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Towards an Immersive Learning Platform using Biophilic Design Principles

'Biophilia, the passionate love of life and of all that is alive' (Fromm, 1973) refers to Fromm's hypothesis that humans have an innate connection with nature. For the last two decades biophilic design, which builds on the concept of biophilia has been increasingly promoted within architecture and the built environment. Biophilic design aids the incorporation of nature into modern buildings and architecture, based on the understanding that we interact with and in many ways are closely associated with our physical world. Biophilic designs are achieved by six primary design principles:

  1. Environmental features

  2. Natural shapes and forms

  3. Natural patterns and processes

  4. Light and space

  5. Place-based relationships

  6. Evolved human-nature relationships

Benefits of Biophilia in Virtual Worlds

Harvard has delivered two studies on the benefits of exposure to a biophilic space in online environments, the first in 2019 and a follow-up study in 2020 (Yin, J.). Both studies explored responses to biophilic design and the potential benefits for health and well-being through virtual reality experiences using headsets.

Effects of biophilic indoor environment on stress and anxiety recovery: A between-subjects experiment in virtual reality. Harvard study.

The image above (Yin, 2020) shows four office layouts used in the study, indoor green incorporates green plants, water, natural materials, and biomorphic shapes into indoor space; outdoor view incorporates long-distance natural view and daylight into indoor space through windows; combination incorporates biophilic elements from indoor green and outdoor view. The study measured physiological and cognitive responses to different biophilic indoor environments and presented three key findings that also have import for our design process

  1. Compared to the base case, participants in three spaces with biophilic elements had consistently lower levels of physiological stress indicators and higher creativity scores.

  2. Participants in biophilic indoor environments had consistently better recovery responses after a mental stressor compared to those in the non-biophilic environment, with significant differences across the three (B,C,D) indoor biophilic environments.

The study concluded that there were significant physiological and cognitive benefits in indoor environments, which not only has import for our online learning spaces but could also help in applying biophilic design to our physical learning spaces.

Immersive Learning in a Virtual World

Covid-19 rapidly advanced the uptake of online learning in many forms and with the return to learning in physical spaces the opportunities for hybrid learning and using technology to enhance and augment curriculum are increasing. Virtual and Augmented realities are offering immersion, sharing information in new and engaging ways as well as creating opportunities for learning that are prohibitive due to cost and access. There are many examples that are already being used in all aspects of education including higher education and teacher training applied to STEM, technical training as well as the arts and humanities. These technologies create environments and experiences that bring learning alive through immersive content, interactive and engaging tools, subject-specific experiences and inclusion over physical differences, socio-economic status and more, providing low-risk hands-on opportunities.

Top Row: SMARTlab Australia Launch and XR learning, 2019 Bottom Row: SMARTlab The Feilecan Files Virtual Interactive Puppetry, 2001

Returning to the Harvard 2020 study and considering their findings offers a number of useful areas to consider within the design of virtual learning environments. The Harvard study showed that the open biophilic spaces reduced psychological stress more than the enclosed biophilic spaces. Schools and learning environments can be stressful with exams, deadlines, speaking out in class, right / wrong answer scenarios and research shows that stress has a critical impact on our ability to learn and our memory (Joels et al, 2006; Schwabe et al 2012; Valizadeh et al, 2012). We can see how learning environments designed to reduce stress would be useful and if this was an online learning environment then biophilia could aid stress reduction in these contexts in combination with other strategies to reduce stress such as other forms of assessment, gamification of learning or avatars as 'performers'.

The differences between the open and closed biophilic design spaces also had other impacts e.g. open spaces increased creativity due to stimulation and calming influence, while closed spaces aided concentration. The spaces that included natural elements (e.g. light, plants, open views) increased stress relief. In addition, with increased exposure to the green / natural elements participants showed significant decreases in blood pressure. Coincidently these were the space participants in the study preferred.

With 91% of our core cohort in CoDesRes reporting eco-anxiety anything we can integrate into learning environments on or offline that can help them to manage is important to study. While studies such as this are relatively new they provide useful indicators that can be explored for their potential within online immersive learning environments. This has led to a number of key questions we will seek to explore within our platform

  • could the benefits of biophilic design apparent in the built environment and the virtual built environment be transferred to a virtual learning environment

  • could biophilic design contribute to a connection with nature in a virtual world

  • by embedding these design principles, in a virtual learning platform enhance learning in the absence of nature

  • would this enhance the conditions for learning?

