Developing an Outdoor Classroom
When thinking of the word "classroom," most people would likely picture the same thing — a grid of desks spread out across a square or rectangular room, a whiteboard or blackboard on the front wall, and windows. This arrangement is the traditional setting for learning and one that generations of children have been taught in.
The traditional atmosphere for classrooms has changed over time and there are plenty of ways to foster learning. At the same time, some settings for learning could lack some of the elements that can prove most beneficial to children. The effort to reclaim these benefits has given way to the concept of the outdoor classroom, something more and more schools are beginning to adopt, especially in an effort to implement social distancing efforts without compromising the health and safety of children, educators, and school staff.
Benefits of Outdoor Classrooms
Outdoor classrooms are learning spaces at schools where teachers can conduct lessons outside. The lesson might take the same format as it would indoors, just in a different environment. In recent years, the term "nature-deficit disorder" has arisen to describe conditions brought on by a lack of interaction with nature, primarily among children.
The benefits of teaching outdoors are plentiful, particularly when put in the context of a learning environment. Some of the benefits that come from the use of outdoor classroom spaces are:
1. Improved Health
Spending time outside produces a variety of health benefits. For example, some exposure to sunlight can lead to higher levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D appears in certain foods, but it can be difficult to reach optimal levels without spending time outside for limited amounts of time.
Time outdoors can lend to reducing the risk of childhood obesity. Transitioning the learning experience outside presents an opportunity for children to move more, exert energy, and burn calories that could otherwise contribute to significant weight gain by remaining sedentary for long stretches of time.
Additional health benefits of spending time outdoors include decreased blood pressure, improved eyesight, reduced osteoporosis, and increased immune function.
2. Increased Focus
Every teacher has experienced the challenge of keeping students engaged. Restlessness and short attention spans of children can certainly be an obstacle for educators. However, many of these qualities increase when children are confined to indoor spaces and sitting for long periods of time.
Something as simple as being able to walk around or interact with their surroundings can be enough to satisfy children's desire to move, whereas being restricted to a desk and told to sit still can have the opposite effect. What seems like excessive rowdiness inside is no more than a healthy interaction with their environment when taken outside.
Being outdoors can have a positive effect on students with ADD or ADHD, channeling their abundance of energy toward the right things and limiting the degree to which they "act out."
3. Increased Creativity
Pencils and paper are excellent tools for teaching students certain skills, but they don't necessarily provide them with all the qualities they need. For example, it can be tougher to develop high levels of creativity or problem-solving skills when you're learning with just ink on a page.
Taking students outdoors changes that completely. When students get a chance to interact with the world around them, it opens up many more doors for them to hone those skills and develop that region of their brain. Even something as simple as ordinary playing or movement can let them employ creative strategies to improve learning.
4. Better Sleep
Sitting at a desk all day doesn't require a lot of energy. However, as mentally taxing as it might be for students, it rarely involves much physical movement. Add to this setup the effects of the increasingly common digital screen use in schools, and you have a recipe for insomnia in your students.
Spending more time outside counteracts this issue. With a bit more physical exertion, students can use up more energy, giving their bodies more incentive to fall asleep at night — and with greater exposure to natural light, they can help balance out the amount of time spent looking at a screen. If you teach preschoolers or kindergartners, this benefit can come with the added bonus of more restful nap times.
5. Decreased Stress
Recent decades have seen a significant rise in students' stress levels, specifically in regard to school. While one of the best ways to handle this issue is to address the root cause, it doesn't hurt to counteract it with other things, either.
Spending more time outdoors can help dial down stress levels, making students happier and more eager to learn. Lowered stress is also another contributor to better sleep.
6. Improved Retention
Learning time potentially runs the risk of being wasted in traditional classrooms due to how often teachers have to repeat themselves or try to re-explain simple concepts. Even the most attentive students might find themselves having trouble retaining the content they about being taught.
Being outdoors can negate this problem by taking advantage of simple psychology. When students learn about things through hands-on experiences, it creates stronger memories and forces them to apply what they learn to real, physical situations. This means that a ten-minute science lesson outdoors could take the place of a thirty-minute one spent going over a textbook.
