Natural light improves cognition


Many classrooms at North Central have no windows. Students feel that when a classroom has windows it provides a better learning environment.

Johnny Marshall

Recently a survey was conducted with 44 students at North Central about how windows might correlate with energy, focus and optimism levels by the end of the school day. Students answered questions on a scale of one to ten about these factors as well as a question about how many classes they have with an outside-facing window.

Exposure to sunlight seemingly releases a hormone called serotonin, which is associated with boosting one’s mood and focus levels, as well as helping them feel calm. The counterpart to this hormone is melatonin, which is released in response to exposure to the dark. It is the main component of the sleep cycle as it establishes when it is time to sleep and awake. Exposure to sunlight can also release cortisol, a natural hormone referred to as the “stress hormone” that increases sugars in the bloodstream to enhance the brain’s use of glucose. The survey’s main goal was to decide if there was a correlation between students getting sunlight through windows and their energy, focus and mood levels. 

The survey began by asking students how many of their classes had outside-facing windows. Of the students surveyed, 39 had zero to three classes with outside-facing windows and only five students had four to seven classes with outside-facing windows. Of the five students who have four to seven classes with windows, three reported energy and focus levels of five and above, while all five students reported optimism levels of five and above. Of those same five students with four to seven classes with windows, two responded with energy and focus levels of less than five and none of them had optimism levels below five. Of the 39 students who responded with having zero to three classes with windows, 22 of them all reported having energy, focus and optimism levels of five and above. Of those same 39 students, 17 of them reported having energy, focus and optimism levels of less than five. Having natural light throughout the day helps with mood, focus and energy.

 “Yeah, I mean it helps you not feel confined and the natural sunlight, even when dim, feels better than the lights,” junior Wes Sewell said.

From this data, there is no obvious correlation between more windows and enhanced energy, focus and optimism levels. There was only one case in which a student with four to seven classes with windows had energy, focus and optimism levels all above five. Correspondingly, there were nine cases in which students with zero to three classes with windows reported having energy, focus and optimism levels of less than five. 

Although there is no correlation visibly shown from this smaller-scale study, multiple other studies have been conducted across several schools in various locations to determine whether natural outside influences enhance classroom performance. In a study of 21,000 American elementary school students, after one school year, students who were exposed to more sunlight daily demonstrated 26 percent higher reading results and 20 percent higher math results than students who were exposed to less sunlight. 

Sunlight is not the only factor that can contribute to cognitive alertness and learning enhancements. Studies have shown that being in an outdoor environment increases attention, focus, self-discipline and physical fitness, while decreasing stress. One such study involved the Prairie Class, which was a fifth grade class of students who regularly attended school in a prairie wetlands environment. Science, math and writing were all taught experimentally while the students participated in onsite research. When the students who had gone to school outside were compared to the regular students via standardized tests, they had significantly stronger writing and reading skills. The students who had attended school outside also reported being more excited for school because of the experience, subsequently increasing their attendance.

While this study proved to be inconclusive, much evidence surrounds the idea that sunlight and exposure to natural environments can substantially enhance learning abilities and improve mental health. With larger-scale studies proven to be successful, school districts across the country may begin to integrate more outside environments into educational settings.