Topic of the Week: The Impact of the Physical Environment On Well-being

We have a tendency to overlook the impact of the physical environment on the human mind and on behavior. But I believe that the impact of physical surroundings, such as the presence of gardens, trees, the architectural design of inner spaces, and urban zoning, bears a strong correlation to well-being and academic functioning.

If my supposition is correct, then we may be overlooking a critical factor in promoting student achievement.
I work in a school building over 100 years old. My students and I ascend and descend 5 steep flights of stairs multiple times a day. In my first year of teaching, a deluge of water burst through the ceiling in my room one day and destroyed my social studies books. The hole remained for months, and whenever it would rain, we would have to move buckets and trash cans underneath it to catch the water dripping down. Not to mention the paint that peeled and flecked off in shards all over the floor.
At the beginning and end of the school year — as in right now — our classroom gets so hot it’s like being in a sauna. Our school is too old and the electrical wiring too outdated to install ACs in every classroom.

Boo hoo, I know. But such conditions have an effect on student well-being. How valued do you think students who have water pouring through the ceiling of their classroom feel? How can this not have an effect on student learning? It sure affected my sense of well-being, I can tell you that.

Schools are designed with materials efficiency in mind. Swathes of florescent lighting span unvariegated hallways. Like most older institutions, such as prisons and hospitals, warmth, creativity, and human connection are unfortunately not the first words that spring to mind while walking around a public school. Yet these qualities are arguably what are most needed, especially for children.

I have the sense that if children in our public schools had greater access to natural light, greenery, and a greater variety of niches for learning, they would demonstrate greater achievement.

Unfortunately, access to green spaces and well-designed urban areas tend to be due to socio-economic positioning. The simple presence of “urban trees–or lack thereof–can reveal income inequality” — even from outer space!

This week here on Schools as Ecosystems, I would like to explore the effect of physical environments on student learning and well-being in greater depth, and I hope to uncover some related research in these areas. If you know more about this topic, please drop me a line in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Topic of the Week: The Impact of the Physical Environment On Well-being

  1. This has been much on my mind this last school year. Two of my colleagues and I just finished the first week of a month-long science/technology camp based, in my part, on a raised vegetable garden that I'm largely building myself. (Other teachers have signed up for the county's master gardener program and there are plans to expand the garden, but for now it's me.)

    If you're not already familiar with it, Richard Louv's Children and Nature Network is a great resource, especially for scholarly articles in this vein.


  2. GR, congrats on your camp and garden project. That's really cool! Do you have any links to more info on your garden?

    Thanks for the link for the Children & Nature Network. It looks like there's quite a bit of literature worth exploring there in connection with what Will and I are advocating here on Schools as Ecosystems.


  3. No links yet – so far it's only one 8×3 foot raised bed. We'll establish another one next week, and my hope is to get up to at least six vegetable beds in the next year. Several kids from the camp have already volunteered to come help keep it watered and weeded over the summer, and they'll take home whatever produce we get. The school also has a special needs pre-K unit and is getting a new autism unit this coming year, so I'm planning to establish a sensory garden as well.

    Check out C&NN's Natural Teachers Network, too – I've taken some inspiration from the article on Larry Volpe.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.