An American study has found that high school students with views of nature perform better than students in a windowless room or a room with a view of built space.

The research out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that students with a green view outside their classroom window performed better on tests requiring focused attention, and also recovered better from stress.

According to Professor William Sullivan, head of the landscape architecture department at the university, this is the first such study to establish a causal relationship between exposure to green views and student performance. The findings also showed that exposure to daylight alone did not improve student performance.

Student capacity to pay attention increased 13 per cent if they had access to a green view, the study found.

“It’s a significant finding, that if you have a green view outside your window, you’ll do better on tests,” said Dongying Li, a doctoral student who conducted the research with Professor Sullivan.

Students were placed in either a room with no windows, a view of built form (such as a carpark or building facade) or a view of green space. Each type of classroom had a similar size, layout and furniture. The students then participated in one-on-one experiments in which they did 30 minutes of activities. Following the activities, the students were given an attention test, then a 10-minute break in the classroom and another attention test following the break.

Sensors were used to take physiological measures of stress levels by measuring heart rate, skin temperature and skin moisture.

The study found that students did better on the attention tests given after the break if they were in a classroom with a green view,  Ms Li said, with a 13 per cent improvement in performance. There was no statistical difference in performance for the students in the windowless room or the room with a view onto built space. The students in the room with the green view also showed a greater physiological recovery from stress after the break than the other students.

There was no difference between group performance before the break, however. This, according to Ms Li, has to do with the Attention Restoration Theory. Basically, focusing on a task causes fatigue. During a break, when someone stops focusing, his or her attention is drawn involuntarily to certain things. Focusing on those things doesn’t require effort, and the theory suggests that doing so provides an opportunity for the brain to rest and restore its ability to focus attention again.

In the case of the experiment, the students focused their attention on the activities they had to perform. During the break, if they were in a room with a view of a green space, their attention was involuntarily drawn outside, and the view help to restore mental energy.

The effect, though, was only seem in students who had the green views, and not for the students randomly assigned to the other kinds of classrooms, Professor Sullivan said.

Likewise, views of nature enhanced recovery from stress.

Ms Li noted that earlier studies had shown that exposure to daylight increased student performance. However, these studies had not distinguished what the view from the classroom was of. She said green landscapes might be the factor influencing student performance.

The researchers said they hoped their findings could help designers, planners and policymakers enhance student wellbeing and learning. For example, planners could identify sites for new schools that have trees and other vegetation, or they could plant trees on the site; architects could locate classroom windows so they look onto green spaces; and school schedules could allow short breaks to restore students’ attention and help them recover from stressful tasks.

The findings will be published in the April 2016 issue of Landscape and Urban Planning, and is now available online.

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