Outside of the home, the classroom environment is where most children spend the majority of their time. K-12 education is a pivotal time in children’s development that helps them grow intellectually and socially. Since so many factors affect student achievement during this imperative period, having a holistic view of the educational experience is important.
The focus is often on teaching techniques and curriculum, but the physical building and school surroundings shouldn’t be ignored. More and more research is highlighting the impact that classroom design––specifically design materials––has on students. In this article, I’ll explore biophilic design in the educational sector and how reclaimed wood, in particular, can benefit students.
The Benefits of Biophilic Design in Education
Given the importance of a strong education system for student success and to our economic growth and ability to compete in the global economy, it is time to rethink the spaces that our children spend so much time in. In particular, we need to reimagine the classroom as a biophilic space since studies support the positive effect of biophilic design on education. Bringing nature and natural analogues like reclaimed wood into the learning environment makes the classroom more conducive to learning, which results in more productive students and teachers.
Currently, millions of students around the world are attending school in highly urban (and thus highly unnatural) environments. These conditions hinder a child’s development. That’s because biophilic tendencies have been observed in children under two years old. This observation proves the biophilia hypothesis, which states that humans have an innate desire to connect with nature. If children don’t have access to nature, their development will be stifled.
From NAC Architecture: Cherry Crest Elementary School boasts a lush landscape for its students
In regards to education, this is absolutely critical. Children spend so much time in classrooms, and if the classroom setting is unnatural and lacking in biophilia, student development and enjoyment will suffer. The questions this poses for designers are important. How can design impact the learning process? How can we ensure that students live up to their full potential? These ideas are crucial to the future of the educational sector.
The Power of Biophilic Design in Educational Spaces
The praises of biophilic design are now well-known in regards to the workplace, but using biophilia in the classroom yields similarly beneficial results. One study by researchers at Texas State University and Texas A&M University found that the presence of plants improves students’ learning experience, especially in spaces that lack other natural elements like exposure to sunlight or views of nature. Biophilic spaces clearly make for better learning environments.
Biophilia drastically changes how students interact with the curriculum––and one another. The more biophilic a space is, the more interaction will take place. Basically, biophilic elements (like reclaimed wood) bring natural patterns and systems into the built environment. These patterns and systems activate the brain and help humans engage better within their immediate environment.
On an intrapersonal level, this means students will be more present, enhancing their ability to learn. Mahlum Architects is one firm that has seen this happen firsthand. They’ve seen immense benefits of wood in the classroom as a design firm that’s promoted the use of wood in the educational sector. Wilkes Elementary School on Washington’s Bainbridge Island is a beautiful example of their biophilic approach to Architecture & Design. There’s wood on virtually every surface throughout the school. The result is a highly biophilic environment that brings nature indoors and creates optimal learning conditions. It’s no surprise that the school has won many design awards and is highly rated by parents.
Interpersonally, this will facilitate improved social interaction between students. Biophilic design is closely associated with higher levels of interaction, and there’s a substantial body of research that details this. Researcher Alan Ewert looked at the effects of human interaction with the outdoors and found that people who participated in outdoor programs gained “improved cooperation, the ability to work in teams, avoidance of conflict, respect for others, leadership, and the capacity to make new friends.” In a K-12 environment, these effects can benefit children when they need it most and create an ideal balance of nature and nurture.
How Reclaimed Wood Scientifically Improves Schoolwork
So how does reclaimed wood play into all of this? In short, reclaimed wood provides generous doses of biophilia, and this grants all of the benefits mentioned in this article. It’s why schools like Wilkes Elementary that implement lots of wood see such exceptional results.
Reclaimed wood just might be the most beneficial building material for educational settings. In numerous studies, wood has proven to be particularly effective at stress reduction. One such study analyzed the effect of interior wood use on students in an Austrian secondary school. Students who were placed in solid wood classrooms experienced lower heart rates and reduced levels of stress than students in classrooms without wood. Heart rate variability also increased in the wood classrooms, and high HRV is a sign of a healthy, resilient heart according to Harvard University. In that study, HRV decreased in the solid wood classrooms. The takeaway: wood is a boon to students’ heart health.
Designers are realizing that the use of natural materials is critical to creating better learning environments. One goal, as expressed by NAC Architecture, is to blur the boundaries between the built environment inside and the natural world outside. Schools with biophilic design like Chartwell School (pictured above) or Manassas Park Elementary (pictured below) accomplish this goal beautifully. The textures and patterns available to students help to connect them with nature both visually and tactilely.
From UNC School of Government: This room in Virginia’s Manassas Park Elementary School is a beautiful example of a biophilic classroom
Additionally, architects are finding that reclaimed wood works well outside the classroom. Libraries, study areas, dormitories, and other on-campus facilities can all reap the rewards of reclaimed wood. In these spaces, reclaimed wood installations will help students work and study more effectively, whether individually or in groups. And since wood has been shown to increase social interaction and improve collaboration, it’s an excellent material choice for any space in which students are working together.
An investment in biophilic school design has economic and social benefits. According to PRISM, biophilic design can not only increase the tax dollar value of a school but also provide social support for children: “Nature supplies social support for children as they interact with others. When children become engaged in nature, their neural mechanisms are allowed to rest and recover.” Again, stress reduction is vital here, as the adolescent brain has been demonstrated to be especially vulnerable to stress. Reducing stress when it affects children the most has developmental, social, and emotional benefits that cannot be overstated. Furthermore, these wide-ranging effects of improved childhood development should not be overlooked because these formative years influence an individual’s economic and social outcomes later in life.
With current studies showing that classrooms designed with biophilic elements improve test scores, support health, and increase learning rates, it is time to elicit these positive outcomes by placing more emphasis on classroom design. Architects and designers can reimagine the classroom using biophilic design as their compass. There is an incredible opportunity to have a profound impact on education and students’ daily lives. Using lots of green building materials like sustainable wood will provide students with an environment that will help them stay connected to nature throughout their development. Schools will be healthier and students will spend their days in more productive and happier spaces, sowing the seeds for future generations to reap.