10 top concepts schools should keep in mind when designing outdoor classrooms

The Los Angeles County Office of Education is sharing free design guidelines for outdoor learning spaces
By: | August 18, 2021
Outdoor learning can be a transformative experience, "and kids need that right now in an enormous way," a veteran outdoor educator in Los Angeles says.Outdoor learning can be a transformative experience, "and kids need that right now in an enormous way," a veteran outdoor educator in Los Angeles says.

Outdoor learning is magical. Moving beyond the four walls of a classroom is an activity students will look forward to for weeks. Connecting with natural phenomena can make stepping outside the most memorable experience of a student’s time in school.

But these are not the only reasons behind districts’ surging interest in building outdoor classrooms and learning spaces. For example, outdoor learning will be a key tool in helping kids recover from the disruptions of COVID, says Shaun MacDonald Hawke, an Outdoor and Marine Science Field Study project director for the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

“It’s a transformative experience, and kids need that right now in an enormous way,” Hawke says. “There’s been a lot of damage to kids socially.”

And during the COVID-era, countless studies have shown the virus is far less contagious outdoors.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education is working with some of its 80 districts to design robust outdoor learning spaces. The agency will use some of its ESSER COVID relief funding to support the effort.

“We know that a student can learn pretty much anywhere,” says Jema Estrella, the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s director of facilities. “In today’s classrooms, certain elements have to be there to support an educational experience that can be very basic to something a lot more sophisticated.”

Here are several other academic concepts to consider when building or redesigning an outdoor classroom:

1. Equitable access to nature. Students in urban environments often have less access to parks or nature, a gap that can be narrowed by outdoor learning spaces at school, Estrella says.

“In some communities, they have to walk or drive many blocks to access even just a park,” Estrella says. “In situations like that, an outdoor learning environment—an environment that is different than the four walls of the classroom—can positively impact not only the students but also the teachers.”

2. Kids can get distracted … in a good way. Outdoors, students encounter an abundance of phenomena, from the sound of birds calling to traffic noise. When these phenomena spark students’ interests teachers can learn to pivot their lessons rather than letting the class veer off-course, Hawke says. “Kids will get excited by and interested in real things,” she says.

Both teachers and students will learn to adapt to and capitalize on changing outdoor conditions and make that part of the intellectual exploration, Estrella adds.

“It can help them discover the love of learning in themselves,” she says. “Being immersed in the natural environment with all the activity happening around you is similar to what happens in life.”

3. What about the hardware? Furniture that’s movable and flexible is essential for outdoor learning spaces because it allows teachers to shift from large to smaller group learning. This includes flexible seating and movable whiteboards and other writing surfaces.

Outdoor classrooms also need shaded areas for extreme heat, rain or other inclement weather, Estrella says.

And just like indoor classrooms, outdoor spaces need reliable internet access as well as plenty of power and charging sources.

Where to find free design guidelines

The Los Angeles County Office of Education has shared design guidelines for outdoor learning, which were developed with help from a partner architectural firm.

The design process should start with teachers and other educators planning for what they will teach outdoors and how they will use the space, says Virginia Marquardt, principal in charge of HMC Architects’ Los Angeles PreK-12 studio.

“A lot of time teachers think four walls help to control positive behavior,” she says. “It has nothing to do with four walls. It has to do with how you manage a class and engage students.”

That’s why professional development in outdoor instruction is crucial to help teachers shift a lesson when, for instance, students’ attention is drawn to ants or other insects crawling through the space. Teachers can learn to include that natural phenomenon in their discussions.

Here are some more keys to designing outdoor classrooms:

  • Identify outdoor learning environment goals and objectives and how they align with your school’s mission.
  • Several factors will help define the layout of the space, including the required student capacity, its location of the spaces on campus and the learning styles it will accommodate.
  • Kick off the design process with a presentation of inspiring images that will generate feedback from teachers, school staff, community members and other stakeholders.
  • Create a video for teachers to share with their students that describes how outdoor learning environments can enhance their learning experience.
  • The school community must decide its level of tolerance for varying weather and environmental conditions and how the outdoor learning environment will be protected.
  • Teachers also need to be physically comfortable in the outdoor environment. For instance, while wearing sunglasses may not be desirable because they hide a teacher’s eyes, the teacher can choose to wear a hat to provide shade.
  • Involve custodians and other facilities staff to get input on how they will maintain an outdoor classroom, Marquardt says.