Best Practice

Why natural learning environments matter

With increasing prevalence of mental health problems and concern over other issues such as myopia, the case for creating more natural learning environments and taking learning outside has never been stronger. Dorothy Lepkowska takes a look

The raft of research that now exists on mental health makes for sobering reading, with young people listing a catalogue of problems and challenges that are making them sad, anxious, depressed and even suicidal.

In November, for example, NHS statistics revealed that 12.8 per cent – roughly one in eight – five to 19-year-olds had at least one mental health disorder when assessed in 2017. This figure rises to 16.9 per cent of 17 to 19-year-olds.

The analysis also found that one in four children aged 11 to 16 with a mental health problem have self-harmed or attempted suicide at some point. This figure rises to almost half of young people aged 17 to 18 with a disorder.

And research from Barnardo’s last year found that by the age of 16, 70 per cent of school children report feeling sad or anxious at least once a week, with nearly a quarter having negative feelings as much as once a day. Indeed, it is well-known that half of all mental health conditions are established before the age of 14 (Kessler et al, 2005).

Typically, teenagers are worried about school, their futures, relationships with family and friends, problems at home and their weight or body image.
Most of these issues are exacerbated by modern life – the proliferation of technology, including 24/7 social media, long working hours among many parents and fewer opportunities for young people to socialise within their communities, often because of safety fears or pressures from their peers and the media.

A government green paper, entitled Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision, outlines a series of measures to improve children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, including the appointment of a mental health lead and speeding up access to treatment.

But what is considered less often by educationalists and policy-makers is the impact of the learning environment on young people’s mental health.

Natural learning environments

The benefits of outdoor education and activities are well-documented. The Mental Health Foundation recognises that many mental health problems in young people are a response to what is happening in children’s lives, whether this be at home or problems at school.

Among the things it lists as helping young people to maintain good mental health are regular exercise, and having the time and the freedom to play, indoors and outdoors.

Research published three years ago by the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and based on the National Child Development Study of 10,000 people across the UK, found that children who participate in scouts and guides, whose activities have a focus on resolve, self-reliance and self-learning, are likely to enjoy better mental health in adulthood.

The charity YoungMinds said it was no coincidence that many of the activities associated with membership of scouts and guides often took place outdoors.

School buildings can also have a negative effect on how students – and teachers – feel about themselves and the state of their mental health. Modern architecture may be highly functional, but it can also feel sterile, oppressive and uninspiring. Artificial light, cramped spaces and poor lighting and acoustics can all make for a less enjoyable experience than being in a light, airy and well-ventilated environment or, indeed, being outdoors.

In 2005, the American author Richard Louv, wrote about the concept of “nature deficit disorder” in children, in his book, The Last Child in the Wood, in which he investigated the relationship between children and the natural world.

He suggested that time indoors and in front of screens was having a negative effect on children’s behaviour and capacity for learning. His reasoning is now reflected in the biophilia architectural movement – building design that considers the wellbeing of a building’s occupants as well as their productivity and creativity.

Natural light: How many classrooms in schools today offer students natural light to work in? There are concerns that poor light in schools is leading to problems with increasing poor eyesight among young people (Image: TG Escapes).


Mark Brown, a consultant with TG Escapes, which designs and constructs eco-buildings for schools, said natural light, being able to see trees, wildlife and open space and good ventilation were all vital to maintaining good mental health.

He explained: “There remains a huge number of ageing school buildings around the country, which are over-crowded, cold and damp, often with buildings that are not connected to the main school, so are under-utilised.”

TG Escapes builds timber-framed, low-impact buildings that let in as much natural light as possible. They are connected to the main school building with walkways and canopies or serve as standalone buildings. Either way, the aim is to offer a completely different type of learning environment and experience and give schools a different teaching and learning dimension.

