Nurturing the learning mind

08 March 2022

How indoor plants and other biophilic features create productive and creative learning environments.

We often talk about how plants offer a restorative connection to nature in the workplace, where we often feel far removed from natural settings. Office plants are certainly increasingly in demand as businesses recognise the many benefits they offer in terms of staff wellbeing and productivity.  

However, educational settings are similar indoor spaces in many ways. They are indoors, often with poor air circulation, little natural light, and yet they are places where people come to learn and develop.

It makes sense, then, that indoor plants and other natural features should be prioritised as design features in universities, colleges and schools.

Proven benefits

Research into plants in learning settings certainly supports this view. The Agricultural University of Norway, for example, conducted a study into the effect of plants in classrooms and found that by introducing a good number of specimens, there was a significant effect on pupils’ health. Within just a few months, there were:

  • 47% fewer headaches
  • A 37% drop in sore throats
  • Fewer cold symptoms

In addition, 69% of pupils said they felt better generally.

Research conducted by Amanda Read of The Royal College of Agriculture in Cirencester demonstrated that students attending lectures in rooms with plants were significantly more attentive, with distractions reduced by 70%. What’s more, students were also almost 100% more likely to return to lectures in the planted rooms.

Research into biophilic features in the workplace also produced results relevant to learning environments. The 2015 Human Spaces report covered 7,600 office workers in 16 countries and found a 15% increase in wellbeing, 6% increase in productivity and 15% increase in creativity in environments with natural elements.

Plants have also been proven to reduce stress levels, an additional and important benefit in learning settings, where students can struggle with a range of pressures, both academic and social.

A breath of fresh air

High CO2 levels can significantly impair concentration, yet in classrooms, labs and lecture theatres, air circulation is often poor. In these environments, where the very reason students are there is to retain information, or think up new ideas, poor air quality seems the very antithesis of these objectives.

While opening windows can quickly freshen the air, plants can also make a difference. By absorbing CO2 and emitting oxygen, photosynthesizing plants can play their part in improving the air and keeping students and pupils feeling alert and energised.

Levels of CO2 and airborne mould, dust, bacteria and toxins can then build up, which in turn affects our health: headaches, dry coughs, poor concentration and drowsiness are all symptoms of poor air quality.

Plants improve indoor air in three important ways: they replace CO2 with O2, they improve humidity levels, and they remove harmful toxins, dust, mould and bacteria.

With houseplants a true social media phenomenon, many Instagram-savvy youngsters will already be clued up to the many health benefits of plants, not to mention their ability to up the style game of any room, so planting in learning settings should certainly be an easy sell to students. And, for a relatively small investment, they can also improve learning ability and, therefore results.

Planting schemes

We have worked with a range of educational settings over the years to introduce more effective indoor planting displays in common areas such as atriums, cafeterias and even in student accommodation. In each case, the introduction of fresh planting creates a more welcoming, relaxing environment where students can focus and create.

Most recently, we brought life to a revamped atrium at Sheffield University’s Owen Building, filling troughs which line the edges of each floor overlooking the atrium space with a variety of live planting. The planting marries with the natural light from above and the wood panelling to create an overall biophilic feel to the space.

The atrium at Sheffield Hallam’s Owen Building

Other indoor and outdoor planting for learning settings have included evoking cell structures in the courtyard of a medical faculty, structural terrace planting in vibrant containers in a break out terrace, vivid planters to brighten accommodation blocks, and a range of biophilic greenery for communal areas.