By T. R. Dunlap.
Outdoor classrooms are growing in popularity among educators around the world. This trend is not going away anytime soon, as research continuously supports the outdoor learning’s positive effects on students’ physical health, cognitive development, and socialization. Many teachers, administrators, and parents are enthusiastic about utilizing outdoor classrooms to bolster their students’ curriculum; even so, many schools are without such a learning environment. Those who seek to develop an outdoor learning program often encounter a number of challenges along the way (e.g. the lack of outdoor space, low community interest, or lack of financial support). Don’t let these challenges deter you! If you want to see an outdoor classroom at your school, there are some simple steps to follow to bring to life a vision of outdoor learning for your students.
1. Make a Plan
What kind of outdoor learning space do you want to see at your school? There are many different kinds. In order to think through the vision of your outdoor classroom, consider two questions: What will be the features of this learning space, and where will you put the classroom? For example, some outdoor classrooms simply arrange wooden benches around a podium and chalkboard in an outside space. Other outdoor learning environments are more dynamic and may be in a tree house, a greenhouse, or under a tent. Some outdoor classrooms are on a boat or a dock, while others are in caves and near waterfalls. There may be a lot of features and locations to consider.
What will be the features of your classroom?
Make a list of the items you want in your outdoor classroom when considering the kind of geographic features your area offers. These features could include nature trails with native vegetation and wildlife, flower and vegetable gardens, butterfly boxes, cartons of local plants, bins of sand, bird houses, and water tables. Your classroom may also have stations where students can use magnifying glasses, microscopes, binoculars, and telescopes to observe that natural world. After you make a list of the features you envision for the classroom, think about a good location.
Where will you put the classroom?
Outdoor classrooms are developed around the available environmental resources; some of these learning spaces may be as small as a nearby courtyard, or they may take up some designated acres of a local park. The site of your outdoor classroom should be conveniently located and in a safe area. Think about your options and assess the feasibility of the potential locations for the outdoor classroom. Once you have identified the features and possible location of your outdoor learning space, communicate your ideas to others.
2. Cast the Vision
How can you get other people on board to design and build an outdoor classroom? You’ve spent time imaging the kind of outdoor classroom you want to see and where you would like to see it, and now it’s time to cast the vision. Consider developing a proposal with the combined ideas of school administrators and teachers. Your proposal could detail the vision for the outdoor classroom, a proposed location, an estimated budget, and a projected timeline. The proposal will help to identify what items are needed for the outdoor classroom. In light of the many budget constraints schools face, many people who believe in your vision may want to provide financial support. Check with local businesses to see what they might donate, and contact as many sources as possible. Perhaps you could offer dedicated plaques in the outdoor classroom to recognize contributors to the project. You might be surprised how your enthusiasm will garner the support needed to make the dream of an outdoor classroom come alive.
3. Build and Maintain
After careful planning, casting the vision, and gaining support, it’s time to build. The final product may look different than what you had imagined, but students will love this new addition to their learning environment.
Make sure to keep the outdoor classroom design simple as well as build all of its features with durable materials. Your classroom will be exposed to natural elements all year long, so keep this in mind to prevent issues with frequent upkeep. You will want to ensure that your outdoor classroom is kept safe and maintained. A monthly maintenance schedule is crucial to address every feature of the learning environment to increase its longevity. For example, somebody will need to routinely clean bird feeders, water flowers, or tend to the garden. All nature trails must be maintained by adding new wood chips or gravel. The maintenance issues will be different for each type of outdoor classroom, but you will want to know that everybody involved is caring for this part of the school.
Outdoor classrooms are a power tool for teachers to use to promote student learning and growth. While your school may not yet have an outdoor classroom, it only takes one person to champion the cause and communicate the vision. Perhaps that person is you!
T. R. Dunlap is a research associate for the George Washington University in the Education Facilities Clearinghouse. After having worked as a foreign language educator, he now researches topics relevant to education facilities and their improvements.