Converging evidence from diverse fields offers causal support for nature's impact on learning, development and environmental stewardship

Kuo, M. ., Barnes, M. ., & Jordan, C. . (2019). Do experiences with nature promote learning? Converging evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

This review of the literature summarizes what is currently known about the impact of experiences with nature on academic learning. Its aim was to explore a possible cause-and-effect relationship between nature and learning. While hundreds of studies show a positive link between nature engagement and academic learning, the evidence provided by individual studies tends to be based on weak research designs. Collectively, however, a different story emerges. This review tells that story.

The question, “do nature experiences promote learning and child development?” framed the review. Evidence from a wide array of peer-reviewed scientific journals was examined, with careful attention to the difference between evidence for cause-and-effect relationships and evidence for associations. Findings from this critical review indicates that “experiences with nature do promote children's academic learning and seem to promote children's development as persons and as environmental stewards.”  The academic learning outcomes include: (a) increased retention of subject matter; (b) higher standardized scores; (c) better grades; (d) better math, reading and writing skills; and (e) higher graduation rates. Personal development outcomes include: (a) better leadership skills; (b) better communication skills; (c) more resilience; (d) better critical thinking and problem solving; and (e) better spatial skills. Positive stewardship outcomes include stronger connection to nature, stronger environmental values, and more pro-environmental behaviors.

At least eight distinct pathways are likely contributors to these outcomes. Five of the eight are centered in the learner, indicating that nature may boost learning through its direct effect on learners. The learner-centered pathways include: (1) attention restoration; (2) stress-reduction; (3) improved self-discipline; (4) enhanced motivation, enjoyment, and engagement; and (5) higher levels of physical activity and fitness. The other three pathways relate to ways in which natural environments tend to provide a more supportive context for learning.  Natural environments tend to (1) be calmer, safer, and quieter; (2) foster warmer and more cooperative relationships; and (3) invite distinctly beneficial forms of play. These eight likely pathways may account for the consistency found in the literature on the nature-learning connection.

The findings of this review of the literature “reveals an evidence base stronger, deeper, and broader” than what a more cursory examination might suggest.  It shows that an impressive body of research has accrued and that converging lines of evidence paint a convincing picture of a cause-and-effect relationship between nature and learning. These findings indicate that “it is time to take nature seriously as a resource for learning – particularly for students not effectively reached by traditional instruction.”

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