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Work & Learning

By: Katrina Flora and Kathleen L. Wolf, Ph.D.
August 28, 2014
cite: Wolf, K.L., S. Krueger, and K. Flora. 2014. Work & Learning - A Literature Review. In: Green Cities: Good Health ( College of the Environment, University of Washington.


Places that incorporate or are located near nature can help remedy mental fatigue and restore one’s ability to focus on tasks. The result can be better performance in the work place and classroom. Additionally, nearby nature provides settings for play and experiential learning activities that promote children’s cognitive, social, and moral development.

Fast Facts

Nature & Mental Performance

More than 80% of the U.S. population now lives in cities and towns. Not so long ago most people lived in rural communities where work and learning were activity based, and often associated with the land. Agriculture was a major occupation. In modern times work and study involve primarily mental and cognitive processes, and the use of computers has further focused human productivity indoors. The biophilia hypothesis2 describes an innate attraction that humans have for nature due to a long history of being directly dependent on living things for basic needs. This deep connection persists, and may explain why the experience of nearby nature seems to help us perform better in the office and at school.


Many workers spend entire days indoors and at their desks, mentally focused on multiple tasks or projects. Arrangements of cubicles in the workplace often limit experience of the outdoors during the workday. Some people compensate for the lack of a window view by bringing plants or pictures of outdoor scenes into their work area. Studies find that people in windowless workspaces are far more likely to introduce nature elements compared to those who have window views of the outdoors3, including up to twice as many nature representations.4 Office workers report that plants make a more attractive, pleasant, and healthy work environment.5,6

Do plants and nature views have an impact on work performance? Studies have tested indirect linkages, and better performance is implied. Cognitive function can be improved after exposure to nature.7,8,9 Studies showed improved employee morale, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker efficiency result when plants are present in the work environment.10

Views of nature while at work may affect health. There are significant positive effects of forest views from windows on job satisfaction and stress.12 Conversely, the absence of nature views or indoor plants is associated with higher levels of tension and anxiety in office workers.14Movement within nature also provides benefit. A European study found that physical access to green space improved employee satisfaction and reduced levels of stress.15 In various studies having views of plants from the workstation was shown to decrease illness incidence,11 and reduce the amount of self-reported sick leave.9 In one study, desk workers with views that included green elements were more satisfied and displayed improved patience, lower frustration, increased enthusiasm for work, and fewer health problems.9

People who work in hospitals also benefit from the presence of nature. A study of nurses having exterior nature views from their work areas found that they were more likely to maintain or improve alertness during their work shift, and better manage acute stress.13 Acute care health workers find that short amounts of time spent in green outdoor spaces in hospitals reduces psychological stress.16 In addition to day-to-day reactions, nearby nature may play a role in employee retention; in one study a view of natural elements was found to buffer negative impacts of job stress on intention to quit.17 For workers who take work or lunch breaks outdoors, serene settings are the most appreciated.18

Despite potential benefits there are many obstacles that prevent people from going into green space during the workday, including lack of supervisor support.19 Yet changes that provide even small improvements in performance can provide value to firms or agencies. The annual absenteeism rate of 3% per employee in the private sector and 4% in the public sector represents a value of $2,500 to $3,400 based on total average annual salary and benefits per worker.20 In addition, “presenteeism” is the problem of workers being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning, and can cut individual productivity by one-third or more.21 Total presenteeism costs in the United States may be as much as $160 billion per year,22 and may cost employers 2-3 times more than insurance premium payments for direct medical care.23

Higher Education

The ability to focus attention and achieve a high level of cognitive functioning is also important for success as a college student. In one study plants were added to a college computer lab. Students were more productive; demonstrating a 12% faster reaction time on computer tasks, and were less stressed (indicated by having lower blood pressure). Study participants also reported feeling more attentive and better able to concentrate in the presence of plants.10

One study found that college students having more natural views from their dorm windows scored higher on tests of capacity to direct attention (CDA) and rated themselves as able to function more effectively.24 In another study those who participated in a nature walk performed higher on a CDA test than those who went on an urban walk or those who relaxed in a comfortable room with magazines and light music.25

K-12 Education

Younger people at all school grade levels experience challenges in learning and task performance. In one study, when asked to draw their favorite places, 96% of the participating children illustrated an outdoor scene.26 The preference for these natural settings may be correlated with their restorative properties, which could positively impact K-12 learning.

