Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Eric Nelson's book, Cultivating Outdoor Classrooms, clarifies the vision of the outdoor classroom and explains how it addresses the needs of today's children. The following insights are taken from this book in the hope that you'll take the time to read it in its entirety.
Learning that takes place outdoors simply does not occur indoors. I believe everything you can do indoors, you can do outdoors, and even more! It is important, then, that outdoor environments be as richly and thoughtfully equipped as indoor ones. Children should be able to move seamlessly between indoor and outdoor spaces; their play and learning should be as easy in one place as the other. Importantly, adults should not treat one location as more educational than the other.
The Goal of An Outdoor Classroom
A great way to promote outdoor learning and play is to create an outdoor classroom on your school grounds or educational site. The goal of the outdoor classroom is simple: to increase the quantity, quality, and benefits of outdoor experiences for children. But this does not only support structured adult-led outdoor activities. Children also need opportunities to initiate their own activities. They need to explore, imagine, try new things, and learn alone or with friends. Ultimately, we learn most deeply that which we explore "by ourselves" and natural environments provide near unlimited opportunities for discovery and learning engagement.
Too many adults who work with children try to hurry them. Pressuring children to hurry up inhibits rather than accelerates learning. Like almost everyone else, children learn best when they are relaxed and have open-ended time in which to create their own activities. They need time to refine and anchor new skills. Children should be encouraged to spend as much time as they want outdoors and have the freedom for regular outdoor play.
Why Build An Outdoor Classroom?
The outdoor classroom helps to restore the traditional benefits of childhood while also addressing the following:
- