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Why your workday should be more like recess

I know exactly three things about people from Finland. They are (a) very good-looking, (b) love hockey, and (c) take tremendous pride in their world-class education system. And there’s good cause for this pride, as Finnish schools consistently rank among the best in the world.

This may be baffling because Finnish schools seem to do just about everything upside down, at least compared to American standards. Finnish kids don’t start school until they’re 7-years-old. They have no standardized tests, save for one exam taken at the end of high school. And, they spend a lot of time outdoors, both for recreation and education. This last point is key because outdoor learning is enormously beneficial for children. Research shows that going outside allows kids to bond with the natural world as they gain a richer understanding of the environment when they can see it with their own eyes. Not to mention that students are often excited to learn about nature, and teachers feel more confident in their ability to teach science. The benefits of outdoor learning extend beyond science education. One study found that kids who struggled with literacy were more motivated to read and write after spending time outdoors. Another found even broader impacts; teachers interviewed about outdoor learning reported that, while outside, students were more relaxed, more focused and more imaginative.

Outdoor learning may be a remedy for what author and journalist Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” He argues that kids spend too much time indoors in front of screens, to the detriment of their physical, mental, and emotional health. Louv believes that to lose touch with nature is to lose an essential part of what makes us human. All of this raises an important question: could adults also be suffering from nature deficit disorder? If working outdoors is good for kids, could it be just as good for grownups? Research finds that spending time outside during the workday can reduce stress and restore physical and emotional well-being, and going for a walk outdoors can improve creative thinking. Just simulating an outdoor environment has been shown to boost productivity. A 2014 study found that employees who had a few houseplants around their desk were 15 percent more productive. Laptops, smartphones, and wireless internet have rendered the trappings of traditional offices mostly obsolete, so why isn’t working outdoors, at least occasionally, the norm? Some companies have taken note: outdoor office spaces are popping up in cities around the country, from temperate Long Beach, Calif. to Washington, D.C., where icy winters and sticky-hot summers make working outside a challenge. Google’s planned expansion to its Mountain View, Calif. campus will feature large green spaces among its new offices, each covered in a vast, translucent canopy. David Radcliffe, Google’s Vice President of Real Estate, wrote on the company’s blog, “we aim to blur the distinction between our buildings and nature.”

In addition to providing workers with a place to get some fresh air, outdoor workspaces also leave a smaller environmental footprint than office buildings. Businesses use a tremendous amount of energy to light, heat and air condition offices, all in the name of making the inside of a building feel like a nice spring day. Why go through all the fuss when you can take your laptop to the park? (Just remember to bring your sunscreen.) Humans did not evolve to sit at a desk for nine hours a day, but modern life demands it. The next frontier in design may be moving classes and offices outdoors, away from whiteboards, overhead projectors and the tyranny of fluorescent lights. For kids and adults, it’s evident that the outdoors inspires creativity, serenity, and a greater appreciation of the natural world. Renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has said that nature “holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” If that is true—and research suggests that it is—then it might be time to head outside.

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Are adults suffering from nature deficit disorder?

Jeremy Deaton

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