What happens when you put a group of high school students in a classroom and make them perform a proofreading test, a speech presentation, and math problems out loud?
They get stressed out, as anyone would.
"For some time there's been a notion that if you have a view to a green space you recover from stressful activities faster than if you did not," said William Sullivan, head of the landscape architecture department at the University of Illinois, in a phone interview. "Most of that work is with adults or children with attention deficit disorder. We wondered if it's generalizable to high school settings."
Sullivan and landscape architecture doctoral student Dongying Li set up an experiment at five different high schools. They placed 94 students randomly into a classroom with no windows, a classroom with windows that look into barren spaces or another building, or a classroom with views of green space.
"We brought kids in to these settings over the summer, with theirs and their parents permission," Sullivan assured.
They were then subjected to the rigorous activity described above for thirty minutes. "One of the activities was to take the number, I think it was 4,029, and subtract 13. When you have that answer, subtract 13 again, and again - for five full minutes, out loud, without any paper or pencil, in front of two people dressed in lab coats," recalled Sullivan.
In an effort to alleviate the stress caused by these activities, the students were given a ten minute break within their classroom.
Physiological measures of stress (heart rate, skin temperature, heart rate variability, moisture on fingertips) before and after the ten minute break indicated that the students who had a window overlooking green space became significantly less stressed and were more quickly able to recover from mental fatigue. As for the students in the rooms without views, "It was like the break didn't exist."
"The take home message is that the kind of setting we go to school in, work in, and feel the stress and mental fatigue that comes from hard work - if we work in windowless places or places without green space we're placing ourselves at a disadvantage," said Sullivan. "We can't overcome the inevitable stress and fatigue as quickly as if we had access to green space."
"The things that we do as landscape architects are comprehensively valuable in that they promote health and the well being of both the environment and the people that we serve," he concluded.