Lloyd Coldrick, Managing Director of Cobus, discusses how classrooms are being designed to improve poor mental health and physical wellbeing in young people
While the British Council for School Environments recognises the right of young people to learn in an environment which is safe, healthy and achieves the highest quality education possible, the continued blur in work/life balance has contributed to unprecedented levels of poor mental health among young people in the UK.
Gone are the days of the traditional nine to three school day, as more students stay connected to their work around the clock through digital technology such as smartphones and tablets.
By having the resources to study 24/7, the risk of exhaustion – or ‘burn out’ – amongst young people through overworking has naturally increased.
Research in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology recently found a significant rise in depression in young people aged between 12 to 25, while the Mental Health Foundation recently revealed that about 70% of those experiencing depression and anxiety have had no appropriate support and intervention.
With millennials predicted to make up half of the workforce by next year, the education sector needs to tackle this troubling issue by ensuring classrooms offer an environment that nurtures student mental health and wellbeing; a place of study designed around the user.
One of the most fundamental ways in which schools, colleges and universities can ensure stress amongst young people doesn’t spiral out of control and become a mental health issue, is by offering a learning environment that promotes their wellbeing from the get-go.
Creating a learning space in which young people can flourish will boost overall wellbeing and its links to increased motivation and productivity. After all, if a classroom is designed to promote student wellbeing, the school will, in turn, experience greater growth.
The ‘biophilic’ approach is one of the most popular methods of developing a healthy and positive environment in the classroom.
Biophilic stems from the word biophilia, meaning a ‘love of nature’, and was coined by German psychologist Erich Fromm before being popularised by American psychologist Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s. He pointed at how the rapid rise of urbanisation was making us more and more disconnected from nature.
As humans, we have a deep-rooted biological connection to nature, so outdated, uninspiring classroom designs can affect our overall health and wellbeing.
It’s no secret stress-related illnesses are a major contributor of disease, but when we think of nature, it provokes thoughts of an environment full of calmness and relaxation. Some educational institutions have used this to their advantage by bringing the outdoors into the classroom.
Shifting to a more open, human-centred approach which incorporates features such as large, open window views and natural materials such as wood, stone and water features, can soothe and inspire the mind.
In fact, research into the health benefits of biophilic designs, carried out by Bill Browning, founding member of the US Green Building Council’s board of directors, and Sir Cary Cooper, CBE professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, found an overwhelming increase to students’ wellbeing.
Incorporating direct or indirect elements of nature into the classroom were found to reduce stress, blood pressure levels and heart rates, resulting in happier students, less absenteeism, fewer illnesses and ultimately, increased engagement.
Furthermore, research by the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that by adding just one plant per square mile in a learning environment, young people were 15% more productive than those without plants in their classroom. Indoor greenery will also vastly improve air quality, which not only benefits the surrounding environment, but the students’ overall health.
It is estimated that most people in the developed world spend as much as 90% of their time inside buildings and cars. But according to UK mental health charity Mind, being out in green spaces can help reduce feelings of stress or anger, making young people feel calmer, while also improving their confidence and self-esteem.
Therefore, designing a classroom to have an outdoor area where students can enjoy more natural light and take in the open views of their surroundings, will naturally invoke positive feelings.
Private outdoor areas within a school’s grounds or public areas outside learning environments can inspire and soothe the mind while offering a positive distraction from the desk.
Just by being outdoors young students will instantly benefit from a higher intake of vitamin D, which keeps bones, teeth and muscles healthy, reducing the chance of developing bone deformities in later life such as rickets. Air quality is also greatly improved outdoors, and the change of scenery can boost motivation.
However, it is not just biophilic designs that can help tackle poor mental health amongst young people nowadays, as the education sector gains a deeper understanding into how they can merge varying designs to create spaces that prioritise the student.
Young people entering education – across all levels – can now benefit from individual support areas where they can take some time away from the rest of the class. These are designed to help improve wellness and alleviate stress, while ultimately fostering interaction among both teacher and student. For instance, a ‘soft area’ can be used for emotional support and a ‘formal area’ for individual study support.
In addition, recreational breakout zones where students can take some time away from studying to re-energise themselves, whether that be through unwinding on comfy furniture, socialising with friends or even playing games such as pool or table tennis, can improve mental wellbeing.
Ultimately, by enhancing spaces to reduce stress and boost overall wellbeing and safety, the education sector can ensure the mental health of young people is nurtured; creating a happy, healthy learning environment.
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