Promoting a healthy learning environment in and out of the classroom

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The well-being of youth is an issue increasingly incorporated into today’s schools’ curriculum. According to research, 50 percent of mental health problems develop by a child’s 14th birthday, increasing to 75 percent by the age of 24. Also, among 10-15-year-olds, one in ten students think they can’t talk to anyone if they feel sad or anxious.

Growing Up Fast

The causes of stress and anxiety include exam pressure, the need to succeed, and the implications of failure. Additionally, many children experience increased responsibilities, as young carers, for example; that means they miss out on normal childhood experiences. Students identifying as LGBTQ+ often are not comfortable ‘coming out’ and develop feelings of isolation and worry about being accepted by others.

The role of social media and general advances in technology creates a world where human interaction is limited and online fictional personas set high expectations. Cyberbullying and access to upsetting content online provide other reasons for mental stress. Impressionable teenagers looking at their peers can develop feelings of inadequacy, and their communication skills diminish unless a balance is established between activities on and offline.

The Great Outdoors

In an environment where online gaming is replacing outdoor activity, learning and playing outdoors is increasingly recognized as a tool for physical and mental well-being. Despite the importance of play for childhood development and happiness, time available for child’s play is diminishing. Schoolwork, structured after school activities, and parents’ limited free time are compounded with parental concerns about strangers, traffic, pollution, and a child’s possible exposure to anti-social behavior. Time spent by children playing outside has reduced by 50 percent in a generation.

Outdoor learning is increasingly recognized as an effective method for teaching students of all ages. As well as helping to develop a love for nature, outdoor learning gives problem-solving opportunities in real-world situations, improves resilience and adaptability, promotes teamwork, confidence, and self-esteem, and allows children to take risks in a safe learning environment.

A study for Outdoor Classroom Day 2018 showed that 87 percent of teachers worldwide wanted more time for outdoor lessons, with 97 percent believing that outdoor play was vital for a child to reach their full potential. However, for primary schools, 65 percent of schools provided less than one hour of playtime a day. In 2020, the importance of promoting outdoor learning has increased, not only because of mental and physical well-being. The closure of schools because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the mixed results of online learning has led to educationists and architects to consider better using outdoor space.

empty classroom

Something Better Change

To adapt to the classroom for more outdoor learning, architects and educationists work together to provide a holistic environment that utilizes the building and the school grounds. The UK government is committed to improving the design of school grounds to promote outside learning and recommends involving architects, landscapers, pupils, parents, and staff in the design. The recent government report looking at future schools wants a whole school approach and not designs where the different rooms and spaces are separate modular parts. For example, linking dining areas to outdoor space increases the options for accommodating students and make the experience more enjoyable.

Playgrounds provide another opportunity to use outdoor space for innovative classrooms. One Danish idea is the pop-up classroom, using events marquees and portable toilets dormant during the ongoing lock downs. Other locations considered include wooded areas used for the Scandinavian ‘forest school’ – an approach to develop a child’s confidence to take risks in a safe natural setting. In urban areas, where the existing school design has limited space for free-flowing air and natural light in the classroom, a commercial retractable awning or gazebo provides temporary shade and shelter for extra classroom space and outdoor curriculum activities.

The importance of student wellness and the need for a safer learning environment because of the pandemic has merged. The current education environment has increased innovative teaching methods and improved school designs. Hopefully, they will contribute to a return of a less stressful childhood.

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