Best Practices for Outdoor Learning Environments

In the heart of the densely populated town of Woodbridge, NJ, the courtyard at Ross Street Elementary School provides students with a connection to nature and the perfect location for outdoor learning.

Shade Sails block the setting sun at the new courtyard at Memorial High School in Haddonfield, NJ. The multi-functional student instruction area has built-in tiered seating and landscaping around the perimeter.

Sun shades Oudoor learning

Sunshine, fresh cut grass, blooming trees, and springtime air, it is safe to say we are all itching to get outside when the weather warms up. This is especially true for the minds of young students at school. As architects, engineers, and experts in the educational built environment, we have seen a notable uptick in districts incorporating outdoor learning environments throughout their schools. The confluence of events throughout the last few years has led to this uptick, and the positive results speak for themselves. 

What Is the Best Location for An Outdoor Learning Environment?

There are several factors schools should consider when deciding where on campus to build an outdoor learning environment.

Shaded Areas
Pick a location that already provides protection from the sun, or plan to create your own shade by installing shade sails. This option comes with a few added responsibilities, even fabric structures can require permits and inspections. They also have a limited life span and require maintenance such as removal before snow or any severe weather. If your district is committed to providing outdoor learning for years to come, you might consider planting fast-growing trees to provide shade.

Outdoor learning environment

Proximity to the Building & Accessibility
Be cognizant of the proposed location’s proximity to your main building and its accessibility. You will need to pick a location that is ADA compliant with both a clear path to the space and terrain that ensures everyone can take advantage of seating and features.

Security
Security is an important factor in outdoor learning environment design.  If your outdoor learning area is on a part of your campus that doesn’t have tight security, like the front of the building, you need to consider how easy it is for students to wander out and how to ensure unwanted visitors can’t get in. Remember, there are usually no ID checks outside, so consider creating a natural separation between easily accessible parts of the campus and where students are going to be learning outdoors.

Preparing for Potential Distraction
The last thing you will want to keep top of mind when selecting a location is the potential for distraction. This applies to both the students using the outdoor learning space and students inside in classrooms. For example, you might not want to put an outdoor learning space for young students near a playground. You also don’t want to distract students indoors by putting an outdoor learning area within eyeshot of classroom windows.

What Type of Seating Should an Outdoor Learning Environment Have?

Outdoor learning space

Fixed Seating
Seating in an outdoor learning area should be fixed to make sure it can’t be moved, knocked over, or taken without permission. Flat surfaces like benches are also important.  You want students to be able to pull out a notebook or laptop and have a comfortable and practical space to work. Tier seating that is built into grade is also a popular choice. Whatever option you choose, seating should be organized around an area that can act as a podium where instructors can stand with students facing them. 

 

Seating for Multiple Uses
When planning seating, it is also worth considering if the space will have dual uses like overflow from the cafeteria, or if your outdoor learning curriculum will incorporate breakout sessions. If this is the case, you may consider multiple seating options. For example, you can make use of large natural rocks, while also incorporating tables and a design with a depressed step-down area. Most schools are not just using their outdoor learning areas for one use, so you should consider them to be flexible spaces.

Seating Materials
After you have determined how your seating will be organized, you need to consider materials. All-natural materials like most woods won’t last long. Instead, consider maintenance free materials like masonry, or composite if you prefer the look of wood.  Find a solution that fits your aesthetic goals while ensuring practical issues and maintenance concerns are achieved. 

Defining the Space, Screening, and Creating Inspiration

When designing your outdoor learning environment, it’s important you don’t think in terms of enclosures. Remember, our purpose is to get outside the four walls of a classroom. Work with your architect or civil engineer to design the space through a mixture of natural and added screening elements like trees, very short walls, and plantings.  

On pathways and the ground, use permeable materials like certain pavers or gravel lok.  Semi-permeable floors and paths not only help you sidestep muddy shoes, but they are also critical to avoiding the stormwater runoff issues associated with impermeable surfaces like asphalt.    

Outdoor learning spaces should be inspiring areas, and the design of these spaces can help you accomplish this goal. Raised planters and built-in gardens are a great example of a simple but effective way to add structure and ambiance to a space. If you are integrating plants, make sure they are native to the area, so they don’t require irrigation or maintenance.

Outdoor learning environment

Who Can Help You Design an Outdoor Learning Classroom?

This is a Collaborative Process Between Your Architect Civil Engineer Landscape Architect

The design of an outdoor learning environment is a concerted effort led by your school, the school’s architect, civil engineer, and landscape architect. While each member of your team will have their areas of expertise, its important they have a symbiotic relationship. This  team will work together on almost all aspects of the project to bring it to life in a collaborative and inspiring way.    

Architect

Your architect should work with you on your requirements and goals for the space. They can handle any regulatory issues regarding ADA compliance, permitting, or the involvement of the State Education Department.

Civil Engineer

Your civil engineer will help put together the drawings and take the lead on issues regarding hardscapes, drainage, utilities, and making sure the grading works.

Landscape Architect

Your landscape architect can handle schematics, plantings, materials, and finalizing shade structures if needed.

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