Natural Environment and Emotional Regulation

This chapter discusses the use of the natural environment as a tool for emotional regulation and ways to bring the natural environment into the classroom.

Key Points

  • Effectiveness of natural environments on emotional regulation.
  • Different environments can have distinctive effects on emotions.
  • Natural environments can be more calming for students.

Some Theory...

Active Use of the Natural Environment for Emotion Regulation

  • In Norway, Johnsen and Rydstedt (2013) attempted to see if nature could regulate emotions. Four hundred and seventy-three participants were given fifty-six photos in total, which represented six different everyday environments (urban environments with people, urban environments without people, “unsafe or scary” natural environments, living rooms, shopping malls, and classical natural environments). The of this study was to investigate whether nature was perceived as an environment for emotional regulation.
  • Their results concluded that natural environments could effect emotional regulation by increasing positive emotions and lessoning negative emotions when the natural environments were perceived to being safe. Link to the study

Stress Recovery During Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments

  • Researchers were interested in further exploring the impact of environmental stress and environmental stressors (e.g. crowding, community noise, air pollution) on humans. At the University of Delaware, 120 undergraduate volunteers (60 males and 60 females) were each asked to view videos.
  • The stressor video was a prevention film about work related incidences. After their exposure to the stressor, participants viewed six different outdoor settings (two natural, four urban). Physiological measures included heart period, muscle tension, skin conductance and pulse transit time, a non-invasive measure that correlates with systolic blood pressure were gathered.
  • The data showed that recuperation was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to natural rather than various urban environments. Link to the study

Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors?

  • A systematic review focused on studies and the effects of physical and mental well being of exercising indoors versus natural outdoor environments (green spaces such as wilderness areas, allotments, urban parks, open countryside, country parks, woodlands, and wildlife reserves).
  • It was found that those who exercised in natural environments felt “revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy with a greater intent to repeat the outdoor activity at a later date.”
  • This review concluded that natural environments might have beneficial effects on health and well-being. Link to the study

Implementation of Natural Environments

  • The above studies demonstrate that natural environments help to regulate emotions, reduce stressors, and can leave people feeling positive. Given what we know about self-regulation and the need for teachers to help students reduce stressors, one could take nature and incorporate it into the classroom to promote emotional regulation.

Reggio Emilia Approach

  • Many early learning environments have adopted the Reggio Emilia approach to learning. Among many fundamental philosophies, “the Reggio Emilia approach describes three educators as being in the classroom at any one time: the teacher, the child, and the environment” (Johnson and Ellis, 2009, p. 40). The idea that the environment classroom is a “third teacher” is prevalent especially when designing the classroom space. Johnson and Ellis (2009) suggest that by seeing the environment as an educator, “as the Reggio Emilia approach does, we can begin to notice how our surroundings can take on a life of their own that contributes to children’s learning” (p. 40).
  • All Reggio Emilia inspired schools are designed in a way where children are invited to express themselves in a natural environment. “Childhood is often the first place where we begin to see and use the environment imaginatively” (Johnson and Ellis, 2009, p. 40). The environment is organized with several natural objects and areas. Therefore when interacting with natural and authentic materials and tools there are opportunities to inspire children to explore, evoke their interests, and encourage communication and collaboration. Natural objects can include but are not limited to acorns, pinecones, bark, and plants. Link to Video
  • By creating this natural environment, children are not only surrounded by natural beauty but they are also able to feel calmer. Many classroom environments provide overstimulation and the “visual busyness” can negatively influence children’s concentration (Johnson and Ellis, 2009).

Redesigning a Classroom To Foster Self-Regulated Learning

  • Experimenting with physical classroom spaces and altering it to be less stimulating can be beneficial to students’ emotional learning. A teacher in North Vancouver recently transformed her classroom and found the students to be more calm and quiet. They expressed their enjoyment of working with more natural materials and having more space and freedom to move (Harrington, 2015).
  • In the above photos, Harrington (2015) demonstrates the classroom environment before the redesigning of the space and after.
  • After the transformation, students were quoted as liking the space. Some stated that “the whole room makes my body feel nice” and “it makes me feel calmer” (Harrington, 2015).
  • Emotions and environments seem to be directly related for children and adults. If one feels safe, calm and alert then positive feelings and emotions are expressed. The research, and situations described above suggests that natural environments help people to feel positive emotions. As teachers, we can change our classroom environment by adopting some Reggio Emilia approaches and bringing nature inside to help create a calming and safe environment for young learners to grow.

Practical Suggestions

  • As we read in the previous chapter, one way to help support self-regulation is to create a calm environment. Below are some teacher-generated tips that can be used to create an environment that could help regulate students and help them to feel positive emotions.
  • Purposeful use of colour
    • Carefully choose colours to accompany certain areas of the classroom rather than choosing random colours. For example, instead of posting rainbow bulletin borders, check and see if they are needed and choose colours at relate to the area.
  • Neutral colours
    • Neutral colours are less stimulating than bright and bold colours and they can simulate the outdoors and allow for a calmer environment.
  • Lighting
    • Most school classrooms come equipped with bright florescent lighting. Purchasing lamps and placing them around the classroom with warm bulbs can help reduce the brightness that the florescent lights bring. If this option is not in the budget or if there are not enough electrical sockets in the classroom, there are other options to reduce the amount of lighting. One way is to turn off a set of lights so that only one set is being used at a time. Try to use as much of the natural light from the windows. Another option is to ask if you could have some of the florescent light bulbs removed.
  • De-clutter
    • Teachers are notorious for becoming packrats by collecting and keeping things “just in case”. It is a good idea to look through all of those boxes and repacking items that you know you will keep and donating the items that you have not used in years. In younger grades, get rid of toys that children are not playing with. Reducing visual distractions by clearing the shelving, keeping minimal items on the shelves or by covering the shelving with cloth or burlap will minimize sensory distractions.
  • Acoustics
    • Some rooms carry a lot of noise. One way to reduce the noise is to use fabric to reduce the echo. Removing toys with auditory components will also help.
  • Access to nature
    • Many areas of the lower mainland are fortunate enough to have a forest in their backyard. If this is not possible, bringing the outdoors inside will help with being surrounded by nature. Nature items that the Reggio Emilia Theory promotes such as pinecones, rocks, bark, acorns, chestnuts, etc. can be collected together with your students. Another natural location that could be visited by students is the beach to collect seashells, sand, driftwood, etc.
  • Temperature
    • Very hot or cold temperatures can make the environment uncomfortable. Warm atmospheres can makes students tired and cold temperatures can make people unable to focus. Check the thermostat and keep a log so you can report temperature inconsistencies.
  • Air quality
    • If the air quality is poor, humidifiers or air purifiers can be brought in. An aromatherapy mister can be added with lavender scented oils to help the atmosphere become calm and relaxing.
  • Furniture
    • Furniture that is more welcoming and accessible for students and all of the multiple intelligences is preferred. Rather than having individual desks and chairs, having workspaces that promote socialization and small groups can be more comfortable for students. Having cushions and beanbag chairs gives another layer of comfort to the classroom. As noted in the last chapter, when children are calm and focused they are ready to learn. Chairless workspaces or standing desks can also help many children who need to move around.



Redesigning a Classroom To Foster Self-Regulated Learning. Blog Link.

Strong-Wilson, T., & Ellis, J. (2007). Children and place: Reggio Emilia's environment as third teacher. Theory into practice, 46(1), 40-47.