Elevating Education Experiences
The learning and health benefits of outdoor education environments have long been touted in the academic world as a much-needed complement to traditional indoor classroom spaces. While many schools across Canada have integrated outdoor learning into their curriculum by way of field trips, school gardens, and time-controlled outdoor adventures, very few schools have invested in permanent outdoor learning spaces that allow teachers to host their classes in the schoolyard, providing more variety in learning spaces and closer proximity to nature, a proven stimulus in focus, cognitive function and wellbeing.
Today, with many options for functional, outdoor learning furniture designed by leading play companies, KOMPAN and Jambette, designing a permanent outdoor learning space has never been easier.
THE BENEFITS OF OUTDOOR LEARNING
Elevated cognitive function: Nature is good for the brain. Many studies over the last four decades show the link between exposure and proximity to nature and a child’s ability to focus and retain information. And this shouldn’t surprise us. As adults we also seek nature to break the monotony of a desk job, destress after a challenging situation, or recharge and get our focus and creativity flowing again.
Reduced neurodevelopmental symptoms: Particularly with children diagnosed with ADHD, exposure to the outdoors has been proven to have a strong positive effect on their learning and ability to focus. A study on natural treatment for ADHD found that nature spaces, or basic green spaces like schoolyards with access to grass recreation areas, reduced neurobehavioral symptoms (Kuo & Taylor, 2004).
Improved wellbeing: Daily exposure to nature and green spaces makes us happier, and more relaxed, reduces anxiety, and has a positive effect on our social interactions (Science Advances, Vol. 5, No. 7, 2019).
DESIGNING OUTDOOR CLASSROOM SPACES
Outdoor classrooms are about facilitating new ways of learning and inspiring students in unexpected ways. Not limited to learning about nature and the surrounding environment, teachers have found that math, language, and even science and technology are all subjects that can be taught easily in an outdoor classroom and made better by using the surrounding environment to augment the lesson, e.g., collecting pebbles to support math equations, or just allowing students to focus in an environment that naturally calms the mind.
Many schools that have implemented outdoor learning spaces have started with wooden stumps thoughtfully arranged to facilitate learning between the students and teacher. Rethinking a traditional classroom layout, these wooden stumps are often arranged in a circle with a stump at the centre, positioning the educator as the focal point and the learners each having a front-row seat to the experience.
Starting simply allows education facilities to prove the success of outdoor learning environments in their school curriculum.
Making outdoor learning a permanent classroom alternative
For schools looking to permanently integrate outdoor learning into their curriculums, investing in purposeful outdoor furniture designed for this intent is recommended. While wooden stumps make great seating options for shorter lessons and learning moments, a permanent outdoor learning space will benefit from outdoor classroom furniture that facilitates in-depth lessons with a whiteboard for teacher-student communication, tables to share ideas or take notes, as well as individual or group seating options for collaboration or solitary work.
To help you get inspired, check out Parkworks partners and leading playground manufacturers, KOMPAN and Jambette, who are leading the charge in functional and playful outdoor classroom solutions. Their products range from wooden stumps and seating areas to single and multi-person desks and seating options, as well as whiteboards and chalkboards with integrated storage.
A QUICK GUIDE
Start planning with KOMPAN’s 13-step guide on how to create an outdoor classroom:
- The outdoor learning site should have a gathering space for students to listen to teachers (seating with whiteboards), as well as active learning stations for students to do hands-on activities (tables). These spaces can be thought of and designed as "rooms" within the overall outdoor space, and should always be in clear sight of the teacher/instructor.
- The outdoor learning space should not look the same as the indoor learning space – instead of square or rectangular spaces, think circles and ovals.
- The outdoor learning site should be designed for access and inclusion for persons using assistive devices – make sure that seating areas and tables have pathways wide enough for students using wheelchairs or walking frames.
- The site of the outdoor learning should not be far from toilets/wash stations and first aid.
- There should be clear boundaries to the outdoor learning site and a designated whole group meeting point in case of emergency.
- Teachers and supervisors should have clear sightlines to supervise their groups at all times.
- The site of the outdoor learning should have electricity, Wi-Fi, and phone access.
- The outdoor learning site should maximize opportunities for students to engage with natural elements and learn from nature (trees plants, water, and gardens).
- Where students are working with tablets and computers, there will need to be protection from glare.
- Consider the thermal comfort of students and teachers – this will vary with climate and time of year but could mean a need for shade or a need for heating/blankets.
- The outdoor learning site will need space for dry storage.
- The outdoor learning site will need space to display work.
- The outdoor learning site will need a space for or access to sheltering from rain or snow.