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Natural environments enhanced creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving


saint john's prep students walking on nature trail next to lake

Kids and Nature: The Impact of Nature on Education Outcomes

When we think of traditional educational settings, we may not consider nature as a component of better learning outcomes. But studies in science and education suggest the link is stronger than we think.

How does nature affect education outcomes?

According to the Children Nature Network, nature enhances education outcomes by improving academic performance, enhancing focus, increasing engagement and enthusiasm, and improving behavior. 

Better academic performance

saint john's prep students doing a science project in the woodsIn the 1990s, educational agencies from 12 states created a Roundtable to study the potential of environment-based education programs on improving student learning and influencing the way young people learn to live successfully in their surroundings. The study became known as Environment as the Integrating Context (EIC)1 and was incorporated into K-12 curricula. 

The EIC study wasn’t focused so much on learning about the environment as it was on using a school’s surroundings as a framework for learning. It included 40 study schools and compared outcomes such as standardized test scores, GPAs, attendance, disciplinary actions, and student attitudes.

The data indicated that most students in the EIC programs experienced:

  • Higher grades and better scores in reading, writing, and math
  • Fewer disciplinary problems
  • Increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning
  • Greater pride and ownership in accomplishments

Another study at Washington Elementary School in Berkeley found that natural environments enhanced creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.2

Enhancing focus

Children need to focus their attention in order to learn. Students who have difficulty paying attention—whether it is because of distractions in the classroom, mental fatigue, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—are at a distinct disadvantage when taking in information. Several studies suggest that spending time in nature helps children improve their focus and attention. One national study examined the impact of relatively “green” or natural settings on ADHD symptoms across diverse populations of children. The study concluded that green outdoor settings appear to reduce ADHD symptoms in children across a wide range of individual, residential, and case characteristics.3

Increasing engagement and enthusiasm

saint john's prep students in lake for class projectResearch suggests nature-based learning makes children more engaged for extended periods of time. In fact, findings presented in Frontiers in Psychology show that children are not only more engaged in learning during outdoor classes but also upon returning to their classroom—even if the subject they return to is not nature-related. And the engagement is significant.

Teachers were able to teach for almost twice as long without having to interrupt instruction to redirect students’ attention. These findings suggest that nature-based lessons enable students to simultaneously learn classroom curriculum while also improving their ability to learn afterwards.

Improving behavior

Like most adults, children are less stressed when they’re immersed in green spaces. Students who are less stressed are also more resilient. Studies have found that having a class in a natural setting even one day a week can significantly improve the daily cortisol patterns of students. What’s more, another study found that children with more exposure to nature recovered better from stressful life events in terms of their self-worth and distress.

How Saint John’s Prep builds nature into learning outcomes

saint john's prep students lined up on wooded trail smiling at cameraOur students don’t learn about nature as an occasional field trip or distant experience. Rather, they engage with nature as part of their daily classroom and out-of-classroom experiences.

Sitting on 2,900 acres of water, woodlands, and wetlands, our campus lends itself to outdoor educational activity and environmental learning opportunities. Outdoor education is included throughout our middle school and upper school curricula. It also defines the social and recreational life of the school. Canoeing, swimming, hiking, science learning, ice fishing— even theater—are among the many activities that contribute to the outdoor experience at Saint John’s Prep. Most, if not all, of our classes include an outdoor component. Our staff takes advantage of our outdoor spaces and often host classes outside.

Beyond all of the research pointing toward the benefits of nature-based learning is a simple sense of joy that’s present when our students engage with the outdoors. Whether it’s taking a canoe expedition to the Stella Maris Chapel, ice skating on Lake Sagatagan, snow sledding or playing football during lunchtime, playing soccer in lush surroundings, or running through the arboretum in search of answers to the scavenger hunts, the sense of joy and awe our students experience is palpable.

Creating environmental stewards

Lastly, children who form connections with nature are more likely to care for the environment.  At Saint John’s Prep, this is an important part of our mission. Besides using nature as a way to strengthen and sustain strong education outcomes, we view it as a vital component of holistic living. Our students experience nature as a magnificent part of God’s creation—a creation that nourishes our body, mind, and spirit. This creation requires stewardship, which is a key component of our Benedictine values. We teach our students to foster a fundamental reverence toward the earth and the environment. As a result, our students learn to understand and appreciate their role in this life-giving resource.

Schedule a visit with the Saint John’s Prep Admission team for more information about how your child can learn, grow and thrive in our nature-based learning opportunities. 

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  1. Lieberman & Hoody (1998). Closing the achievement gap: Using the environment as an integrating context for learning.
  2. Moore & Wong (1997). Natural Learning: Rediscovering Nature’s Way of Teaching. Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications.
  3. Faber Taylor et al. (2001). Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings.