Guide to Designing Outdoor Learning Environments

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| Dec 22, 2020

You want the students who attend your school to do well academically, mentally and physically so they can enjoy healthy and successful lives. Allowing children more time outdoors in learning environments that encourage creativity and curiosity is one way to help them learn better while also boosting their mental and physical health. One study compared students who attended school associated with a wildlife refuge system to students who learned in a traditional indoor setting. The students who learned outdoors were more excited to go to school and had higher test scores compared to the students in a traditional classroom setting.

A similar study evaluated what happened when students were given access to gardens as part of their science training. The students who could go out into a garden saw some improvement in their scientific knowledge and scores.

Designing outdoor learning environments allows you to create areas around your school that encourage students to explore and get in touch with nature. This guide explains the benefits of outdoor learning and how to create an effective and engaging outdoor learning space.

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Advantages of Outdoor Learning Environments

Improved test scores and increased engagement with learning are just two of the benefits of introducing students to outdoor learning and giving students a chance to learn in a hands-on manner. Outdoor learning environments offer many other advantages to children, including:

  • Kids get sunshine: While too much sun exposure can cause burns or increase a person’s risk of developing skin cancer, people need the sun. Kids who get out in the sun for at least a little bit each day are likely to sleep better, be in better moods and have healthier immune systems. The human body also needs sunlight to produce vitamin D, which helps create strong bones.
  • Kids can move around: Kids between the ages of 6 and 17 should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. That can include things like running and jumping, lifting weights and going for walks. When kids get outside and participate in an outdoor learning environment, they are likely to be more physically active than if they stayed inside and sat at a desk in a classroom for the entire school day. An outdoor learning environment can incorporate elements that increase physical activity, such as gardening programs that get kids moving or sports programs like fishing.
  • The environments can be screen-free: The average kid spends between five and seven hours in front of a screen each day. While screen time can be educational and beneficial, it’s also important to give kids a break to rest their eyes, reset their systems and get in touch with nature. Ideally, an outdoor learning environment will be a screen-free environment where kids are encouraged to interact with objects in real life and communicate directly with their peers and teachers.
  • Kids can develop problem-solving skills: Kids don’t learn to problem-solve or develop critical thinking skills in a vacuum. They need real-world, hands-on situations to help build those skills. In an outdoor learning environment, kids can and should be encouraged to explore independently, try new things and interact with their classmates. Giving them unstructured time outdoors will help them learn to think through problems that come up and can encourage them to take more risks and be more adventurous.
  • Kids have more opportunities to socialize: The typical indoor classroom is a quiet one. Students can often speak only if they raise their hands or if they’re working in structured groups. While the average school day has some socialization opportunities built-in, such as lunchtime, that’s often not enough time for kids to fully develop their social skills. When they go outdoors and are given more freedom, they can learn how to engage and socialize with their peers better. They learn how to have conversations and interactions separate from the guidance they might get from their teachers or parents.
  • Kids become less stressed: Kids who get to spend time in nature or areas with greenery have lower stress levels compared to those who don’t get exposure to nature. One study found that students who learned in an outdoor classroom had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than students who learned in an indoor classroom.
  • Kids have fun: Outdoor learning environments can put the fun into education. Instead of having to listen to a teacher lecture or read from books, students who get to learn outdoors can enjoy themselves and often develop more enthusiasm for learning. It’s not just kids who get to have fun outdoors. Teachers who take their classes outside are also more likely to enjoy planning and teaching a lesson.

How to Design Outdoor Learning Spaces

The design and building of an outdoor learning environment is usually a multi-step process. You’ll likely want to get several people on board, including the teachers who will use the environments, parents, students and local contractors or construction companies who will build the areas for you. You might need to get buy-in from your school board or parent-teacher association, as well.

