HMFH Architects

Nurturing a Connection to Nature

Scientists call it biophilia—the human innate tendency to seek connections with nature. New research shows that those connections can have highly positive impacts for students, reducing stress and improving self-control and self-discipline.


Active engagement with the natural environment increases a child’s ability to focus and enhances cognition. For instance, as shown by Li and Sullivan in their 2015 research on the topic, even window views of nature can increase attention span and reduce stress. Simply bringing natural materials and patterns or imagery based on nature into school buildings can also have calming and focusing affects.

Based on this recent research HMFH strives to bring students into closer contact with nature in our schools, even in the most urban settings.

We always try to create visual connections throughout a school. We don’t ever just make a stairwell; it is always a place to see and connect to the outdoors.

Lori Cowles, AIA, Principal

We intuitively understand that connections to nature can improve mental health and overall outlook, but research indicates it can do much more. The American Institutes for Research, for instance, in their 2005 research on children and outdoor education programs found that kids who are exposed and connected to nature over time have improved test scores as well as having a more empathetic long term response to nature.

It’s about learning in general, but we also want to make our schools places where kids grow up to be good stewards.

Laura Wernick, FAIA, Senior Principal


There are several ways we use design to bring nature into schools: strong physical access, plentiful visual connections, and nature-like elements in-doors that recall the out-of-doors. They all apply differently, but each helps foster a student’s readiness to learn.


In the Winthrop Middle High School we incorporated openable garage doors in a PE space and a vocational fabrication space for the school’s Viking Longship program to provide easy access to the outside. At Dover High School we designed a courtyard accessible to the cafeteria, to project areas throughout the school and created outdoor work areas for the art classrooms as an integral part of the courtyard. In good weather students walk through the courtyard to travel from class to class. In each instance nature is an active partner in the learning experience.

We are also particularly cognizant that natural elements and access to the outdoors is more critical in urban areas, where students might not have ready access to nature. At the Clark Avenue School in Chelsea, MA, where students had previously congregated on sidewalks because there was no other outdoor space, we were able to reduce the school’s footprint and carve out space for a new courtyard on the constrained site. The trees and planting will provide shade in the summer and some respite from the extensive hardscape in the surrounding neighborhood. This public space is now a valued community and school resource used for play and group activities and performances.



Coolidge Corner School also on an urban site, has an elaborate rain garden that abuts the cafeteria windows. The rain garden is part of the site’s storm drainage system, but it is also an active teaching tool both inside and outside of the school.

The kids can put their noses up against window and look at what the rain garden is doing. While it’s downpouring you can see the water collecting and cascading, gathering in stone.

Pip Lewis, AIA, Principal

Even when they can’t be outside, students still can see the rain garden system and better understand the process of stormwater runoff and infiltration. The rain garden is one component of the school’s varied natural areas, which include a planting zone, outdoor classrooms, pollinator garden, and boardwalk all constructed of natural materials and all integrated into the school’s curriculum.


Whether or not there is a strong connection to nature at the site, we also incorporate design elements that take cues from nature into schools. The Woodland Elementary School has a wooded site with wetlands. We took context as inspiration and designed the school to reflect the students’ immediate ecosystem. The lowest floor is terrestrial, the second floor is canopy level, and the third floor is clouds and sky.

Natural materials, like wood and local stone, inside and outside help create another layer of connection to nature. An outdoor classroom is carved into the site overlooking the wetlands and every classroom has a special bay window with a window seat for looking out at the trees.


We’re designing more and more learning spaces that allow students and educators to easily transition from indoors to outdoors. We’ve found that educators are much more likely to use outdoor space when that transition is easy. As research confirms the importance of bringing students close to nature the demand for these types of spaces is rising.

While creating strong connections to nature students and teachers also need to feel safe. Today a major concern in school design is security and control, so balancing planning security with a sense of openness is critical.

We’re incorporating lots of visual connections, so people can see what’s going on, and we try not to build fortresses. We want teachers and students to feel safe, but not locked in.

Lori Cowles, AIA, Principal

We are careful and creative in how we balance the outdoor connections with the safety concerns. The Arlington High School will have a green roof, and the Bristol County Agricultural High School will also have an accessible green roof with a weather station. We think that schools of the future will carve out more of those spaces providing access to nature in a very safe context.

Students can grow things, dig, climb, but also just look at nature. We’re bringing the natural elements as close to the building as possible.

Pip Lewis, AIA, Principal

Human beings evolved as part of nature.  Is it a surprise that children learn better when they are close to or actively engaged with nature? As a firm we are committed to doing everything we can to strengthen children’s connections to nature through our schools and their sites.