Biophilia in a virtual world

From Sept-Dec 2023 we will be integrating our MCSS learning resources and programmes in our biophilic learning platform. We are working with our sister site SMARTlab Niagra and its Chief Innovation Officer, Dr Tara O'Neil to design and build a biophilic learning space that will host aspects of our resources online. It will also host our teachers' and learners' peer networks enabling them to share and collaborate across programmes and projects in virtual spaces that have been designed to be conducive to social learning and knowledge acquisition, exchange and application.

Phase 1 Virtual Reality Platform, Tara O'Neil

We will be exploring the six biophilic design principles in-world with our participants both through co-design events and user experience feedback. These principles will be integrated as follows

1. Environmental Features: Features from the physical world water, sun, plant forms and other simulated natural elements will be explored for their ability to reduce stress, encourage reflection and concentration for their contribution to learning.

2. Natural Shapes and Forms: Biophilic forms e.g. natural shapes or forms found in nature are important design elements including columns, ovals, arches, shells, spirals, botanical forms, lending themselves readily to biomimicry and other design frameworks we use within our design-led resources.

3. Natural Patterns and Processes: This principle encourages exploration in structures and form, utilising transitions, contrasts, patterns and boundaries with central focal points all creating a range of sensory experiences. This principle can also be used within Virtual World design to create an immersive experience particularly useful when exploring biological or environmental aspects e.g. rain forests, organism habitats and more

4. Light and Space: In the Harvard study on virtual environments and in other studies (Balabanoff, 2023; 2017) the use of light was been shown to enhance creativity, reduce stress, create calming affects, reduce blood pressure and more. The use of light within Virtual spaces could be used to create environments that stimulate or energise learners, calm learners or increase their creativity and exploration.

5. Place-Based Relationships: This principle focuses on connection with place using the local ecology, geographical features and a sense of belonging. Our resources are place-based and therefore focus on aspects that could be explored within virtual places that all can attend no matter their physical geo-location. This will also be explored for developing the peer networks and their sense of belonging.

6. Evolved Human-Nature Relationships: Increasingly it is clear we must evolve our relationship with nature and resolve our conflicts with the natural world. Exploring an affinity with nature within a virtual world / learning environment could be harnessed to develop our

sense of responsibility for the planet and our relationship with it. It could also be utilised to safely explore the impact of our actions within the project-based learning approach of the resources.

We look forward to sharing more of the process and some examples from our biophilic learning spaces in our Winter newsletter.

The Future is Now

Please get in contact at if you are interested in using our resources with your learners.

Muinín Catalyst Sustainable STEAM uses a transdisciplinary, STEAM-based pedagogical approach. Returning to SDG 4, Target 4.7, one of the core missions of the Muinín Catalyst Sustainable STEAM programme is to ensure an arts / design and culture-led approach to learning that is transdisciplinary and transformative. Learning that supports the development of informed citizens, that are systemic, critical and creative thinkers who can apply their knowledge in agile ways that are sensitive, generative and appropriately responsive to context, in relevant and meaningful ways.

This is done through placed-based learning, which enables individuals to experience learning in local, real-life scenarios. Place-based approaches to learning grounded in local communities and contexts are relevant, engaging and inquiry-based. Students gain confidence and competence in affecting change, learning to manage risk, and develop creative, real-world solutions that are eco-socially just and restorative.


Balabanoff, D. (2023) Color, light, and birth space design: An integrative review. Color Res Appl. 2023; 1- 20.

Balabanoff, Doreen. (2017). Light and Embodied Experience in the Reimagined Birth Environment.

Gray, L. and Lewis, L. (2021) Use of Educational Technology for Instruction in Public Schools: 2019–20 First Look November 2021 US Dept. of Education

Joels, M., Pu, Z. W., Wiegert, O., Oitzl, M. S. & Krugers, H. J. Learning under stress: how does it work? Trends Cogn. Sci.10, 152–158 (2006).

Schwabe, L., Joëls, M., Roozendaal, B., Wolf, O. T. & Oitzl, M. S. Stress effects on memory: an update and integration. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev.36, 1740–1749 (2012).

Valizadeh, L., Farnam, A. & Rahkar Farshi, M. Investigation of stress symptoms among primary school children. J. Caring Sci.1, 25–30 (2012).

Yin, J., Jing, Y., Arfaei,N., Catalano, P.J., Allen, J.G., Spengler, J.D. (2020) Effects of biophilic indoor environment on stress and anxiety recovery: A between-subjects experiment in virtual reality, Environment International, Volume 136, 2020, 105427, ISSN 0160-4120,

Zhong, W., Schröder, T., Bekkering, J. Biophilic design in architecture and its contributions to health, well-being, and sustainability: A critical review, Frontiers of Architectural Research,

Volume 11, Issue 1, 2022, Pages 114-141, ISSN 2095-2635,

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