Learning styles and nature’s impact on behaviour  

Written by Jenny Phillips - 22nd June 2022


What does the term ‘behaviour’ mean?


It is the way in which a person or animal acts or conducts themself, especially towards others.


Research has identified that behaviour can be classified into four basic personality types: 

1.    Optimistic

2.    Pessimistic

3.    Trusting 

4.    Envious


Signs of distress

Signs of distress in children are often evident in their behaviour and can occur within children for different reasons:

Part of growth and development – In daily life, the difference between typical and atypical behaviour is not always clear and easily defined, this is because it depends on the degree of expectation. There is a fine line that divides the two categories; there is also the need to identify what is classed as typical depending on the child’s stage of development and personal circumstances.

Times of illness - This relates to both the child being ill or the parent/carer.

Times of stress – These can include periods of planned as well as unplanned transition, such as when a child moves, the birth of a new sibling, divorce of parents etc.

Recognised disorder - Diagnosis of a special need or recognisable need impacting emotional regulation.

Boredom and disconnection – Within educational settings, this can be due to provision being at a developmentally inappropriate level for the child. The task can be either too hard or too easy and not stimulating enough. Boredom can make infant children withdraw and become disengaged, or it can cause chronic fussiness. In young children, it could trigger restlessness and as the child desperately seeks to stir up some interesting stimulation.


Young children can find it hard to tell or explain what they are feeling to others, due to their limited experiences of emotional fluctuations and ranges, and their limited language / communication capacities. In some cases, they may not even be able to identify what is bothering them. Episodes of dysregulation where feelings are so overwhelming for children are usually signs that children are struggling to cope and do not have the skills to manage such powerful emotions without support. Children can be over-whelmed by their own frustrations or anger and their inability to express themselves in an effective manner, or due to their inability to calm down and regulate themselves. Children will need support to develop their skills in navigating their own behaviour. 

Recognised conditions with behavioural implications:

·       Anxiety – When an anxious child is placed in a situation that triggers their anxiety, they can lash out or experience an outburst in an effort to escape the problematic situation.

·       ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) – For these particular children, reactions and responses expressed through behaviour can be challenging and it is important that individuals with a trusted relationship and attachment model approaches that can support others to help each individual child.

·       Learning disorder – Children who find learning harder than their peers can become very frustrated leading to situations that may result in harmful or volatile situations.

·       Sensory processing complications – For those children who experience problems with processing sensory information, these situations can lead to them experiencing extreme and confusing behaviour as they then become sensorily overwhelmed.

·       Autism – Children on the autism spectrum are often prone to dramatic loss of control (meltdowns). Children with autism may thrive on consistent routines for their emotional comfort, any unexpected change can set them off and when this occurs, they may lack the language and communication skills to express themselves fully to identify what they want or need.

·      Masking (or camouflaging) – This term relates to children who ‘mask’ their differences and anxieties to try and fit in with their peers. While the term is mostly associated with autism and girls in particular, it can apply to any child with any disability or special need.

Behaviours may include:

·      Faking or forcing eye contact with others

·      Copying / forcing smiles and a range of other facial expressions

·      Copying gestures of others

·      Persevering with intense / potentially painful sensory discomfort  

·      Depression – Some children who experience frequent emotional anxiety and instability may have a disorder called Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD). These children experience severe episodes of dysregulation with chronic irritability. These children have the tendency to view things negatively and are quick to react (explode) to situations that may seem minor to their peers. 

Handling BIG emotions in a mature and healthy manner requires a variety of skills:


  • Impulse control
  • Emotional self-regulation
  • Problem solving
  • Delaying gratification
  • Negotiating
  • Communicating needs and wishes to others
  • Knowing what is appropriate or expected in a given situation

Learning styles

To facilitate and support children’s learning and development in an enjoyable and meaningful way, provision needs to be didactic and personalised as much as possible (differentiated – to recognise what makes someone different and adapt or make different in the process of education, growth and development).

One way of doing this is recognising that individuals have a preference for the way in which they learn things. Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory identifies this concept and identifies that while each person has a primary or more dominant intelligence, each person possesses the capacity to possess aspects of other intelligences also. Each learner possesses a different kind of mind and so therefore learns, remembers, performs and understands in different ways. Gardner identified nine different intelligences:

1.     Verbal–linguistic – a well-developed verbal capacity, are sensitive to sounds, rhythm of words and meaning.

2.     Logical-mathematical – thinks abstractly, ability to discern logical and numerical patterns, ability to think in the abstract.