7. Environmental Awareness
Spending more time outdoors can also help foster an environmentalist and conservationist mindset from an early age. When a child spends all their time away from nature, it makes sense that they won't have much incentive to conserve or protect that nature later in life.
This can also be a problem for children living in urban areas, even if they spend plenty of time outdoors. Pavement and brick don't do much more to produce a love of nature than the inside of a classroom.
Applying Outdoor Learning
Even once you're confident that spending time in an outdoor classroom is beneficial, you may still be wondering how to make it work. How should you approach outdoor teaching? What alterations should you make to your teaching methods?
In truth, you don't necessarily have to change anything at all. Simply being outside is enough to produce most of the above positive effects, so you can have students bring their textbooks with them, or bring a portable whiteboard to write on.
But if you still want to vary your teaching approach to make the most of the outdoor space, there are a handful of ways you can do so. Here are some ideas for spicing up different subjects in an outdoor classroom:
Science is probably the best subject to apply to an outdoor environment, simply because so much of the science your students learn will directly involve nature. Whether you're teaching about topics related to biology, climatology, or physics, the outside world contains the materials needed to give students some hands-on experience with the things they're learning about.
Outdoor science class could take the form of something as simple as examining leaves on different trees, but you could also customize your outdoor classroom to allow for other types of lessons. For example, you could install bird boxes or plant a flowerbed, each of which would allow you to show children the life cycle of a different organism.
In comparison to science, math might seem like a completely different challenge when it comes to outdoor teaching. How will being around nature help children learn their multiplication tables?
In fact, this subject goes back to the hands-on element of outdoor learning. Using simple objects found outside such as rocks or plants, you can act physically work through math problems in real life, helping students to better visualize and understand them. And because hands-on learning improves retention, you can take advantage of it to teach something that requires memorization, like multiplication tables.
Subjects like geography and history focus on things existing out in the world, so it's appropriate to learn about them out in the world as well.
One way you can do this is to take advantage of sidewalk chalk. Find an open stretch of pavement and have your students draw maps on them. Or, to teach history, you can draw the maps in advance, and then have students move across those maps to represent historical events.
Learning English outdoors is particularly helpful for young children. To help expand their vocabulary, you can attach labels to different items in the outdoor classroom, and simply let the students roam around the space to explore the words and objects in person.
Then, at the end, you can ask students to share some of the things they interacted with. This will engage students and encourage them to pay attention to the labels while they play and retain the information.
Art often depicts elements of nature, and expanding this subject to be learned outside is a unique opportunity. To give students more inspiration for the art they create, set up places for them to do it in your outdoor classroom. This can take the form of sidewalk chalk, a painting easel, or modeling clay.
Many schools still offer music programs as part of the curriculum. Of course, playing instruments indoors — especially when they're put in the hands of young children — can be extremely distracting to nearby classes without proper sound-proofing in the room.
Taking music outside offers the benefit of reduced disruption to other classes. By putting percussive instruments in your outdoor classroom, you can provide another creative option for your students to take advantage of. For children who like to make a lot of noise, this will be a way for them to positively channel their musical expression and engagement.
Tips for Designing an Outdoor Learning Space
Outdoor learning can be a tremendously effective environment if you use it the right way. Many of the benefits and methods discussed above rely on the notion that your school actually has space for an outdoor classroom available. Parking lots, black-top areas, and other recreational spaces can easily serve a multi-purpose space that can become an outdoor classroom.
An outdoor classroom is a worthy investment with many health and educational benefits, but how do you create an outdoor classroom? Where do you start?
Outdoor classroom architecture can take whatever form you need it to and can be anything from a single tent to an elaborately designed arboretum. How yours looks all depends on what you want and need to support the education of the students. Here are some things to consider when planning an outdoor classroom design.
Even though a lot of time outside might be spent moving around, outdoor classrooms don't replace physical education. Similar to a traditional classroom, there will be plenty of times when students need to be sitting down and listening.
When designing outdoor classrooms, consider including seating areas. They could take different forms including individual seats or a few rows of benches. Another option is amphitheater-style seating.