Plan the Area

The first step of the design process is planning the area. Keep these questions in mind as you plan the learning environment:

  • Who will use it? Will all students use the outdoor learning environment or just those in the upper or lower grades? Will you need to have separate areas for programs targeted to younger kids and those aimed at older students?
  • What sort of activities will be involved? What sort of activities will be part of the learning space? For example, gardening is often a popular outdoor learning activity. Will the students raise animals in the area? Will they work on other science projects, such as building rockets? Will the space be available for all subject areas or limited to STEM subjects?
  • What safety considerations do you need to keep in mind? Safety is always something to consider when designing structures or areas for kids. What safety considerations will you need to accommodate, based on the rules of your state or area and the planned use of the learning environment? For example, you might need to install a soft surface if there will be equipment for children to climb on.
  • What is the budget for the project? How much can your school or organization afford to spend on the outdoor learning environment? Also, consider where the funding is coming from and whether you’ll need to include financing for upkeep and maintenance in your budget.
  • What sort of land will you build on? Depending on where you build the learning environment, you might need to make changes to the ground to make it more hospitable. For example, if the soil tends to get water-logged after it rains, you might need to amend it to make it drain better or choose a different location for the learning space.

Design the Outdoor Learning Space

Once you have a budget and an idea of the use of the space and who will use it, it’s time to jump into the design process. One thing to keep in mind when designing the outdoor learning environment is accessibility. You want to make the space usable by as many people as possible. That can mean ensuring there are no raised surfaces or that there are flat paths so people who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids can easily navigate the space. It can also mean positioning objects, such as planters, at a height that makes them comfortable and easy to reach by as many people as possible.

Other things to consider when designing the environment include:

  • The location of each feature: If the learning environment will have a garden area, it should be in a location that gets plenty of sunlight each day. If there will be benches and seating, some should be in shaded areas and some in the sun.
  • What types of signs to include: Signage can add to the educational element of the learning space by providing information about local wildlife and plants or instructions on how to use certain equipment. The signs in the learning space should also let people know of the rules. For example, although it might seem to go without saying, you may want to install “no smoking” signs. It can also be a good idea to install signs that state the learning environment’s hours, such as when school is in session or from sunrise to sunset on the weekends and school holidays.
  • The type of materials to use: Also consider the types of material you’ll use in the space and what those materials can mean for safety and accessibility. Sand can get into people’s eyes and be a difficult surface for people who use mobility devices, for instance. Hard surfaces can lead to bumps and bruises if someone should trip and fall.

Construct the Outdoor Learning Environment

The construction of the environment can itself provide an opportunity for learning and growth. Still, it’s a good idea to consult with a professional on the project to make sure it meets all local codes and is structurally sound.

Under the supervision of a construction company or contractor, students can help to assemble the learning environment. You might want to assign them simple tasks, such as raking leaves or planting flowers and leave the heavy lifting and intensive digging to the pros.

Maintain the Outdoor Learning Environment

How much maintenance the outdoor learning environment will require depends on several factors, such as the type of materials you use to build the environment and the features you install. Some materials are lower maintenance than others and will require much less upkeep and attention. You might want to keep that in mind when you choose furniture and equipment. Look for items made of easy-to-clean, rust-proof materials.

Other maintenance duties include emptying the trash receptacles, keeping hand sanitizer stations filled and maintaining plantings. Decide who will be in charge of that before you commit to the project. Your school’s custodial or maintenance staff could handle the upkeep, or you could assign garbage duty and planting maintenance to the classes that will use the area.

Factors to Consider When Creating Your Outdoor Space

As you brainstorm ideas for the outdoor learning environment, try to keep your ideas grounded in reality. Consider real-world issues that people using the environment are likely to face, such as getting too much sun in the middle of the afternoon or dealing with muddy spots after a rainstorm. Keep the following in mind as you plan and design the learning environment so students can get the most use from it.