3.     Spatial-visual – thinks in pictures.

4.     Bodily-kinaesthetic – ability to control own bodily movements and manipulate objects skilfully. 

5.     Musical – can produce and appreciate rhythm, timber and pitch.

6.     Interpersonal – detect and respond to others’ moods appropriately as well as their motivations and desires.

7.     Intrapersonal – are self-aware and tuned into their own feelings, values, thinking process and beliefs.

8.     Naturalist – can recognise and categorise objects of nature: animals, plants etc.

9.     Existential – ability to engage with deep questions regarding human existence.

Gardner, 2013


Learning styles and their effect on child behaviour

If education providers make the effort to provide appropriate and suitable learning opportunities and environments for the different learning style preferences and allow them to develop, children will be encouraged to exhibit more on task behaviour and display less disruption. Children will then also be facilitated and able to match their learning style to the given situation and be more engaged and focused on the task at hand. Providing children with opportunities to experience learning in a variety of ways will encourage meaningful and productive learning.


Learning styles and environments

Research has shown that environments can increase or reduce stress which in turn then impacts the body and a person’s behaviour. What is seen, heard and experienced at any given moment is changing not only the person’s mood but also their nervous, endocrine and immune system functions.


Nature as a bonus effect to learning styles

While naturalist is one of the identified Gardner learning styles in its own right, the natural environment can be utilised to strengthen and support productive and engaging learning environments across all nine learning styles, while also providing children additional benefits for growth and development.

Regardless of age or culture, people find nature pleasing.


What do natural environments do?

·       Nature heals – It reduces fear, anger and stress and increases pleasant feelings.

·       Nature soothes – Nature helps people to cope with uncomfortable feelings and pain. This is because we are genetically programmed to find natural phenomenon like trees, plants, animals, water and other natural elements engrossing and so we become absorbed. 

·       Nature restores – People’s mood improves when spending time outside altering from stressed and anxious to calm and balanced. Time in nature increases a person’s ability to pay attention, this is because people find nature inherently interesting, so we naturally focus on what we are experiencing. Research with children who have ADHD identifies that time spent in nature increases their attention span. 

·       Nature connects – Time in nature forms connections to each other and the larger world → research on brain activity identified that when people viewed nature, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up and it seems that nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.

·       General benefits - * improves mood, * reduction of feeling anger and stress, * feel more relaxed, * improved physical health, * improved confidence and self-esteem, * increased activity, * helps people feel more connected to nature, provides peer support through activity.

When thinking of the different learning styles identified, do not be fooled into thinking that all these styles cannot be accommodated and provided in the outdoor environment. Think creatively, didactically and think bold, the children will enjoy and your reward will be their engagement and personal growth and development. Nature and the great outdoors also facilitate and support good behaviour management and allows for many new and exciting learning experiences to be had.


When thinking about what affects behaviour in the indoor environment think about these elements, which nature activity can provide and see where the connections lie.


As you can see, there is no time or opportunity for boredom. With critical thinking, provision can be made for adapting and utilising outdoor spaces to both the children’s and educator’s advantage. Children with a close connection to nature show less stress, less hyperactivity and fewer behaviour and emotional difficulties, as well as improved pro-social behaviours. Research has also shown that children who took greater reasonability for and towards nature, experience fewer peer difficulties. 


Meet the pedagogy pioneers that support the use of nature-based learning

  • Susan Isaacs (1885 – 1948) – Believed that outdoor play was essential.

  • Margaret (1860 – 1931) and Rachel McMillan (1859 – 1917) – Open air school.

  • Loris Malaguzzi (1920 – 1994) – There are three teachers of the children, these are adults, other children and the environment.

  • Comenius (1592 – 1679) and Rousseau (1712 – 1758) nature and the natural environment has a definite and positive role within education.

  • Friedrich Froebel (1782 – 1852) – Nature, beauty and knowledge are interwoven.

  • Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) – Nature has a positive impact on children’s learning.


Behavioural problems stem from different and changing elements, there are different interventions that can be utilised to lessen and prevent where possible the impact of the resulting behaviour and learning styles, and nature have important roles to play in behaviour management.


Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

Albert Einstein




Gardner, H. (2013). Frequently asked questions – multiple intelligences and related educational topics. Retrieved from https://howardgardner01.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/faq_march2013.pdf 


WHO Parma Declaration on Environment and Health

https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/environment-and-health/Climate-change/publications/2010/protecting-health-in-an-environment-challenged-by-climate-change-european-regional-framework-for-action/parma-declaration-on-environment-and-health Accessed 07/05/2022 



As well as her extensive experience as a nurse, Jenny is a qualified Nursery Nurse with her NNEB, ADCE, CACHE Diploma level 3 and CACHE SEN cert and over 7 years of experience within a nursery setting. Jenny has spent time working as a lecturer in Child Health at Middlesex University and as a Qualified paediatric nurse and Neonatal intensive care nurse with over 13 years of experience in neonates. Her work as a disability youth worker led to Jenny gaining further qualifications, including two honours degrees and a MA in Inclusive Education, specifically focussing on therapeutic use of animals with children who have SEN to help education, development, growth, health and wellbeing. Jenny also has a PGCE. Currently, Jenny is also a forest school practitioner with 3 and 4 year olds, and is qualified in animal therapy and farm therapy.