Can Exposure to Nature Help Increase Student Test Scores?

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Photo credit: Tommy Wyche

By Jo Hackl

Research abounds about the mental and physical benefits from spending time in nature and being exposed to natural elements. Studies show that it can increase focus, increase happiness, reduce stress, and increase productivity. Research also shows the importance to lifelong success and satisfaction of building skills that promote grit and resilience.

So why, I wondered, haven’t we harnessed this research more effectively to benefit our next generation?

It was a natural question. I was driving back from presenting at the International Association of School Librarianship (“IASL”) Conference last summer, where I presented on two topics: how to build grit and resiliency in students and how to use science-backed ways to incorporate natural elements into school settings and programming to help increase student engagement and focus and reduce student stress. During the conference I heard from educators about the urgency of their work to overcome the “pandemic lag” and to increase student performance. Why, I asked myself on the drive home, wasn’t there a study examining the power of natural elements to help K-12 students perform better on perhaps the most talked about measure of student performance — standardized tests? And why weren’t there more tools to help students build skills that promote grit and resilience?

And then I thought about Tommy Wyche.

Tommy Wyche, the member for whose family our law firm is named, was a true visionary. He didn’t wait for permission to solve a problem or address an opportunity. He just rolled up his sleeves and did it. He led the charge to preserve over 100,000 acres of land in the South Carolina and North Carolina Blue Ridge escarpment. He published six books on outdoor photography to promote that effort. He was a driving force behind the transition of Greenville, SC from a textile town into a globally recognized cultural and living destination. He worked to create business and cultural opportunities that make our area attractive to the next generation and generations to follow. He did all of this, not to seek any personal benefit, but because he believed it was the right thing to do.

Tommy’s vision for Greenville and Tommy’s approach to problem-solving was a primary factor in attracting me to Wyche, P.A. and Greenville. Tommy became my mentor and role model.

We all know that today’s students are more stressed than ever and that today’s educators are working to help them regain footing in the new normal in which we are all living. I decided to conduct a study in which we introduce a menu of natural elements from which educators can choose and develop precise protocols for their implementation so that students can gain the maximum benefit and we can measure the effect of these interventions against control groups. I discovered that a researcher whom I met at the IASL conference, Elizabeth Gross, is an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University and she was interested in this same topic. Together, we underwent the rigorous Internal Review Board approval process at Sam Houston State University for our study and are now recruiting educators to participate. We’re excited about this study and its potential.

If you have educators within your circle of influence, I hope that you’ll spread the word. Participation is free and results will be gathered without any identifying student data. Parents can, of course, opt out.

Grit and resilience also have long been a topic of study for me. I am a first-generation college graduate for whom the support and guidance of my parents helped me transition from the impoverished Mississippi ghost town where I grew up. With their support, I was awarded scholarships to Millsaps College and Yale Law School. My father cut pulpwood in the hot Mississippi sun to help me to get through college and law school. My mother worked long hours as a bookkeeper and stretched every penny to cover the costs of room and board and travel home. The lessons my parents taught me about character, grit, and resiliency helped me to build a life of meaning, purpose, and satisfaction. Today, character, grit and resiliency are more important than ever and many students do not have the benefit of parents like mine. For over three years I worked with experienced educators and a neuroscience major to develop “Building Grit” kits to help students develop their full potential and you can find the free kits here.

Free grant opportunities are available for both projects. You can find links to apply for grants for both projects here.

I think that Tommy would approve.

I am doing this because I believe that the same research that shows that today’s workers feel happier, more productive, and less stressed with exposure to nature also can benefit the next generation. I also believe that grit and resiliency are key to helping students succeed. Tommy Wyche never lost sight of the next generation and the ones to follow. I hope to continue work in his tradition. There are many lessons from Tommy’s life of service, but among the most important is that it is within each of us to leave our community and our world, better than we found it. He also taught me that the impact of our contributions is greater when we combine the talents of many. With that in mind, I hope you will join in these projects. I look forward to working to build a better future, together.

Picture of Jo Hackl

Jo Hackl

Jo represents clients in corporate and securities law. Her practice has an emphasis on corporate governance issues. She has served as lead counsel on public registrations representing over a billion dollars and has substantial experience in cross-border corporate acquisitions.

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