What if school happened outside with the sky and nature as a roof and walls and floor? Learning would be exploring and experiencing, Learning out doors is important. It is different than learning that occurs sitting at a desk, working on a computer, playing organized sports. Learning outside is a full body sensory experience. Many schools are providing learning opportunities outside as well as inside. What serves as an outdoor learning environment? Learning outside benefits from being on a south facing area in cooler climates and in a north facing area in hotter. Facing south 'classrooms' can be well lit and warm even when it is cold; facing north they can be cool and in the shade when it hot. Outdoor classrooms need places to walk, run, build, play and sit. They need access to natural plantings and open sky areas and views of the landscape (when possible).
Activity 1 Find an Outdoor Classroom
Do you ever read outside? Do you ever take a walk in the woods? Do you ever listen for birds or look for bugs or follow animal tracks? When you spend time outside, you become an explorer of the world. This journey is about learning out of doors. Where outside of your house do you go to spend time? Do you know of a garden, a park, or a woods? Does your school have outdoor classrooms? Can you think of an outdoor classroom in your community? Grab your journal, pencils and digital camera. Walk or bike there. Walk around the space. Is it open or enclosed? Is it natural or constructed? Is it sunny and dry or shady and wet? Can you hear birds? Can you see animals? Do you observe any insects? What kind of plantings are there? What seasons would be best for learning in this outdoor classroom? What activities would be best supported in those seasons? Make a panoramic photograph of your outdoor classroom.
Activity 2 Start an Outdoor Classroom Map
Where do outdoor learning opportunities exist? Print a black and white map of your community. Take a long look from above. What places do you think serve as good outdoor learning environments? Is there a trail along a river? A fishing pond in a park? Is there a forest or wooded area? Using GoogleScribbleMaps color code outdoor places to explore and learn. Chart the walking or biking routes between them. Make a list of all of the learning environments. For each place list what you might possibly be able to learn there.
Activity 3 Outdoor Experiences
To begin thinking about taking an old playground or a vacant lot and turning it into an outdoor classroom starts with ideas. Brainstorm ideas about what experiences you would like to have. Do you want to sit, hide, read, run, build? What could you imagine learning?What would your teachers like you to learn in an outdoor classroom? How would your class move from inside the school to this new place outside? What would the path be like? What would you see coming up to the classroom? How would you enter it? Create a series of word maps to get started. For example, learning plant and tree names and importance of plants and trees is one possible objective; learning cloud types or classifying insects is another. Try matching exploratory time with teacher supported learning. Imagine fixed AND flexible areas. Imagine different season usages. Here is a possible list of word maps to initiate:
Outdoor Learning Topics
Wet Activities vs. Dry Activities
Active vs. Passive Activities
Structured Activities vs. Informal Experimentation Activities
For each word map, create diagrams of how people, teachers, students and community members could interact with learning topics.
Activity 4 Create a Participatory Outdoor Team and Learn About the Environment
To create an outdoor classroom, you will need other contributors. Start sharing your thinking with other people. Talk to friends, neighbors, teachers and administrators. Meet with them and learn what ideas they have about an outdoor classroom. Take notes from every meeting in your journal. Try to diagram everyone's ideas. Next… interview the environment! After talking to people looking closely at the environment requires different investigative sensory skills. Take stock in what plants grow in your area. Note what kinds of trees exist. Record how much rain your area usually gets, its temperature range and the number of sunny days. All of this information will help in the staging of an outdoor classroom. Create outdoor classroom diagrams from the information you have gathered from people and from the environment. Using blocks, colored paper and other found objects, conceptualize the diagrams into three dimensional space to create visual models for feedback. Invite your collaborators to come and see some conceptual ideas and encourage them to move pieces of the conceptual model around.
Activity 5 Before and After
Find an asphalt playground that you would like to transform into an outdoor classroom. Take photos of the hard surfaces. Find this asphalt area on Google Earth and print out an aerial view. Trace over these images with ideas that introduce eco systems of experiences. Remember to keep sight lines open through plantings, climbing and seating structures. Add the following areas to accommodate a class of 24 children and one teacher:
Open green area
Change(s) in elevation
Shaded sitting area(s)
Draw your ideas in plan, in section and present with experiential perspectives showing children using the space.
Outdoor classrooms can be community spaces.
Outdoor classrooms can be used year round.
In colder climates, outdoor classrooms on the south side of a school will capture the suns warmth in winter months.
In warmer climates, tree cover and placing classrooms on the north side of the building will help keep the classroom in the shade and cooler.
Outdoor habitats provide places for plants, people, insects, animals and learning.
- Play Associates Imagination Playground
- Parc Bercy, Paris
- Asphalt to Eco Systems
- Place to Play
- Richard Louv: The Nature Principle
- Children & Nature Network
- Natural Play in Schools
- Learning Through Landscapes
- Green Schoolyard Network
- Climate Action is Gardens
- Learning Landscapes
- Learning Through Landscapes
- Child Education Center: Outdoor Classrooms
- Tess Rose Natural Playscapes
- The Edible School Yard
- Cultivating Outdoor Classroom Project
- Cultivating Outdoor Classrooms AIA Video
- Grounds for Learning (Scotland)
- Norway's Outdoor Kindergarten
- International School Ground Video
- Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom Design
- 4H Children's Garden, Michigan State University Video
- 4H Children's Garden Education Programs, Michigan State University Video
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- Nature Patterns
- Place Experience
- 21st Century Classroom
- Tree Identification
- Green Schools
- Vegetable gardens
- Green Roofs
- Design Process
- Rain Gardens
- Experience Design
- Place Exploration
- Pocket Parks
- Design Research
- Site Analysis
- Site Programming
- Play Space