Bringing the Outdoors In: Greenscaped Classrooms

by Julie Knutson

xWhile this winter’s icy wrath may have left many wanting for the outdoors, some have managed to stave off a nature deficit with greenscaped interiors. Indoor plants — particularly in classrooms — carry a host of benefits, bringing oxygen to the environment, boosting air quality, and enhancing everything from mood and memory to the body’s immune system.


Better academic performance, attentional gains, fewer absences due to illness, improved behavior, and heightened course satisfaction . . . all linked with the presence of ornamental plants in the classroom. In 2010, researchers at Australia’s University of Technology, Sydney, compared academic settings with and without plants, demonstrating measurable improvements in the spelling, math, and science marks of students surrounded by plants. Improved memory, too, correlates with integrating nature into one’s surroundings; a University of Michigan study found a 20% increase in the retention ability of subjects who had contact with plants.

Beyond these benefits, classroom plants further serve as a potential teaching tool, offering an opportunity to cultivate each student’s inner naturalist. Students engage in the act of caring for another living thing, learning critical life skills of responsibility and stewardship. Plants also provide inspiration for lesson plans — a teacher can turn one plant into 30, in the process, teaching the basics of plant propagation. Indoor gardens of edibles and herbs are easy to incorporate into a school cafeteria, benefiting the community at large with fresh and local food.


So what species do particularly well under the harsh, fluorescent light common to most classrooms? Opt for low-maintenance varieties that thrive in partial sun or shade, like spider plants, snake plants, and golden pothos, among others. A study co-sponsored by NASA and the Landscape Contractors of America showed that many of these hardy houseplants also act as air purifiers, absorbing carbon dioxide and harmful VOCs and serving as natural humidifiers.

For those seeking novelty, lithops, aka “pebble plants” or “living stones,” are a fascinating and easy to grow succulent indigenous to southern Africa. As their name suggests, their appearance mimics that of a stone, allowing them to escape hungry predators in their natural habitat. Seasoned teacher-gardeners may wish to stray into more adventurous horticultural territory with the addition of a quirky carnivorous plant a la the Venus Flytrap. But be forewarned: the predatory plant can be fickle and difficult to grow, needing purified water and harsh, acidic soil for optimal health.

Selected herbs — including basil, oregano, parsley, chives, and thyme — are also potential candidates for a gardening experiment on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights. Generally requiring a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day along with rich soil with good drainage, fragrant, edible herbs are a wonderful way to enrich the sensory environment.


The University of Saskatchewan and Texas A&M both host web pages with general information on the value of adding plants to indoor environments; the former includes links to elementary-level teaching materials for math and science. In addition, Science Daily summarizes selected research on plants, academic performance, and course satisfaction at the university level.

Several other sites feature lists of the heartiest and most air purifying plants. Of course, staff at your local greenhouse or gardening center can recommend easy to grow options for low- to medium-light settings.

For teachers preferring a hands-on approach, provides countless lesson plans for indoor gardens and greenscaped classrooms, from plant propagation to the creation of classroom herb gardens and biospheres in bottles. As some plants — among them the air cleansing philodendron and peace lily — can be toxic when ingested, check for safety and carefully advise students before embarking on activities that entail direct contact.

Julie Knutson

Julie Knutson strives to incorporate art and social justice themes into the history classroom. After fifteen years of city-hopping — with stints in New York, Philadelphia, London, Washington, D.C., and Houston — she recently returned to her native Illinois, where she lives with her husband and young son.