Putney High School’s Biophilic Classroom project has produced fascinating findings about nature’s ability to enhance both wellbeing and learning

Putney High School’s Biophilic Classroom study is a first – showing a clear route to improve a sense of wellbeing and even productivity in the classroom through the power of plants. It started in 2019 as part of the school’s wider ‘Breathe’ programme (begun in 2018), which considers a whole raft of areas that feed into wellbeing. “Little did we know how relevant our findings would become,” says Headmistress Suzie Longstaff. “What started as a four-month project over the winter to monitor the effects of bringing plants, natural materials and views of nature into the indoor learning environment, took on a new relevance with the arrival of spring, as the pandemic confined us in our homes.”

The study’s starting point was a NASA Clean Air Study of 1989, which had looked at how much plants contribute to improving air quality. At Putney High, the students used air sensors and, for the first time, could identify the exact ratio of plants needed to improve air quality – discovering that it’s one plant per six cubic metres. The Biophilic project resonated not only with the students’ wider interest in the environment cultivated via its Breathe programme, but also tied into Putney’s science (air quality studies) and art (botanical natural form) curriculums.

Putney High School's green team
The project has blossomed – now younger pupils at the south-west London school are also involved

During Covid, the project was transferred to the Futures Hub in the school’s Sixth Form Centre, where the plants were cared for by staff and students. But by this time, the whole project was blossoming. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) asked the school to share its research in the Discovery Zone of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. This had been postponed due to Covid and took place in September 2021, where the school display attracted lots of interest and even picked up a coveted Gold Medal.

Growing the plants had, by this time, become a whole-school affair, with the offspring of the school’s original indoor garden being grown and nurtured for Chelsea Flower Show in the Junior School. They were re-housed after the show in the Reception classrooms, which by now were benefiting from the roll-out of the project. All this green-fingered industry has honed the students’ gardening knowhow and tapped into sustainability ideals – they have watched as plants have produced more plants to extend the calming and air-cleansing benefits of indoor nature. The Biophilic research has now been used to inform the design of Putney’s Athena Centre for Science, Music, Drama and Debating – opened to students earlier this year and officially launched by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock at the start of May.

“Putney High School students were able to identify the exact ratio of plants needed to improve air quality – it’s one plant per six cubic metres”

The ripples of Putney High’s work have spread wider. Ahead of RHS Chelsea Flower Show the project was featured on BBC Gardeners’ World. “I was incredibly impressed to see the work and importantly the enthusiasm that the students of Putney High School demonstrated with their research for improving their environment with plants, said Presenter and Garden Designer Arit Anderson. The school has made its findings available, producing a useful Plant Guide for Schools, showcasing houseplants to grow in both low-light and bright-light indoor environments, plus atmospheric and air-cleansing properties of each plant selected. It has given out more than 10,000 copies of its Plant Guide so far, suggesting many more schools are tapping into the benefits of using greenery to improve classroom atmosphere and wellbeing.

At Putney High, there’s no doubt about the payback in student wellbeing. The impacts of the Biophilic Classroom study were monitored via student surveys, and 78% of students reported feeling healthier, and said that plants have helped to create an environment where everyone feels calmer and more relaxed. “But it has had an even greater impact, helping students and staff to really engage with their lessons, which of course has had a positive impact on teaching and learning,” adds Headmistress Suzie Longstaff.

Putney High School's green team
Pupils have been fully involved in ‘greening’ their school environment, helping to grow and propagate new plants

“It’s been wonderful to see the whole school engaging with the project, learning about the plants, caring for them and even cultivating them,” she adds. With an Ecologist in Residence on the cards for the school, there seems little doubt that the Biophilic Classroom project is going to be a green benefit for the long term, both for the school and the wider community. “It has started us on a whole sustainability project of ‘re-wilding’ Putney!” says Suzie Longstaff.

To download Putney High School GDST’s Plant Guide for Schools, visit putneyhigh.gdst.net

Further reading: Habs Girls on the importance of outdoor learning