Landscapes may shape learning

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Perhaps it was the view of our still oddly green landscape from windows at the Cedar Rapids Country Club that helped me pay such close attention to Bill Sullivan.

Sullivan, head of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois, spoke last week to the annual Our Woodland Legacy Symposium sponsored by Trees Forever. Sullivan’s talk, “The Hidden Benefits of Green Landscapes,” pitched the idea that exposure to nature and green spaces can help us be better learners, problem-solvers, idea-generators and attention-payers.

“Everything we care about is enhanced by our ability to pay attention,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s premise is simple. Exposure to green spaces gives our brains a respite from the rigors of focusing on work and other tasks requiring active attention. Intense focus can lead to fatigue, hurting our ability to pay attention, making us irritable and even impulsive. So we need a respite to recharge.

Sullivan cited three studies on “attention restoration theory.”

At the University of Michigan, 38 people took part in attention-testing exercises and then took a walk, either through an urban downtown or an arboretum. When tested again after the walk, arboretum walkers scored significantly higher.

Sullivan’s students studied 94 high school kids divided into classrooms with no windows, windows that looked out on structures and windows that looked out on green landscapes. The students were given a variety of tasks and tests before taking a break. After the break, tests and tasks resumed.

Students taking breaks in classrooms without windows or with views of structures saw little or no performance improvement after breaks. The kids who could look out at green spaces saw a 17 percent jump in their capacity to pay attention, Sullivan said.

“That’s a clinical dose of Ritalin,” he said, referring to the drug often prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder.

But green space doesn’t have as much benefit if you’re staring at a screen, he said. A study of college students at Illinois found subjects who spent time outdoors staring at a laptop screen saw no more improvement in their capacity to pay attention than students who weren’t exposed to green space. Students who took a green break with no screen scored best.

Clearly, it is interesting stuff, and research will continue. It’s something to think about as we plan, design and build, especially school buildings and workplaces. Should classrooms look out at a huge expanse of pavement or green landscaping? The answer doesn’t have to be expensive, just more thoughtful.

“It’s not enough to have a great park,” Sullivan said, arguing that communities should strive to create green spaces connecting parks. He advocates “nature at every doorstep.”

That’s where groups such as Trees Forever come in, helping to educate decision-makers.

“The role of trees and forest has never been more important,” said Shannon Ramsay, president and CEO of Trees Forever. She said one tree sustains hundreds of species.

I didn’t know that. See what you can learn when you’re paying attention?

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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