Over the past year, many learning communities have recognized the value of outdoor classrooms because they offer the following benefits to students:
- A safe space to learn with optimal airflow
- A learning space that sparks discovery and connection to the greater community
- An inspiring space to support learning about science and environmental justice topics
- A way for students to reduce stress and anxiety by enjoying the benefits of fresh air, sunlight, and movement
But how do you ensure you’re creating an outdoor learning space that’s most effective? Below are six key steps for making sure your space is connected to teaching and learning and is optimized for student success.
1. Identify the Learning Opportunities
To truly transform learning, an outdoor classroom should be used as an extension of your learning spaces. To form a solid plan with clear objectives, start by asking yourself the following questions.
- What standards can be supported by learning in the space?
- Which cohort of teachers can be trailblazers for other users?
- What outside partners could you collaborate with to bring learning to life in the space?
- What grade levels are studying units that are appropriate for outdoor learning?
- How is your school leader equipped to be a champion for the space?
- How will you equip teachers, students, and parents to be champions for the space?
2. Involve Others in the Design Process
The best outdoor spaces are developed through an inclusive design process that incorporates the opinions of teachers, students, and parents. Look for best practices, but also focus on the aspects of the space that are unique to your location and learning community. Ask yourself the following questions to ensure you’re optimizing your space:
- How can student designs play a role?
- Can you work with classroom teachers to create a schoolwide design challenge?
- What would parents appreciate about this space, and how can they contribute to it?
- What is the best way to bring teachers’ voices into the mix?
- How will the unique nature of your school play a role in the design?
- Are there local examples that can inspire your work to create this space?
- Are there other examples that you would like to emulate?
3. Determine the Permanence of Your Outdoor Classroom
There are a variety of models of outdoor classrooms. Some are created easily by placing some stumps in a field, while others require a permanent covered structure with electricity. It is important to think about your long-term plans for the space. Having power and wireless access in your outdoor classroom can amplify learning and ensure multiple uses of the space. Ask yourself these questions to determine your needs and take a 3D tour of a pop-up outdoor classroom and a permanent outdoor classroom for inspiration.
- Do you need to build a structure?
- Do you want your space to be usable during all four seasons?
- What furnishings will move in and out of this space, and what furnishings will stay in this space?
- Will your furnishings need to be weather resistant or easy to move indoors and out?
- What type of technology will you use in this space?
- How many devices will be used in the space?
- Will you need permanent or mobile electricity in the space?
- Does your wireless network reach this space?
- Are there hotspot solutions available?
4. Think About the Types of Weather You Will Need to Contend With
Depending on where you’re located, you’ll have specific weatherproofing needs. Do you need a full roof, heaters, or all-weather storage? Each of these decisions will impact how often you can use the space and how much impact it ultimately has on learning.
- How many students can use the space when it is raining?
- Is there a temperature limit for use of your outdoor space?
- Do you need ways to provide shade or limit sun during warm days?
- Will you need outdoor heaters to heat the space on cooler days?
- How will you protect classroom technology from the elements?
5. Decide Whether You’ll Need Portable or Permanent Teaching Tools
The types of tools your teachers will need will depend on your geographic location and the design of your space. These tools could include fixed work surfaces and storage if teachers will use the space as a permanent classroom most of the year. Or you may need mobile storage and teaching tools that you can move indoors and out. Or you may need a mixture of both. Ask yourself the following questions.
- What types of learning will take place in the space?
- Will teachers need portable storage or carts to bring supplies into the space?
- Will teachers need instructional surfaces, such as portable whiteboards?
- Do students need portable work surfaces and seating?
- How will you ensure students have access to supplies and learning materials?
- Will students need power in different areas of the space?
6. Keep Testing and Learning
After you’ve done your research and have your plan in place, it’s time to start creating your outdoor classroom. But keep in mind that the planning doesn’t stop there. Continue to evaluate your new space to get feedback, make improvements, and maximize the learning that happens there. Keep asking questions like the following.
- How is the outdoor classroom working for teachers and students?
- What improvements would they like to see?
- How can you make the space more comfortable?
- What do they value most about the space?
- What would they like to do in the space that they can’t do now?
- Do they have everything they need to teach and learn in the space?
- Is there anything that frustrates or distracts them when they are teaching and learning there?
These steps will help you create a solid plan for your outdoor classroom and allow you to see how your learning outcomes tie back to your original objectives. And, as you continue to find opportunities to leverage the outdoor space you’ve created, you’ll get to see your students grow and blossom in new ways.
Dr. Robert Dillon
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