A review of Lessons in a Green School Environment and in the Classroom: Effects on Students’ Cognitive Functioning and Affect (Mason et al., 2022)
Kent Wetzel – Frederick County Public Schools

Green environments and the impacts of exposure to them have been explored in numerous contexts. Several previous studies have shown that exposing students to green environments has enhanced cognition, well-being, and school achievement. A number of these studies have looked specifically at long-term passive exposure to nature for students and its benefits (Chawla, 2015; Norwood et al. 2019; Vella-Brodrick &Gilowska, 2022). Passive exposure means that the natural environment is not being incorporated into the activities that are occurring and the students are not interacting with it in any way. They are simply in the green environment, not directly engaging with it. Other studies have looked at short-term passive exposure to nature that are taken during breaks in the school day,such as recess(Mason et al., 2022).

Mason et al. (2022) noticed that there were no studies that examined short-term passive exposure to nature that occurred through the delivery of a lesson in an outdoor classroom environment. In their quantitative research study (Mason et al., 2022), the researchers explored whether a lesson delivered in an outdoor classroom setting would be less mentally fatiguing for students, enhance their achievement,and whether it could increase well-being in comparison to a typical indoor short-term classroom lesson.

The study conducted by Mason et al. (2022) took place in Italy and included 65 students in second and third grade across four classes in two schools. The study used a within-subjects design so that the students in all four classes were exposed to all of the conditions within the experiment; there was no control group because of this design.

To measure selective and sustained attention by the students they utilized the Bells Test (Biancardi & Stoppa, 2017), after the lessons conducted indoors and outdoors. This test asked the students to find pictures of bells hidden within other distracting stimuli, such as images of horses or houses. For achievement, two separate math tasks were given to the students at the completion of the lessons. The tasks were not the same and were not new learning that was in any way related to the learning that occurred during the lessons. To determine students’ affective states and perceived restorative abilities at the conclusion of the lessons self- reported questionnaires were utilized.

Mason et al. (2022) discovered that after the completion of the outdoor lesson students were able to score higher in their selective attention. This was true of both students of lower and higher emotional difficulties. However, there was no significant effect measured on their selective attention. Academic achievement also showed the benefit of conducting the lesson in the green environment, as students scored higher on the math tasks after completing the lesson outdoors. Students who had higher emotional difficulties reported an increase in their positive affect after the outdoor lesson; however, this was not found to be true for students with lower emotional difficulties.

It seems that if the goal is to address the needs of students with higher emotional difficulties as well as to increase their achievement, restorative benefits and selective attention of students when conducting a short-term lesson while in an outdoor space could provide benefits in those areas. However, when it came to achieving a positive affect at the conclusion of the lesson it did not seem to matter where the lesson was conducted (Mason et al., 2022).

One of the benefits of this study is that it reveals the potential for using a green space as a way to conduct a lesson in an environment that can provide possible benefits to students who have higher emotional difficulties. The lessons are short-term, so the teacher can choose to use a green outdoor classroom when they feel it may provide a change in routine for their students. Because this would not require them to plan a lesson that needs the students to interact with nature, this could be beneficial as they could easily choose to conduct a lesson outdoors without extensive planning on their part.

An important implication of this study is the increase in student’s selective attention after just one lesson in an outdoor setting. Within the field of Mind, Brain, and Education, attention has been a component shown to be critical to moving learning from working memory into long-term memory. In a lesson, students must focus their selective attention on what we would like them to learn. Within the learning environment there are many things a student could choose to focus their attention on, therefore not allowing them to attend to the learning at hand (Willingham, 2017). Holding a lesson in a green environment showed the ability to restore student’s selective attention even after just a short exposure. The possibility of building a lesson outdoors into the school day may have the potential to help students be more attentive in the lessons that follow within a traditional classroom setting. This would allow them to secure learning and move it into long-term memory for future use.

Biancardi, A., & Stoppa, E. (1997). Il test delleCampanellemodificato: unaproposta per lo studio dell’attenzione in etáevolutiva [The Bells Test revised: A proposal for the study of attention in childhood]. Psichiatriadell’infanzia e dell’adolescenza, 64(1), 73–84.

Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of nature contact for children. Journal of Planning Literature,30, 433–452. https://doi.org/10.1177/0885412215595441

Mason, L., Mazione, L., Ronconi, A., & Pazzaglia, F (2022). Lessons in a green school environment and in the classroom: Effects on students’ cognitive functioning and affect. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19, 16823. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph192416823

Vella-Brodrick, D.A.; Gilowska, K. (2022). Effects of nature (greenspace) on cognitive functioning in school children and adolescents: Asystematic review. Educational Psychology Review, 34, 1217–1254. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-022-09658-5

Willingham, D. A (2017). Mental model of the learner: Teaching the basic science of educational psychology to future teachers. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 166-175. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12155