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Outdoor Learning Environments : Part Two

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Welcome back to the second in our three-part series on outdoor learning environments. The first part explores why outdoor learning environments are important and how they benefit students. Today, we will identify some issues to keep top of mind when designing an outdoor learning space.

Philosophy: Remember, the idea behind creating an outdoor learning space is to foster students’ love of the natural environment and provide a variety of learning environments. Your outdoor learning space should not be another enclosed classroom; it should be open and airy, enhanced with natural materials, paths, and seating.

Waunakee Intermediate School

This intermediate school in Wisconsin features an outdoor learning space with boulders that double as seating.

Purpose: Before you begin an outdoor learning space, identify why it’s important for your district and your unique learning goals. Do you need specialized environmental education space or a school garden? Flexible seating for outdoor classroom lessons and outdoor school lunches? An outdoor amphitheater and large group space?

Inclusivity: Make your outdoor learning space inclusive for all students, not just accessible. This means that students of all abilities are fully integrated into the space and are not limited to a smaller, designated-accessible area. Consult with an architect to ensure the outdoor environment complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and local building codes, including the path to and areas around and inside the space.

The playground we designed for the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, includes ramps, wide pathways, and low-height play features throughout the structure for children who use a wheelchair.

Planning your outdoor learning environment is a great opportunity to engage special education staff, parents and students with special needs to get their input on making the outdoor space accessible. Read more about inclusive design for outdoor spaces at Green Schoolyards America.

Safety: Security is another critical consideration for outdoor learning spaces. Ensure the space is in the rear of your building or another well-protected campus area, away from unwanted visitors. Mounding, hedges or stone blocks are great ways to improve safety and privacy. At the same time, it is important to consider emergency access to the outdoor learning space in a medical emergency. 

Exposure: Hot days, the baking sun, and whistling winds can quickly derail a well-intentioned trip to a school’s outdoor learning space. If possible, use trees, shrubs or the school building itself to protect from the sun and wind. Depending on the budget, designers can supplement natural elements with earthwork and screens.

Consult with a landscape architect early in the planning of the space to identify native plant species that provide natural shade and windbreaks in the summer and shed their leaves in the cooler months, allowing the sun rays to heat the space during late fall and early spring days.

This proposed outdoor learning space at a Colorado high school uses the building as a windbreak and benefits from the shade of strategically placed trees.

Proximity: Another critical decision is the distance between the outdoor learning space and the school. Careful planners will consider how much time is available to use the space after accounting for travel time. A high school block schedule might accommodate longer walks to and from the space, but the frequent bell schedule at elementary or middle schools will require it to be near the school.

The outdoor learning space at this elementary school in Wisconsin is nestled in the center of the school’s campus, just a few steps away from students’ classrooms.

Keeping these factors in mind will help you and your design team create a safe, accessible outdoor learning environment that helps support the school’s curriculum. Plus, it will offer students a great change of pace – a fun, exciting space to engage in their learning and the natural world.

Keep an eye out for the last of our three-part series, coming soon!

Andy Lyons,
Engagement Specialist

Andy Lyons is an Engagement Specialist for Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA). Andy is based in our Madison office and supports school districts in their community engagement efforts.

Roberto Jaimes Jr.,
Project Specialist

Roberto Jaimes Jr. is a Project Specialist with Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA). He works out of the Milwaukee office as a member of the Learning Environments Studio focused on the K12 market. When he's not working, he enjoys spending time with his family and friends.