  • Seating options: Think about the average size of the groups that will use the learning environment on a given day and design seating arrangements based on that. For example, you might want to set up an area with benches that can accommodate a classroom size of 20 or so. If smaller groups will use the area, you might incorporate smaller seating groups into the design, such as picnic tables or chess tables. Also, remember that not every seat needs to be a seat. Younger kids might be happy to pull out cushions and sit on a paved area or the grass.
  • Flexibility: The more flexible the space is, the more use people will get from it. Instead of assigning a specific task to each area, such as the sandpit or garden, try to make the space as flexible and changeable as possible. That way, classes can adapt it to their specific needs. It might be that what people do in the learning environment changes every semester or every year.
  • Sustainability: Since one of the goals of an outdoor learning environment is to teach kids about nature, it can be smart to incorporate sustainable design and other eco-friendly elements into the planning and design process. That can mean using sustainable materials or finding ways to work environmental lessons into the setup of the area.
  • Weather conditions: Ideally, the learning environment will be something students and teachers want to use all year, not just during the fall or spring. Keep the local weather in mind when designing the area. Also, consider the weather throughout the day. If the learning environment is located in a spot that gets a lot of sun, what features can you include to make it comfortable even on the hottest days? If there’s wind, can you install windbreaks or barriers to offer students some shelter?
  • Health and safety: Consider adding features that keep public health measures in mind and keep students safe. Offering easy access to hand sanitizer or a handwashing station will remind people to wash up after sneezing or coughing or handling dirt or other materials. Installing trash receptacles can help keep litter down.

Outdoor Site Furnishings to Enhance Learning Environments

The furnishings you install in an outdoor learning environment should help students learn and create a welcoming and comfortable area for everyone who uses it. As you design the area, consider installing the following furnishings to enhance the environment.

Benches and Seating

Whether a classroom is using the outdoor learning area for a lesson or students are hanging out there after school, it’s important that people have a place to sit and relax. You might consider setting up several different seating areas, depending on the size of the learning environment. You can install several rows of player benches in an outdoor classroom area or amphitheater. In a lounge area, consider installing courtyard benches that students can sit on when relaxing with their friends or quietly studying between or after classes. If any part of the area gets a lot of sun in the afternoon, install a shelter bench that offers some built-in shade.

Picnic Tables

Picnic tables are great if you anticipate people using the outdoor area for lunch or snacks. But they don’t have to be limited to use at meal or snack time. Classes can sit at the picnic table while working on crafts or science projects outdoors. For example, students can sit at a picnic table while taking impressions of leaves or working on drawings of landscapes. If there’s a garden area in the learning environment, it might be a good idea to install a picnic table there that people can use as a potting table or when they are sorting through seeds and cuttings.

Hand Sanitizer Stations

Whether they are playing in the dirt, handling the school’s flock of schoolyard chickens or getting ready to eat their lunches, kids should have a way to clean their hands. Handwashing gets rid of germs and can help keep kids from getting sick.

But it might be too expensive or impractical to set up a handwashing sink outdoors. A more convenient and just as effective solution is to install hand sanitizer stations in the outdoor learning environment. Hand sanitizer helps to kill bacteria and other germs and will help to keep kids safe and healthy. Along with setting up hand sanitizer dispensers, it can also be worth hanging signs that explain how to sanitize the hands properly and the benefits of doing so.

Planters

Even if a gardening area isn’t part of an outdoor learning environment, you might still want to install several planters in the area to bring greenery and beauty to the space. What you put in the planters is up to you. You might consider working them into the outdoor curriculum at your school. For example, each class or grade level can be assigned a planter. They can choose a theme for it and pick what to plant in it. Or, you might decide to plant species that are native to your area and include signs next to each planter that list both the botanical and common names of the plants and fun facts about each one.

Trash Receptacles

If kids will be eating or hanging out in the outdoor learning environment, they are likely to generate some trash. While you can implement a “leave no trace” policy to encourage people to pack out whatever they bring in, installing trash cans and recycling receptacles make it easier for people to put their garbage in the right spot.

When choosing trash receptacles, try to pick ones large enough to accommodate all the people who might use the area on a given day. It can also be a good idea to have several receptacles set up throughout the space so kids don’t have to go too far to get to a garbage bin. The less effort involved in putting something in the trash bin, the less likely people are to litter.

Wabash Valley Can Help You Create Your Outdoor Learning Environment

You don’t have to design an outdoor learning space on your own. Wabash Valley offers site furnishings for large projects, such as an outdoor learning environment. We’re happy to work with you and help you choose customized furnishings that meet your students’ needs. We specialize in low-maintenance furnishings, meaning you won’t have to worry so much about upkeep once the learning environment is installed. To learn more, browse our selection online, then reach out to us with any questions you have or to get a quote.