Mr Brown continued: “Teachers who use these tell us that the children are calmer and better behaved and happier. This might be particularly important in an urban environment where there aren’t as many public open spaces for children to play. Floor to ceiling windows, where possible, allow them to look outside and give them views of nature.”

Mr Brown said that there was evidence that poor light was leading to increasing poor eyesight (Hobday, 2016), and that it was particularly important for children and young people to be able to access natural light. TG Escapes has published a blog discussing the research in this area (see further information).

“It was government policy in the 1950s and 60s to have schools built with large windows, but this seems to have been forgotten and schools are no longer always built in that way,” Mr Brown added.

Taking learning outside

Children lead increasingly sedentary life-styles, often isolated from friends and in front of television, computer or phone screens. Advances in technology and the falling cost of devices, clearly play a part, but social pressures also influence this modern behaviour.

However, this rise in indoor, isolated play has had repercussions on the mental health and wellbeing of young people. Mr Brown continued: “Mental health is a ticking timebomb and legislation is not keeping up with the rate at which technology is advancing. The antidote is to get kids away from their screens and into a natural environment, so they learn how to interact with the world and each other.

“Children and young people need time out from the pressures of school and to create space for themselves to feel better, happier and healthier.”

TG Escapes has also published a paper – entitled The Outdoor Environment in Secondary School – looking at why schools should embrace outdoor learning and why children and young people should have more opportunities for outside activities. Another TG Escapes blog post also offers eight reasons for taking learning outside, including:

  1. It boosts physical health: playing in the sun for a few minutes every day helps to boost vitamin D levels, which are essential for healthy bone development. Movement and games help keep children fit and the combination of fresh air and activity can improve their sleep patterns.
  2. It improves feelings of emotional and psychological wellbeing: natural light stimulates the production of serotonin which is an anti-depressant, that also helps to prevent over-eating and promotes good sleep. Playing and running around a green, open space can help to reduce stress levels and make children feel more peaceful. Being outdoors stimulates the senses and provides different stimulation to being indoors, as children revel in the sounds, sight and smells of nature, all of which enhance the human experience.
  3. It encourages risk-taking and creativity: children engage with their surroundings when play isn’t structured, as it might be when playing a team game. They can think more freely, make up their own game rules and use their imaginations. It also allows them to try out new things and work out problems, which in turn boosts their confidence and resilience when faced with the challenges of the world around them.
  4. It develops social and personal skills: outdoor teaching helps to develop a whole range of social skills, including team-work and collaboration, perseverance and resilience, responsibility for oneself and others, and inquisitiveness and curiosity. It helps to foster positive relationships and can lead to a reduction in aggressive and bullying behaviour. Being outdoors also increases awareness and interaction with nature and wildlife, leading to a greater understanding of responsibility and care for the environment.
  5. It promotes a sense of citizenship: greater engagement with nature in an outdoor learning environment can help children to make connections with the community, by becoming more aware and caring of their environment in which they live. It also helps to make connections between taught classroom activities and their impact upon the natural world.

Case study: Shotton Hall Academy, County Durham

Eco-build: The new building at Shotton Hall Academy follows the TG Escapes principles of natural materials, large windows and a strong connection with nature and the outdoors (Image: TG Escapes).


Shotton Hall Academy has benefited from an eco-build after it took the decision to erect a new multi-purpose block.

The building was designed by TG Escapes to blend into the surroundings at the back of the school and embraced the biophilia architectural principles of providing pupils with bright, well-lit and natural surroundings.

Alix Borthwick, head of communications at the school, said: “Pupils love learning in the ‘eco-build’ and enjoy the unusual surroundings in their classes there. It is a calm and quiet building and it has a great feel about it when you enter. It has also given us a permanent home for our trainee teachers. Being able to offer a dedicated space in modern, bright surroundings is a real USP for our teacher training courses.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

Sponsored Content

This article has been published by SecEd with sponsorship from TG Escapes. It was written and produced to a brief agreed in advance with TG Escapes.