A study of primary students in the U.S. showed that taking a lesson outdoors during the school day, were significantly more engaged and attentive in their work when they returned to the classroom. It seems that the power of nature to improve mood extends to the indoor environment as well.

It is well known that students, especially those in urban areas, are becoming "nature deprived" as they spend more time on devices, computers and in front of televisions than previous generations. And while a walk in the woods is known to calm nerves and increase an appreciation for the natural world, a new study on elementary students showed that exposure to nature for just one class period a day improves performance and enhances the educational experience for student and teacher alike.

Two classes of Grade 3 students took the same lessons at the same time of day, but one of them took that lesson in a park adjacent to the school while the other remained indoors. This was not just a case of one class taking recess. The teacher outside taught the same lesson that was being taught to those back in the classroom.

Bronx classroom

Students at "Knowledge is Power Program" (KIPP) Academy take notes during class in 2000 in The Bronx, New York. Outdoor teachers found their students were remarkably better at concentrating during their next lesson back in school than the students who remained indoors. ( Chris Hondros/Newsmakers/Getty Images)

Upon returning, the outdoor teachers found their students were remarkably better at concentrating during their next lesson back in school than the students who remained indoors. And the effect was large. Those who had been outdoors needed half as many "redirects," where the teacher has to stop teaching to get the students back to work.

The experiment was conducted over 10 weeks, involving different instructional content, times of the school year, students, classes and instructors. Care was taken to ensure that the same lessons were taught indoors, outdoors and following. Results were monitored by the teachers, an outside observer, and photo documentation of the class.

Refuel the mind

The researchers suggest that exposure to nature not only reduces stress, but the mere act of getting out of their seats, leaving the school and walking for a short distance, provided a refuelling effect for the mind that enabled the students to concentrate better on their work.

This technique flies in the face of fears that taking students outside will wire them up so they will be hard to control upon return. In fact, just the opposite happens, and could easily become a low-cost method to improve student performance. It has also been shown that simply seeing nature through classroom windows has a positive effect.

One potential spinoff of the nature effect is that students may become more environmentally aware as adults.

This week, a report released by 30 global experts connected by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, suggests that nature is not just about commodities. The authors say that the world needs a broader appreciation of nature's contribution to people. In other words, plentiful food, clean water and healthy air go a long way to improving culture, so rather than just taking what we need, appreciate that there are more fundamental benefits to conserving the natural environment  … including improving our education system.