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The Educational Values of Trees and Forests Terry L. Sharik and Stacey Frisk Department of Environment and Society College of Natural Resources Utah State University Logan, UT 84322-5215 Presented at Seventh Biennial Conference on University Education in Natural Resources Corvallis, OR

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The Educational Values of Trees and Forests

Terry L. Sharik and Stacey Frisk

Department of Environment and Society

College of Natural Resources

Utah State University

Logan, UT 84322-5215

Presented at

Seventh Biennial Conference on University Education in Natural Resources

Corvallis, OR

March 14, 2008



When we think about the benefits provided by forests and trees, we tend not to think about how they contribute to enhanced learning ability, despite the mounting evidence (MEA 2005: Table 1).


Table 1. Services provided by ecosystems to the benefit of people (MEA 2005).

  • Provisioning Services (products obtained)
    • Food
    • Fiber
    • Fuel
    • Genetic resources
    • Biochemicals, natural medicines, pharmaceuticals
    • Ornamental resources
    • Fresh water
  • Regulating Services (regulation of ecosystem processes)
    • Air quality regulation
    • Climate regulation
    • Water regulation
    • Erosion regulation
    • Water purification
    • Disease regulation
    • Pest regulation
    • Pollination
    • Natural Hazard Regulation

Cultural Services (non-material benefits)

  • Cultural diversity
    • Spiritual and religious values
    • Knowledge systems
    • Educational values
    • Inspiration
    • Aesthetic values
    • Social relations
    • Sense of place
    • Cultural heritage values
    • Recreation and ecotourism
  • Supporting Services (necessary for the production of all other services)
    • Soil formation
    • Photosynthesis
    • Primary production
    • Nutrient cycling
    • Water cycling
  • __________________________________________________________________


To review the literature on this topic with the intent of stimulating further research on the educational values of trees and forests and fostering the application of this knowledge in the learning environment.


Complexities of the learning process

Links of this process to nature, including ways of interacting with nature

Role of trees and forests



Complexities of the Learning Process

Three Major Modes of Learning (Kellert 2002)

1. Affective or Emotional

Focuses on the formation of emotional and feeling capacities.

Typically precedes cognition or intellect as a basis for maturation

and learning.

2. Cognitive or Intellectual

Stresses the formation of thinking and problem-solving skills.

3. Evaluative

Emphasizes the creation of values, beliefs, and moral perspectives.

Emerges from a synthesis of affective and cognitive perceptions and


(Additional References: Iozzi 1989a, 1989b)


Affective or Emotional Mode

There is some evidence that contact with the natural world, especially during middle childhood (ages 6-12), is important in a person’s emotional responsiveness and receptivity.

Seems to be due to its “dynamic, varied, often unique, surprising, and adventurous character.”

Elicits such responses as satisfaction, delight, joy, excitement, and curiosity.

(References: Cornell 1977, Cobb 1977, Kellert 1985, Kellert 1996, Derr 2001, Ratanopojnard 2001, Sabal 1993)


Interactions with natural settings reduce stress or elicit positive feelings and thereby enhance cognitive functioning, creativity, and performance, especially regarding higher order tasks.

(References: Olmsted 1865, Kaplan and Talbot 1983, Isen et al. 1985, Kaplan and Kaplan 1989, Isen 1990, Hartig et al. 1991, Ulrich et al. 1991a, Ulrich 1993, Kaplan 1995, Wells 2000, Wells and Evans 2003, Am. Institutes for Research 2005)


Attention Restoration Theory has been utilized to explain the restorative aspects of contact with nature following a period of directed or forced, focused attention and associated mental fatigue (Kaplan 1995).

There is both psychological and physiological evidence for the restorative value of nature.

Results in cognitive clarity and reflection, thereby enhancing creativity.

(Additional References: Ulrich 1981, Ulrich and Simmons 1986, Ulrich et al. 1991b, Chang and Pergn 1998, Chang and Uan 1999, Hartig et al. 2003, Hammitt 2007)


Cognitive or Intellectual Mode

Evidence that experiential contact with nature can have a positive impact on cognitive development comes from a number of sources.

Bloom et al.’s (1956) taxonomy of cognition has been used to frame this relationship (Table 2).

(Additional References: Altman and Wohwill 1978, Ulrich 1993, Kahn 1999, Ratanapojnard 2001, Kellert 1997, Kellert 2002, Burdette and Whitaker 2005, Taylor and Kew 2006)


Table 2. Enhancement of various elements in Bloom et al.’s (1956) taxonomy of cognition by various forms of interaction or contact with nature (after Kellert 1997).


Burrowing from the work of Mednick (1962), it has been argued that higher order cognitive functioning, which involves integration or association of diverse and seemingly unrelated information or concepts in novel ways, is likely enhanced by exposure to nature (Ulrich 1993).


Evaluative Mode

Kellert (1996) formulated nine values of the natural world that contribute significantly to human well-being (Table 3).


Those that contribute most strongly to the development of learning skills include the naturalistic and scientific, and to a lesser extent the symbolic, the latter mostly through the development of language skills.


Gardner’s (1999) inclusion of naturalist intelligence among the (ten) multiple intelligences he formulated to represent the entire spectrum of human cognition lends support to the importance of the naturalist perspective as a fundamental way of learning.


