Nature Enhanced Approach to Learning

Published On: April 2nd, 2024 | Categories: In The Classroom |

As the gentle warmth of the sun moves aside the cold grays of winter, vibrant hues of spring paint our surroundings, there’s an undeniable allure to stepping outside, especially on a wooded campus teeming with life. Our school embraces the renewal of nature with open arms, weaving it into the very fabric of our educational experience. Every Friday, dubbed “Crocker Fridays,” on campus, our Lower School students are immersed in the tranquil embrace of nature, engaging in a myriad of outdoor learning activities amidst the rustling leaves and chirping birds. Here at Powhatan School we call this NEAL (Nature Enhanced Approach to Learning). These authentic learning experiences on our campus allow for wonderful opportunities to explore and learn in nature. Beyond just academic enrichment, these excursions serve as a poignant reminder of the profound mental health benefits that accompany immersing oneself in the natural world. The research supports this wholeheartedly.


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Denmark Study:

We know how important it is to get children outside in nature. There is significant research coming to the forefront centered around the positive effects on our bodies and being outside. A fascinating study out of Aarhaus University in Denmark tracks one million individuals over almost three decades. While it focuses on the connection between health and nature with people at various ages, it zeroes in on the impact that the amount of time children spend in nature has on human development over time.

The study underscores the profound link between nature exposure and human development, particularly in children. Notably, the research reveals compelling data illustrating the long-term benefits of childhood nature immersion. For instance, findings indicate that children who spent a minimum of two hours per week in natural settings exhibited a 20% lower risk of developing mental health disorders later in life compared to those with less exposure. Moreover, individuals who had regular access to green spaces during their formative years demonstrated enhanced cognitive function and emotional resilience well into adulthood, with a 15% decrease in the likelihood of experiencing mood disorders. These robust statistical correlations underscore the pivotal role of nature in fostering holistic human development across the lifespan, shedding light on the invaluable contributions of green environments to mental well-being and overall health.


Barcelona Study:

Research indicates that incorporating green spaces into and around urban schools significantly enhances the cognitive development of young children, potentially due to decreased exposure to traffic pollution and the psychological benefits of natural surroundings. Spanish researchers discovered a correlation between increased greenness and improvements in short-term memory, superior working memory, and reduced inattentiveness among 2,593 children aged seven to ten attending primary schools in Barcelona. The study, conducted over a year, suggests that urban environments, characterized by high levels of pollutants and limited greenery, can hinder cognitive development in children.

Led by Dr. Payam Dadvand, the study underscores the importance of access to nature for children’s mental health and cognitive growth, particularly in urban areas where green spaces are scarce. By utilizing satellite images and the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) to assess green space exposure, the researchers highlighted the potential benefits of integrating nature into educational environments. Furthermore, the study suggests that schools increasing greenery within their premises could mitigate cognitive impairments in children, particularly in superior working memory development, by nearly 9%.

The study offers some limitations, including the indirect measurement of green spaces and the lack of consideration for direct contact with nature. Nevertheless, the findings emphasize the need for early childhood educational experiences that prioritize exposure to nature, not only for cognitive development but also for mitigating the adverse effects of urban environmental pollutants on children’s mental health. Parents seeking early childhood education should consider environments that prioritize access to green spaces, recognizing their crucial role in fostering optimal cognitive growth and well-being in children.

The Guardian | Green spaces improve schoolchildren’s mental development, study finds


NEAL: Nature Enhanced Approach to Learning


At Powhatan School we use an approach called Nature Enhanced Approach to Learning (NEAL). NEAL is a lens through which we can teach any or all components of our curriculum. We use it to bring our students outside into the natural world and to bring the natural world indoors to our students.

Some may have the impression that NEAL is an “add-on” to our science curriculum or an outdoor education unit in our physical education program. Although both are good assumptions, NEAL (Nature Enhanced Approach to Learning) is far more unique and important than a unit or special trip. It is one of the many ways a Powhatan education is set apart from curriculums at other schools.

Teachers create lessons that utilize nature to supplement classroom materials in order to engage the students. Lessons are designed to incorporate nature, regardless of the subject. The cross-curricular opportunities are abundant. An example might be a field trip that combines language arts and survival skills taken directly from the novel Hatchet. Another might find students measuring trees or a bridge found on the Crocker Conservancy as the culmination of a math unit on measurement.

Guest speakers and scientists are hallmarks of the program. They work directly with the children in a real-world setting. For example, the ability to learn about the Wetlands in a hands-on activity with guest scientists makes for a truly meaningful experience.


The Crocker Conservancy

We are continually using the lens of NEAL as we create, amend, and reflect upon our curriculum. The Crocker Conservancy adds a whole new dimension to the scope of the NEAL program, allowing for the 47 acres directly behind the school to become an outdoor laboratory for hands-on experiential learning.

The Crocker Conservancy is made up of the 47-acres located in the back of our campus. There are three main habitats on the Crocker Conservancy, including a wetland habitat, warm season grass and wild flower meadow and hardwood forests. Each unique learning space offers real-world opportunities for students to learn and discover.

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