Nature plays a role in children’s cognitive functioning. A study compared the after-move conditions of home relocations. Children whose new homes improved the most in terms of greenness also tended to have higher levels of attention capacity, as measured by an Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) instrument.27 Children who experienced the most increase in natural elements had the greatest ability in cognitive function several months after moving. Also, surveys of parents whose children were diagnosed with ADHD indicated that the children functioned better than usual after activities in green settings, and that the greener a child’s play area, the less severe were his or her ADHD symptoms.28, 29

Nature viewed from inside can provide micro-restorative environments.30 Using views from windows in a high-rise apartment building as a measure of near-home nature, children were evaluated using tests of concentration, impulse inhibition, and delay of gratification. For girls, the more natural the view, the better her performance on all the indicators of self-discipline; no relationship was found for boys and natural views nearby their homes.31

How important are nature views for students while they are at school? Middle-school students show positive connections between plant presence in classrooms and reductions in misbehavior, feelings of unfriendliness, and absenteeism;32 findings may be explained by the presence of nature enabling recovery from both mental fatigue and stress. A study of 101 public high schools found consistent and systematically positive relationships between nature exposure and student performance and behavior.33 Views from cafeteria and classroom windows with greater quantities of trees and shrubs were associated with more positive standardized test scores, graduation rates, percentages of students planning to attend a four-year college, and fewer occurrences of criminal behavior. In addition, large expanses of landscape lacking natural features (such as lawns, athletic fields, parking lots, and large lawns) were negatively related to the scores and measures. All analyses accounted for student socio-economic status and racial/ethnic makeup, building age, and size of school enrollment.

Nature-based performance benefits may translate into improved academic performance and interest in school. Nature views from the classroom are important, yet class sessions may not provide sufficient mental down time.33 Spending lunchtime or recess in an outdoors or natural environment can be important for reflection, relaxation, restoration, and social learning processes.34

Outdoor Learning

Schools are more frequently integrating nature into education, often using gardens or outdoor classrooms. Education in nature settings uses direct contact with nature in experiential, inquiry-based learning. Nature-based learning can support education about environmental stewardship, math, science, natural and plant processes, ecology, soil, recycling, reuse of materials, plant propagation, food and nutrition, and language arts.35,36,37,38 A preliminary study of schools that use the Environment as an Integrating Context for learning (EIC) suggests those EIC students tend to academically outperform their peers at traditional schools.39

Attention Restoration Theory & Mental Function

Why or how does the experience of nature affect work and learning? While there has been little research about the causal effects (for instance, neuroscience studies), there is an evidence-based theory that provides insight.

Cognitive fatigue occurs after periods of intense concentration or directed attention, as our mind works to fend off distractions and competing attention demands. Mental fatigue can lead to irritability, lack of concentration, inability to solve problems, and increased likelihood of making mistakes or causing accidents.40

Attention Restoration Theory (ART) proposes that certain environments are restorative and help individuals recover from mental fatigue, by providing time away from tasks that require voluntary or directed attention, allowing the mind to recharge.41,42 Objects or settings that are involuntarily interesting can be particularly effective antidotes as they allow the mind to pay attention with little effort and consequently to relax and recover.40

Natural settings are particularly effective as restorative settings. Even brief glimpses or short amounts of time spent in a natural settings improve brain performance, as cognitive respite occurs when the fascinating stimuli of nature engages our involuntary, effortless attention.42 The authors of ART, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, have derived the specific characteristics of nature settings that engage attention and encourage mental restoration – a sense of being away, having extent, offering fascination, and feeling compatible.43,8

Nature & Informal Learning

Formal learning is defined by a structured curriculum, often delivered in an institutional or academic setting. Informal or experiential learning occurs in everyday life, and may be guided by self-expression, curiosity, and imagination, as well as social experiences.

The Importance of Play

Children engage in experiential learning long before they go to school. Children are motivated to learn when they can pursue their interests and make their own discoveries. Informal learning can include a wide range of activities and subject matter; it is formative because the activity is voluntary, usually self-directed, and often propelled by curiosity.44 Play also teaches children how to interact and cooperate with others, which is important for success in school and work environments.45

How might nearby nature contribute to informal learning outside of the classroom? Nature’s ‘affordances’ are the diverse materials and settings that enable and facilitate imaginary play, the activities that are known to have high social and cognitive benefits.46,47, For instance, younger children often use outdoor settings and plants, stones, and sticks as props for imaginative play. One study of children’s play found that a cluster of shrubs was the most popular place to play on an elementary schoolyard because it could be transformed into many imaginary places: a house, spaceship, etc.49 Among older children, exposure to nature encourages exploration and team building activities, which can improve problem-solving skills, ability to respond to changing contexts, as well as participation in group decision-making.

