands-on approach ©GerhardHealer 2019