Education and biophilia

From living plants to nature-inspired designs, biophilic design in schools and early learning centres has manifold advantages for our health and wellbeing. 

If you were growing up in 1920s Australia, you learned the names of plants, flowers and trees at school in botany, a subject taught alongside English and maths. A century later and botany has dropped off the school curriculum, plus kids are spending less time in nature than ever before (Louv, 2008), despite research showing how important it is. The good news is that biophilia – the love of nature and living things – is now a widely accepted phenomenon.

More and more interior designers and architects are incorporating nature into their designs, with plant-life and other nature-inspired things incorporated increasingly into buildings of all kinds, and schools are no exception.

In a short essay titled Why We Need Gardens, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote:

Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes” (Sacks, 2019). 

For those designing schools, the solution is clear – let children learn about plants while being surrounded by them, both indoors and out. Even when plants are not numerous enough to increase oxygen levels significantly, they are still shown to have a positive effect on our sense of calm, and on our health and wellbeing. In fact, even incorporating designs that mimic those found in nature, such as wood grain, can produce wellness benefits. In US-based Interior Design magazine, Carlene Olsen writes that “mounting research shows the benefits of nature are nearly instantaneous, kicking in within seconds of exposure” (Olsen, 2019).  

The benefits are even more marked when school children have the opportunity to tend the plants themselves, watch them grow and even eat edible plants. In Teacher magazine, the benefits of such a program are outlined: “The scope for this sort of program within primary and high schools is full of possibilities: the study of biology, geography, history, maths and English can all be enriched by onsite explorations and parallels in nature” (Scott, 2020). 

Dr Tanja Beer from Polyglot Theatre has taken the concept of nature and learning one step further with a community arts project called ‘Outer Bounds’ that explores the potential of creative nature-based play and co-designing with kids. The program encouraged participating kids to make costumes and create ‘cubbies’ and then show these as part of a performance for family and friends. At first there was some resistance and even fear showed by the children, but this was replaced by a sense of comfort and an embrace of the natural environment. “We were surprised at how quickly the children became comfortable in their natural surroundings and began to embrace The Pines as a newfound play space,” says Beer. In the end, the project was a total success and demonstrated “the importance of biophilic activities in supporting children’s agency on environmental issues, now and into the future” (Beer). 

Interior designer Alexandra Kidd incorporated a number of different biophilic elements in her design for the new Cheltenham Early Education Centre, a church conversion that has become a nurturing space for children to learn and grow. The design plays on the church architecture, incorporating an earthy colour palette, while construction was managed to reduce waste, reuse and recycle. As well as including living plants and dried flowers in vases, the design includes an oversized mural of local fauna and flora by artist Chris Nixon, evoking stories of heritage and respect. “Keen to nurture the dialogue [between the centre and its neighbouring bushland], we selected furnishings and decorative accessories that spoke to the native surroundings” (Hale, 2020). 

With climate change and pollution increasingly taking its toll on the planet, we would all do well to remember just how beneficial nature is for our health and wellbeing.

And in creating biophilic environments for children, in school or child care as well as at home, we are not only protecting them, but also instilling a deep love for nature that will give them a sense of ownership and connection to the land, and the motivation to protect it in future. 

Images are of Cheltenham Early Education Centre by Alexandra Kidd, photos by Pablo Veiga.

Written by Penny Craswell.


  1. Beer, T. ‘Biophilia and nature deficit: co-designing natural spaces with and for children’ in Polyglot Theatre Education News.  
  2. Hale, C. (2020). A Nature-Filled Wonderland: Revealing Cheltenham Early Education Centre.  
  3. Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books. 
  4. Olsen, C. (2019). ‘Biophilic Design Benefits Student, Even in Schools with Tight Budgets’ in Interior Design.  
  5. Scott, S. (2020). ‘Learning Spaces: Biophilic Design in Schools’ in Teacher magazine.  
  6. Sacks, O. (2019). ‘Why We Need Gardens’ in Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales. Knopf. 


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