Biophilic design in schools couples the human desire to connect with nature with a calm learning environment. Absolutely visits Putney High School to find out how its biophilic classrooms are improving wellbeing

Environmental awareness has never been more present in the public consciousness, with young people more invested than ever in the future of their planet. Putney High School has been leading the eco-friendly charge, working with pupils, staff and parents to actively reduce the school’s carbon footprint with its ‘Breathe’ programme of initiatives.

Now the school has gone one step further, with a first-of-its-kind study showing how measurable improvements can be made in the classroom that positively impact both learning and wellbeing.

Putney’s Biophilic Classroom study began as part of a project examining the school’s green infrastructure. It sought to demonstrate how incorporating elements of nature into a thoughtful design could improve air quality and the general indoor learning environment for students and staff. Headmistress Suzie Longstaff explained, “The Biophilic project is part of our ‘Breathe’ campaign, which demonstrates how a few relatively simple steps, like bringing plants into the classroom, can have a significant impact on both wellbeing and the ability to learn.”

The study began in October 2018, examining how environmental factors might impact learning and behaviour within three physically and demographically similar Sixth Form classrooms over the winter months. As soon as the central heating went on, the classrooms were transformed. The first, a Maths classroom, was modified with an extensive array of indoor plants. The second, an English classroom, had a full-size photographic wall mural of a woodland put on the wall. The last, a Psychology classroom, was left unchanged. All three classrooms were monitored for air quality and atmosphere, and the concentration levels and feelings of wellbeing of the staff and students that spent time in them were observed.

Biophilic Classrooms At Putney High School
Biophilic classrooms at Putney High School

“The importance of plants in cleaning the air has been known for a long time,” said Mrs Longstaff, “but we didn’t realise just how much until we had completed our research. Not only have the plants measurably enriched the oxygen for staff and students, the plants have also had a significant effect on psychological wellbeing.”

The study demonstrated a measurable improvement in brain boosting oxygen, but perhaps more interestingly, it showed a marked change in the behaviour and perceptions of those involved. Students commented on how the classrooms were so much more “relaxing”. “The plants really have a calming effect. They change the atmosphere for sure,” said Sophia, a Year 13 student who was actively involved in caring for the plants. Mrs Longstaff told us, “At Putney our commitment to the environment and the wellbeing of our students go hand-in-hand. The re-design of the classrooms has created some really bright and energising spaces and after four months, 78% of our pupils told us they actually ‘felt healthier’. That has to be a good thing.”

Biophilic Classrooms At Putney High School
Biophilic classrooms at Putney High School

Putney High School’s leafy southwest London campus already forms an arboretum of 32 species of trees that support over 300 insect, seven mammal and 15 bird species. However, despite the school’s numerous outdoor learning spaces, the climate dictates that, as a nation, we typically spend as much as 142 hours per week indoors. With that in mind, Mrs Longstaff explained, “The experiment has been part of our commitment to create the best possible environment in which to teach and learn.” 

Putney’s is the first education-based study into the impact of biophilic design and has been endorsed by Professor Derek Clements-Croome, an international leader on this subject at the University of Reading, who described the project as a “super piece of work” and is incorporating the results into his latest academic publication. The school has been quick to put the lessons into practice, the results being used to inform the design of Putney’s new Science, Music, Drama and Debating Centre which is due to open in Winter 2020.

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