Three ways in which (young) people’s experience of nature occurs (Kellert 1996, 2005)


Actual physical contact with nature in a spontaneous and unstructured way, including play


Actual physical contact with nature, but more structured and planned.

e.g., zoos, arboreta, botanical gardens, science museums, and nature centers; contacts with domesticated plants and animals; [outdoor lab instruction ? (TLS)]

Vicarious or symbolic

--Representations or depicted scenes of nature

--Principally through the mass media (classroom? TLS)


Considerable conceptual and empirical support for the argument that direct experience of nature plays a significant role in affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in humans that is not replaced by indirect and vicarious experiences, which are on the rise.

Attributed to diversity and variability in space and time of the natural world, together with its unpredictiveness and challenges.

(References: Searles 1959, Kaplan and Talbot 1983, Moore 1986, Kaplan and Kaplan 1989, Sebba 1991, Pyle 1993, Sobel 1993, Nabhan and Trible 1994, Kellert 1996, Kellert 2005, Burdette and Walker 2005)


Considerable evidence that children (and adults) are spending increasingly less and less time experiencing high quality natural environments.

Due to a number of factors, including habitat destruction, species loss, environmental contamination, natural resource depletion, urban sprawl, human population growth, “videophilia,” and fear of violence.

(References: Barney et al. 1980, Wilcox et al. 1991, Groombridge 1992, Wilson 1992, Myers 1994, Heywood 1995, Savage 1995, Kellert 2002, Pergams and Zaradic 2008)


Parental concern for the health and safety of their children, in turn related to increased violence in our society, real and imagined, is an increasingly important factor.

Louv (2005)labeled the health syndrome associated with this diminished experience of nature in children today as “nature-deficit disorder” as a way of creating heightened awareness of the problem.

Has had a major impact on the development of impending federal legislation on “no child left inside.”

(Additional References: Clements 2004, Karstan 2005, Farmer 2005, Veitch et al. 2006, Jackson and Tester 2008).


Key point concerning children’s direct contact with nature is that it be ongoing and highly accessible, which in turn implies that it be “nearby.”

Has important implications for regional and urban planning.

(References: Kaplan and Kaplan 1989, Sobel 1993, Kaplan et al. 1998, Wells 2000, Kellert 2002, Taylor et al. 2002, Wells and Evans 2003, Bell and Dyment 2006)


Contributions of Trees and Forests to Learning

The first scholarly treatment of the origins of the fundamental relationship between trees and people was that of the psychologist J. O. Quanz (1897).

Created the term “dendro-psychoses” to represent this relationship.

Provided several lines of biological and psychological evidence of an adaptive nature to support the argument that the earliest humans dwelled in trees.

Examples of psychological evidence included the fear of wild animals, thunder and lightning, high winds, and falling; “hide and seek” games; rocking babies to sleep.


Considerable evidence that trees have played a central role in everyday life throughout human history, including:

Source of food and shade

Safe sleeping and eating places

Vantage points for surveying the landscape

Escape from predators

Provision of shelter, weapons, tools, and medicine

Inspiration (TLS)

(References: Bourliere 1963, Lee 1979, Isaac 1983, Shipman 1986, Heerwagen and Orians (1993).


Orians (1980) hypothesized that tree forms that were most important in the survival of early humans in African savannas should be most preferred by humans today from the standpoint of aesthetics.

Referred specifically to the “acacia” form, with canopies broader than tall, trunks terminating and branching considerably below half the height of the tree, small leaves, and layered branching.

Argued that such trees are easy to climb and their canopies offered greater protection from sun or rain.

Hypothesis was tested on preferences of Americans for trees cultivated in Japanese gardens and for various dimensions of the dominant East African tree, Acacia tortilis.

Hypothesis was not rejected.

(Additional References: Orians 1986, Heerwagen and Orians 1993)


Preference for the acacia tree form over other tree forms was subsequently investigated by utilizing college students from all major continents except Antarctica.

In all cases, students preferred the acacia form over other forms (eucalyptus, oak, conifer, and palm).

Moreover, they tended to prefer the most common tree experienced in their respective childhoods more so than students who grew up with other tree forms as most common, indicating that experience also shapes one’s preferences of tree form.

(References: Sommer and Summit 1996, Sommer 1997)


At the stand or landscape level, the evidence suggests that people prefer natural environments over built environments and savanna-type natural environments over other natural environments (Kahn 1999).

Young children (age 8-11 years) from the eastern U.S. preferred East African savannas over mixed hardwood forest (their home environment), boreal forest, rain forest, and desert, while older children showed an equal preference for savannas and mixed hardwood forest.

Suggests the influence of both genetics and environment (familiarity) in such preferences.

(Additional Reference: Balling and Falk 1982)


Preference for the savanna-like environment seems to be the result of being able to acquire new information (mystery) without becoming disoriented or lost (legibility).

May help explain the appeal for closed-canopy forest stands that have been thinned or for urban or suburban open spaces that are planted with scattered trees in a grassy matrix, i.e., are park-like.

May also help explain the tendency of European settlers in North America to open up forested landscapes and plant trees in prairie landscapes.

(References: Kaplan and Kaplan 1989, Kaplan 1992)



The development of learning skills, especially in children, and the realization of creativity and productivity in adults, seem to be enhanced significantly by direct and informal contact on a regular basis with natural settings, especially those that are savanna- or park-like.

These findings may have important implications for the teaching and learning process in our society.

In particular, the notion of less structured and more emotions- or value-laden environments for learning seem to run counter to traditional institutional approaches.


List of References Regarding the Educational Values of Trees and Forests

Terry L. Sharik

Last Updated on February 27, 2008)

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