Take It Outside! Part 2: Could Your District Make Outdoor Classroom Ideas Work?

Outdoor Classroom
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In  a previous  blog post, we examined the case for outdoor  classrooms and why  this fall is  the perfect time to consider  outdoor  classroom  ideas  for  your  school  district. Now, let’s take a look at the practical considerations  in deciding  whether your district can implement  outdoor  classrooms.


Where  could you put  an outdoor classroom? 

This seems like the best place to start  an  exploration  of outdoor learning  ideas. Fortunately, an outdoor learning space can be tucked almost anywhere: in existing gardens, on lawns, in courtyards, even over asphalt (now that many districts are limiting visitors, unused parking lots, anyone?). Campuses without a lot of extra outdoor space may want to consider inquiring about using nearby parks. The main calculation is  to determine  how many square feet your classroom should be, taking into consideration average class size and social distancing needs.


What  exactly  would you need?  

The design of any learning space is likely to be contingent on the location. While a few hay bales for seating could suffice for  a  preschool  reading class under a spreading oak tree, the needs will be different for an elementary school  biology class in the gardens or a conversational foreign-language class in a corner of the high school parking lot.

Outdoor Classroom


That said, almost any class that can take place indoors can be considered for class outdoors, if you plan for the following:

  • Seating:  Just like in an indoor classroom, having comfortable and appropriately sized seating is important to keeping students  interested and engaged. Portable  tables and benches can provide flexibility while surface mount benches and tables offer a more permanent solution.
  • Shade: Shade canopies can be configured in a variety of ways to provide crucial protection from the elements. Today’s long-wearing shade  fabrics block up to 98 percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays and  keep the  surfaces they protect up to 20 degrees cooler – and  the cooler children are, the easier  it will be to focus on outdoor learning.
  • Safety:  The usual requirements  must be modified  for  outdoor  purposes, including a plan for  inclement  weather. For preschool  and elementary  school  outdoor classrooms, there will likely need to be restrictions around  students leaving the class area or  playing with sticks,  insects, etc.
  • Storage: Teachers will need a place nearby to store their teaching aids and class supplies – and probably also a way to easily transport items back and forth.  Depending on classroom location, this could be anything from inside storage closets to outdoor storage sheds. You’ll also want to have extra trash and recycling receptacles nearby.
  • Self-directed learning: Part of the benefit of being outside is to increase students’ opportunities to actively participate in decisions about their own learning. These decisions could  include  anything from the practical activities of growing food to meteorological  observations to  finding   exactly the  floral  inspiration they need for art class.


Who  will staff  your outdoor classrooms? 

Now we come to  another complication school districts are facing this fall: Socially distanced classrooms can mean a need for more teaching staff as the teacher-to-student ratio drops. One suggestion is to  find a way to involve  outdoor educators who may be available due to closures caused by the pandemic. This includes workers from national parks, museums, science centers, and other learning locations. For example, the Lawrence Hall of Science conducted a  survey  of the nonformal  education sector in April;  close to 1,000 organizations from 49 states and the District of Columbia responded, and they  expected to furlough  30,000 staff  members  through the end of  this  calendar year.

kids and teacher standing outside a building


How  often should  outdoor classrooms  be used?  

As referenced above, the weather could play an important role in this question, even in a fairly temperate zone like Texas. Much like schools have rainy-day policies for taking recess indoors, each campus with an outdoor classroom would need a plan for  where to hold class in the event of bad weather.

However, weather permitting, outdoor learning spaces could be used anywhere from one or two class periods a week to being scheduled for every period, every day. The exact schedule would depend on the needs of each campus and the number of classes that could reasonably transition outside.

Speaking of time frames this fall,  have you heard of the annual  Outdoor Classroom Day? This fall’s international celebration is scheduled for Nov. 5. Its creators remind us that, even before the  coronavirus pandemic, over half of children worldwide were  spending  less than an hour  outside every day, even though time outside can have a profound impact on  their  physical and mental health. Your district – and your students — may benefit from experimenting with outdoor learning options on that day, if not sooner.


Getting the  Input  You Need 

“Obviously, transitioning to [outdoor classrooms] comes with challenges in terms of liability, curriculum flexibility and so on,”  observed  reporter  Ginia Bellafante  in her  New York Timesarticle on  the history of  outdoor classes. “But the reality of losing a generation of students to the deficiencies of Zoom seems much more troubling.”

If  you’re interested in getting more concrete advice on how your district could set up outdoor classrooms on any of its campuses,  contact us  at Park Place Recreation Designs. We are a commercial-grade park & playground equipment consulting & design firm with 35+ years  of  experience providing South Texas with safe, durable and competitively priced equipment designed to address children’s developmental needs.  We can put our extensive knowledge and creativity toward any questions you have and adapt any space to meet both your outdoor learning needs  and the requirements of your budget. Park Place is a TXMAS-approved vendor and a member of the  Buyboard, and  we  can provide a “Buy American” certificate for anyone purchasing equipment under the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act.

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