Nature as classroom, nature in the classroom

The experiences one has in early education centers are vital in nurturing and establishing the foundations from which a person grows into an adult. My memories of primary school are quite strong, and I have often found that people generations above myself, whilst they may not remember details of last year, tend to be able to describe vividly what early schooling was like for them. I attended Moerlina School in Mount Claremont from age 4 to 8, a private community school that has a small cohort with mixed-grade classes. I recall the classrooms, the layout of the building, the carpark, even clearly some lessons and projects. However when I reflect back on my experience, that information takes a backseat to my memories of being outdoors with my classmates: gathering native flowers from around the grounds to make shrines, swishing our legs in the ‘spa’ which was actually a small elevated part of the pond, collaborating to create a village of stick-huts, exploring, playing, and learning.

‘Our new friends exploring their new spaces at school’
Instagram: moerlina_school 01.04. 2019

On Thursdays we did science and agriculture, which was the best day. We would go between classroom learning to working on the school garden, mulching the soil, digging and planting and we could eat and take home the pickings. Today’s website for the school expresses a nature pedagogy that remarkably summarises my experience 15-odd years ago and it is pleasing to know that this has been upheld:

‘Our children enjoy a natural-terrain schoolyard that features natural habitats, stately gums, abundant fruit trees and vegetable patches. They play freely building stick cubbies, grinding rocks, trading found objects, exploring the frog bog and generally getting dirty. We believe these opportunities are fundamental to creating happy, healthy, strong children.’[1]

‘Walking amongst the Peace Poles . . . ‘
Instagram: moerlina_school 28.02.2018

Perhaps I am biased to agree with this organic approach for early learning, having banked a generally happy storage of memories from Moerlina School. My older sibling and I do agree that perhaps a few more classes spent doing fractions rather than planting broad beans would have been ideal, particularly as she moved on to another school at a later age than I and found the transition in curriculum starker. Bringing the benefits of nature within the learning environment together with focus and efficiency in covering curriculum, is the idea of applying biophilic design into the indoor learning spaces. Studies have found that simply optimising daylight in school rooms can boost attendance, test scores and learning efficiency.[2] Much research has been undertaken outlining how presence of plant-life in rooms can have stress and anxiety reducing effects, and within the classroom this has been found to positively affect test scores. There are numerous reasons for this including the improvement of appearance and ambience in the space and reduction of CO2 and volatile compound levels in the air, which can also be helped by greater ventilation of fresh air through openings.[3]

‘Some of our gorgeous ELC children reading outdoors in a tent.’
Instagram: moerlina_school 14.02.2019

Design that optimises natural aspects in the indoor and outdoor school environments not only supports curriculum learning, but particularly in early grades greatly supplements experience and development. Through digging around, exploring in, caring for, and generally being amongst nature, children can feel comfortable, stimulated, and learn things about our world and themselves as a part of that. I believe education and information are the greatest privileges of living in today’s world, and that the formative years of learning in nature that children have experienced throughout history should not become lost in modernity. Knowledge and nature balance and enhance each other, and in design of the learning environment schools such as Moerlina can continue to foster and develop this for the generations of children to come.

[1] “Bush School & Beach School.” Moerlina School: where education comes alive. (retrieved 30/04/2019).

[2] Heath, Oliver. “3 Inspiring Schools Using Biophilic Design”. Interface blog: Human Spaces. (retrieved 30/04/2019).

[3]Daly J., Burchett M. and Torpy, F. Plants in the classroom can improve student performance. Sydney: Report to IPA, 2010.