The benefits of biophilic design for early learning centres

Published on Tuesday, 27 August 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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According to proponents of biophilic building design, as humans have evolved, the divide between the natural environment and the built world has become greater, and the effects are negatively impacting us as a society. They believe children are too caught up in this artificial, electrical world of sterile buildings filled with modern technology and as a result, are now experiencing nature deficient disorder and biophobia, a fear of anything natural, which can significantly impact their development and wellbeing.

The solution? Biophilic designed early learning centres, to establish and nurture that instinctual bond between humans and nature from early childhood for lasting positive effects.

What is biophilia?

The phrase biophilia was first established by German-born psychoanalyst and social philosopher, Eric Fromm, in the 1970s. It meant a 'love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom.' Later in the 1980s, US biologist, Edward O Wilson, published 'Biophilia' in which he adapted the word to mean 'the rich natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms.'

Wilson believed the tendency of humans to connect and affiliate with nature and other life forms is rooted in our genetic code, yet over time it's been dulled by industrialisation and urbanisation. The impact of this on overall health and mental wellbeing has been detrimental, with children's behaviour and capacity for learning also negative effected.

The rising trend of biophilic design

As research and awareness has deepened in the area, the new concept of biophilic design has emerged. Essentially the basic principle is to incorporate natural elements into any building at every available opportunity, offering its occupants an opportunity to connect with nature.

While it seems an inventive new design approach, humans have actually been designing this way for thousands of years. Symbolic forms of nature have been seen in some of the oldest rock art, with many ancient buildings and structures involving plant motifs or furnishings. It's just not been formally known by its new name until recently.

Here are some of the elements involved in biophilic design in relation to early education settings:

  • Buildings should be constructed using materials and textures that reflect or mimic those found in nature, including wood indoors and finishes that use symmetry and patterns like those found in nature.
  • They should maximise exposure to, and penetration of, natural light and provide a healthy level of interior air quality.
  • Where possible views of, and access to, the natural world outside of the building should be provided, with clear glass used instead of more translucent options which can create indecipherable shapes and become unnecessary distractions.
  • Integration of outdoor learning areas for more exploratory, experiential education.

The benefits of creating a biophilic environment

Sensory development in humans often begins with exposure to the outdoors and today’s children are losing out on this critical element of healthy growth. Countless studies reveal direct exposure to natural elements has many positive effects on a child's ability to learn and develop plus helps them become happier and more engaged. Here are a few examples:

  • Research in Sweden and Norway where children played on either flat playgrounds or uneven natural grounds found, after one year, the children playing in the more natural locations showed better motor skills than the others.
  • Studies have revealed children who play in areas primarily consisting of manufactured play structures as opposed to natural features establish a "social hierarchy through physical competence," while those with access to natural play areas developed both cognitive and physical competencies.
  • Researchers Scholz and Kromboholz studied the effects of forest kindergartens, schools without buildings, and found the motor performance of children in these settings was superior to those of kids in traditional kindergartens.
  • Recreational researcher Alan Ewert studied the positive effects of outdoor programs and concluded that participants showed positive gains in areas including self-image, coping skills, cognitive and intellectual performance, physical health, personal values, and interpersonal, and social interactions.

Additionally, exposure to natural light has been proven to stimulate serotonin production which is vital for several physiological functions including appetite, digestive, and sleep regulation. It also helps psychologically by maintaining mood balance and promoting happiness.

Views of nature have also been shown to reduce chronic, low-grade stress; while being outdoors can improve discipline and concentration, promote risk taking and creativity, generate a sense of freedom and adventure, and encourage positive social interaction.

Essentially, for overall wellbeing and to enhance children's learning and development, they need to engage frequently with nature where they can be hands-on and uninhibited in order to flourish. If not given these opportunities during the early years, biophobia can also develop, which can range from discomfort in natural places to contempt for whatever is not man-made, managed or air-conditioned, or even a regard for nature as nothing more than a disposable resource.

Other ways to create more nature engagement

It's clear that many children would benefit from greater exposure to biophilic design, however if it's not possible to upgrade or modify your centre or building, there are other ways to bring more nature back into the classroom. Here are a few ideas:

  • Ensure there is an unobstructed view outside from all windows to let in light and show the outdoors. If necessary, move objects or furniture and open blinds and curtains.
  • Keep windows and doors open as much as possible to allow fresh air in.
  • Do as many activities outside as possible including playtime, lessons, craft, eating and even naps. Consider fun outdoor activities when raining also, if kids have wet weather gear.
  • Take children on natural excursions such as bushwalks and nature studies.
  • Bring natural elements into the classroom such as indoor plants and nature displays with rocks, sticks, leaves and more.
  • Consider having a worm farm or native beehive in your centre.
  • Have a veggie garden where the children can help plant and grow edible plants.
  • Expose the kids to animals, such as with petting zoos or wildlife keeper visits, so they can experience touching and looking at animals close up.

Thanks to Community PlaythingsTG Escapes and NAC Architecture for their information around biophilia which helped write this article.

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