Designing an Outdoor Classroom: 5 Simple Things to Consider

Updated: Nov 18, 2018

As adults, we all love to hear the joyful sound of children laughing, and the sight of children smiling and interacting with their friends.

As educators, our duty is to offer inspiring places to learn, which successfully support the learning process both inside and outside the classroom. However, many of the outdoor spaces in our schools and local communities weren't built with this in mind, and so they fall short as places for learning to take place.

An outdoor classroom built out of environmentally-friendly materials and located in Thailand

How Do We Maximize Outdoor Learning Spaces?

Even when we do choose to develop our outdoor spaces with children in mind, as adults we often make unconscious assumptions about how outside spaces should be designed and utilized to support learning. Despite our best intentions, it's common for adults to make assumptions without being guided by what actually boosts child learning. When creating outdoor spaces for children, it's best to base our designs on both our teaching experience and evidence-based research on child development and pedagogy in outdoor settings.

Have you ever wondered why children are often drawn to the wilder parts of the school playground? They could choose to play on the well manicured lawn or by the landscaped flower bed, yet more often than not, they're drawn to the overgrown corner with the weeds and uneven paving. But why?

Well, that's because children have an innate curiosity to explore natural places and learn through creative play. While adults tend to prefer carefully planted flower beds and well-trimmed bushes due to their visual appeal, these artificial outdoor environments don't necessarily benefit child learning and development.

Designing an Outdoor Classroom

Instead, we should bare in mind that outdoor grounds can play a key role in student engagement with learning and their motivation to succeed. And one of the most multi-functional ways to utilize outdoor spaces for learning is to build a carefully designed outdoor classroom.

A outdoor classroom with an adaptable, multi-purpose space and a polished concrete floor

Activity-based learning in an outdoor classroom is a highly effective tool, which helps to boost a child's emotional and social development, while also presenting a whole new educational experience. Building effective outdoor learning environments for children provides opportunities for children to take part in imaginative and playful outdoor learning, while also learning the importance of taking risks and overcoming challenges and obstacles.

Beautiful roof of an outdoor classroom made from traditional building techniques and sustainable materials located in Thailand

Asking yourself these 5 simple questions should get you started on designing an amazing outdoor classroom:

  1. What do we want to use our outdoor classroom for?e.g. a place for telling stories, a place for cooking, a place for supporting green projects in our school.

  2. How many children would we like to fit in it at once?This may influence your design considerations, as children need to be able to move freely within the space to maximize its potential as a learning environment.

  3. Where should we build our outdoor classroom to support learning?This is also an important consideration, as being surrounded by wildlife in a quiet and peaceful setting is best for effective outdoor learning to take place. Consider also the local weather and climate in your design.

  4. What facilities will we need to support the use of our outdoor classroom?Is our proposed outdoor classroom near a toilet or would we need to build one? Would it be useful to have a sink with running water? Would a kitchen be needed? How about a clay oven? Would a place to store equipment be handy? Do we need electricity?

  5. How can we make our design environmentally friendly?Mostly, as educators we want our outdoor classrooms to be built sustainably with minimal impact on the environment. Could we use natural materials? Could we gather rainwater for watering the plants? Could we incorporate solar panels for electricity?

Involving Children in the Design

Answering these 5 questions should help you get well on your way to designing a highly effective multi-purpose outdoor classroom. We also highly recommend involving the children in the design process and ensuring they can influence it, as this has many awesome benefits. It'll encourage student buy in and also make them feel deeply connected to the space. It'll build a sense of community and encourage creativity. Plus it'll probably throw up ideas which, we as adults, simply wouldn't be able think of.

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