Undoubtedly the pandemic-driven clearing of the air will be short-lived and we are likely to return to “emissions as usual’ in the medium-term. Shutting down the global economy to improve air quality is not a viable, long-term solution, but hopefully one silver lining of the coronavirus cloud will be to speed up our sustainability, health and wellbeing agenda.
Thanks to technology, we have learned a tremendous amount about how the environment impacts schoolchildren. For example, we know from data generated by sensors and wearables how much exposure children have to air pollution - both on the way to school and once they are inside.
Some of the most interesting air quality studies of the last few years have focused on schools in busy urban areas. It is not a positive story. Almost every child in London attends a school in an area where air pollution levels are above World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. The air outside of many schools is poor and the exposure is frequent – on the way to school, in the playground and in the classroom itself (outside air eventually makes its way in).
Air quality studies have a long history in the classroom, with some of the earliest and most interesting studies focusing on the quality of indoor air, particularly concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2). The results are unequivocal – poor air quality is a learning hindrance. Students with better air quality (in the form of lower CO2 levels) perform better than their peers in poor environments, all else being equal. It is also the case that classroom air can be full of other types of air pollutants – like particulate matter, SOx and NOx – that have a detrimental impact on children’s health.
Several other factors influence health and wellbeing and student performance. Chief among them are these three main items:
- Lighting: Students score better where lighting levels are appropriate. Natural light in particular improves mood, concentration and the production of Vitamin D
- Acoustics: Students in quieter classrooms score better, have lower levels of anxiety and better physical health
- Thermal Comfort: As with air quality, children are more sensitive to temperatures. Deviations from comfort bands have shown to affect learning rates, test scores as well as physical and mental wellbeing
For many years, these four factors – air quality, lighting, acoustics and thermal comfort – were the main areas of attention in schools, primarily because the focus of the work was on understanding the impact of buildings on physical health and learning. More recently, the range of factors thought to be important has increased, as has interest in the relationship between buildings and mental health.
Beyond the Big Four
We now know that there are other variables that have a significant impact on the wellbeing of children in the school environment. These include, but are not limited to:
- access to clean water and healthy food
- views out to nature, and access to natural surroundings
- enough outdoor space for children to play and exercise
- a “look and feel” to classrooms that uses natural materials and motifs, including colour and patterns
The main underlying theme behind all these principles is the importance of nature and its ability to enhance both physical and mental health, as well as facilitate learning.
We know, for example, that children occupying classrooms that are surrounded by nature are not only in a better physical environment, they are also more likely to be calmer and better able to concentrate. Similarly, school buildings that have high levels of natural light help students to learn more effectively. There is a “sweet spot” for sustainability in classrooms when practices that reduce energy and otherwise improve the environment also enhance learning. We expect to see more of these practices – use of daylight, natural ventilation, natural materials, etc – in future school buildings.
So What Can You Do?
Whether you are building a new school, conducting a refurbishment or refresh or simply interested in better operational practices, we recommend using a model that we at G&T have considered in our own work. We call it “plant-based space” and within it we find a simple and well-understood set of “ingredients” and “actions” that can help you better frame decisions around sustainable schools.
We can build sustainable schools by adopting a “plant-based space” model. The six ingredients that plants need to thrive – light, air, water, food, warmth and space – are the same ones that students need to thrive.
It works like this: think about plants and mimic their example. The six ingredients that plants need to thrive – light, air, water, food, warmth and space – are the same ones that students need to thrive. And what plants do – renew, purify, conserve, nourish, uplift and then vanish – represent the principles upon which green and healthy schools should be considered. This natural, organic model is intuitive and understood by children, so it also presents an educational and communicative function to students, parents and colleagues.
This is an extract from our report on GT Market Intelligence.