Academic journal article Adult Learning

Natural Settings, Restorative Environments, and Adult Learning

Academic journal article Adult Learning

Natural Settings, Restorative Environments, and Adult Learning

Article excerpt

Lisa, a weekend workshop participant at the Omega Institute, a residential retreat center, described her reaction to the wooded campus located in rural upstate New York:

   The setting is very, very important. I 
   mean, that really is a huge part of the 
   experience with their location. You could 
   just take a huge breath of fresh air. I 
   loved the grounds, the flowers, the herb 
   garden, all of that; everything was just 
   really well kept as far as the grounds, the 
   trees. Everything was really pretty, the 
   lake ... they picked a really good spot for 
   [the campus]. I love hills, so I like the 
   rough terrain and everything; it just felt 
   fresh and clean. 

Most people would agree with Lisa that a lovely natural setting could be a great boon for any educational environment. Like Lisa, most of us have similar reactions in such settings; we feel relaxed and yet invigorated. Intuitively, most of us would agree that having pleasant natural surroundings is preferred.

A beautiful location is a great selling point particularly in the case of organizations that offer residential learning experiences such as retreats, workshops, and conferences. This is no small detail in terms of the marketability of a program. Making informed decisions about program location is critical for program planners in adult education. And if educators and administrators understand the benefits of certain natural settings, they could use them to enhance the appeal and overall effectiveness of educational programs. Unfortunately, the role of the natural setting is not explored in depth in the literature on adult learning environments.

In Toiviainen's (1995) work on folk high schools, he notes that most are located in beautiful settings:

   It is extremely difficult to estimate the 
   impact on learning that the practicality 
   and attractiveness of the teaching 
   premises or the beauty of the 
   surrounding nature have, but it is clear 
   that folk high school people have always 
   considered them as important 
   contributing factors (p. 14). 

Other adult educators have noted this too. For example, Bersch and Lurid (2002) studied the formation of an adult learning community on Yukon Island, Alaska. The setting was remote and somewhat harsh, with dense woods and an abundance of wildlife. The natural setting was beautifully rugged; Bersch and Lurid suggest that it aided participants in their learning and community building because it "heightens the senses and brings one closer to nature and to oneself" (p. 74).

A lovely natural setting is a preference for some people. However, the challenge is using such a setting to create a more effective learning environment. In my own research on adults' residential learning experiences, comments like Lisa's sent me hunting for answers that led me to studies in environmental psychology, a field which has done much to increase our understanding of how the natural setting shapes our behavior and well-being (Grill, 2003). In what follows, I will present a small slice of the knowledge base on natural settings and make suggestions for how to improve adult learning experiences.

The Restorative Experience

The kind of natural environment that Lisa experienced on her weekend retreat would be labeled by environmental psychologists as restorative. According to psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan (1989), whose work has significantly shaped this area of research, such environments are identified by four characteristics: a) being away in other words, a setting that is physically or psychologically different from one that is typically experienced; b) extent, meaning a setting that is rich and coherent enough to sustain a person's interest and the sense of being away; c) fascination, or effortless attention which can come from objects in the environment or processes related to making sense of the environment; and d) compatibility;, which is the match between a person's purposes and inclinations within an environment and the demands and resources of the environment itself. …

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