International Education Journal

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Growing physical, social and cognitive capacity: Engaging with natural environments 

Paul Johnson 
Flinders University, School of Education


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Physical environments are a major contributor to human health, cognitive development, and social wellbeing but, until recently, these roles have largely been ignored. Historically the nature-nurture dichotomy divided understandings of human growth, learning and behaviour but the recent epigenetic research and the emergence of gene-environment interplay as a concept offers a contemporary integrated perspective. This paper reviews research demonstrating that environments significantly influence the expression of genetic information in ways that are critical to healthy human development. It then draws connections between these findings and studies that demonstrate natural environments support a range of significant human health, cognitive and cultural benefits. By linking the two fields the author posits that engaging with natural environments affects the expression of genetic and cultural information in ways that support human physical, psychological and social wellbeing. This hypothesis is explored through examining the measured learning outcomes achieved in naturalised school grounds. The author concludes there is sufficient evidence that natural environments support wellbeing at many levels and recommends that students, communities and education professionals seek to naturalise school grounds through inclusive, action based learning programs. 

Nature, nurture, environment, learning, human development, genetic information


Johnson, P. (2007) Growing physical, social and cognitive capacity: Engaging with natural environments. International Education Journal, 8 (2), 293-303.

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