Just as some outdoor lessons will require students to be sitting down, some will also require them to use textbooks or paper, like in the regular classroom. For these lessons, it's helpful for them to have tables to set those materials on. Alternatively, this space could be converted to outdoor eating areas for lunches and breaks. Therefore, tables are another thing to consider including in your outdoor classroom.
Many of the greatest benefits of being outdoors stem from the connection with nature. Recall that nature-deficit disorder can also occur in children living in heavily urban areas, even those who frequently go outdoors. Fresh air and sunlight are great, but plants and natural elements support the learning environment as well.
One thing you can do with your outdoor classroom is to make it a home for various plants and trees. These could be included in a science lesson or serve as landscaping. It doesn't have to be a forest or even a full garden, but having at least a handful of plants considered in the design of an outdoor classroom is a great idea.
Logs and Rocks
Plants aren't the only natural elements you can include in your outdoor classroom. Especially if the space is being designed for young children, you'll want to include things they can more freely interact with. While they can certainly observe the plants, logs and large rocks are more substantial landscaping elements that are sturdy and can be used for seating.
Even smaller stones scattered throughout the space can be used for countless purposes, from stacking to counting to organizing. Logs can likewise serve as natural elements to interact with, functioning both as extra seats and as potential homes for insects and worm for science observations.
You can do a lot of great science experiments using something as simple as a collection of water. Setting aside a space in your outdoor classroom for a pool of water, perhaps with a small fish population, can add an element to the area that is both scientifically valuable and visually pleasing.
Depending on how your school plans to use the outdoor classroom, you may want to include certain facilities within it.
Will students be there for long periods of time during the day? You might install a portable restroom close by or have easy access to an indoor restroom. Will they spend their time there doing a lot of activities that get their hands dirty? Consider installing an outdoor sink where they can wash off. Will any of them be required to use their school computers there? Think about boosting the school's Wi-Fi signal so it reaches them there.
Just because you don't have to think about installing a floor doesn't mean you should ignore what material the ground in your outdoor classroom is made of. To maximize usability, you may want to avoid using ground that will become muddy after it rains.
While you can still have patches of soil set aside for plants, consider covering the majority of the area in something like mulch. While still made of natural material, mulch won't get muddy, and it will easily compact after being constantly walked on. Other options are safety surfacing or concrete.
For a natural environment, it might seem counterintuitive that your outdoor classroom could benefit from pavement or concrete. You won't likely want to cover the whole area in pavement, but it can be useful to set aside a stretch of concrete that can be used for various things.
Concrete will usually dry more quickly than mulch or dirt after it rains, and it will also provide a space for children to use sidewalk chalk. If you don't want to add in a new section of pavement, you can simply construct your outdoor classroom on an existing area that is safe for students to use.
Wall or Fence
An outdoor classroom is a great space for allowing kids to exert some of their restless energy, but you may want to set some boundaries on that energy — literally. Erecting a wall or a fence around the classroom is an easy way of ensuring that students stay within the designated area and for their safety. This is easier if the school building already borders the classroom on one or more sides.
Incorporating a barrier wall as a safety element and an additional source of learning (like a whiteboard mounted on a barrier wall) is something to consider for an outdoor classroom. The wall can hold other items for educational opportunities like birdboxes, planters, and more.
There are many advantages of outdoor learning and so many opportunities to rethink outdoor space. One main difference in the indoor vs. outdoor classroom environment is the safety and protection from excessive UV exposure. Shade structures for outdoor spaces are a great design element that keeps students and teachers cool and protected.
Shade structures take many forms and are customizable for schools looking to add a unique architectural element to their campuses. Shade structures that use high-density polyethylene (HDPE) fabric block up to 97% UV rays and allow for airflow that can reduce temperatures up to 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Get Your Outdoor Classroom Shade Today
If you're seeking a shade solution for your outdoor classroom, look no further. USA SHADE offers a variety of shade structure options for your outdoor classroom project, designed to keep students and educators safe from the heat and make your outdoor space functional and aesthetically pleasing.
To see how we've already helped many different schools find the best shade solutions for their needs, take a look at our featured projects. Then get in touch with us to start toward developing your own outdoor classroom area today.