The effect of outdoor play is significant in child development. A study of day care settings in Sweden compared a simple outdoor play area with a care setting that contained an overgrown garden with large rocks and surrounded by pasture and orchard. The children of the latter facility played outside every day for substantial periods of time, and were found to have better motor coordination and better attentional concentration abilities.50 Later follow up studies of large play areas containing trees, shrubs and hilly terrain showed fewer inattention behaviors in young children.51

Two factors, play and interactions with adults, are critical in children’s social and cognitive development. A behavioral study compared observations of children within outdoor settings around public housing.52 Overall, the inner-city children's everyday play activities and social connections to adults appeared to be favorable. Then within comparatively barren spaces levels of play and interactions with adults were approximately half as much as those found in spaces with more trees and grass, and the incidence of creative play was significantly lower.52 Access to nearby nature may foster everyday activities and experiences that are important in children's development.

Nature Values

The book, Last Child in the Woods, summarizes many aspects of the importance of nature in childhood, and suggests that many young people now experience nature-deficit disorder,53 a lack of experiences in and exposure to nature. Meanwhile, headlines call out environmental challenges, such as air and water quality, that are remedied in part by focused efforts of citizens and communities. Human values toward nature are the basis of commitment to greater stewardship for the natural environment.2

Stephen Kellert describes a set of nature values, reasoning that these are formed as we mature from the earliest years to adulthood (Table 1). Developmental psychologists, such as Jean Piaget, described the general intellectual transitions from child to adult; the emergence of nature values follows similar patterns. A person’s attitude towards and awareness of nature evolves, as does their value system, and develops based on experiences, needs, and knowledge.

Table 1_Kellert's nature values
Table 1: Typology of Nature Values54

Core Values

A survey of architecture students, teachers, principals, and nursery school teachers found that 97% reported that the outdoors had been the most significant environment during their childhood.55 Sustained and meaningful contact with nature during childhood may contribute to development of broader values. For instance, morality and ethics are profoundly important for a functioning civil society. One’s emergent nature values may contribute to the development of broader moral values.56 A child’s connection to living things and other aspects of nature may allow for the development of moral understandings about autonomy, self-organization, and freedom.57 For instance, if a child comes to understand the needs of a pet, and the ‘rights’ of an animal to be well cared for, this reasoning may extend to other creatures and human populations as moral equivalences. With maturity, a child’s concrete reasoning for not harming animals or other humans (sentient nature) may extend to more abstract concerns and the intrinsic value of non-sentient, non-feeling nature.57

The decline of natural systems may eliminate important opportunities for human learning and development. Environmental amnesia can occur across generations. With ongoing environmental decline, each new generation perceives the degraded condition to be the baseline of environmental health.58,59 Although children understand the general concepts of pollution (such as water pollution or solid waste) and its impacts on the human world, fewer children believe that their own environment is polluted or that these problems currently exist.60

Designing & Planning for Nature

The way spaces are designed can affect the work and learning environment. Several studies have looked at spaces that best promote mental development and productivity.


The usual fixtures of playgrounds – swings, slides, and other fixed play equipment – may serve well for physical activity but offer little opportunity for mental development.47 Research about play and favored spaces promotes the use of more natural and imaginative play facilities. Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara, California, is an example of a playscape that incorporates nonstandard play equipment.61 The park includes structures as settings for imagination play: an ancient shipwreck, miniature adobe playhouses, murals, sea caves, a lighthouse with kaleidoscope, fishing pier, and dock, among other designs. This park and the experiences it provides can permeate into conversations at home, curricular school activities, and summer camp visits, encouraging repeat visits and deeper levels of learning as children age.61


Gardens, a plant-filled atrium, and green roofs can be integrated into the design of large buildings. Nature can be incorporated into constructed spaces in other ways.44 For instance, it is hypothesized that certain kinds of movement patterns are associated with safety and tranquility, while others indicate danger. “Heraclitean” movements are soft and rhythmic patterns that imply safety, and may lead to a calm mental state.62 Examples are the movement of trees or grasses in a light breeze or the pattern of light and shade created by cumulus clouds. Also, bright daylight supports circadian rhythms, enhances mood, promotes neurological health, and affects alertness.63 Integrating natural movement patterns and more natural light in buildings may improve work and learning capabilities, and are important future research opportunities.


Some ecologists urge landscape designers to create more biologically complex urban spaces. The role of diverse vegetative structure has only recently been addressed in nature and human response studies. In a study of high schools, campuses having trees, shrubs, and other plants had a more positive connection to standardized test scores, four-year college plans, and reduction in criminal behavior, as compared to schools with ecologically simplified lawn areas.33 Psychological benefits of green space have been positively correlated with increased species richness in plant life.64 Additional studies may inform designers about how to connect biodiversity with the extensive findings that humans prefer open, savannah-like park settings.43


Project support was provided by 1) the national Urban and Community Forestry program of the USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry, and 2) the Pacific Northwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service.



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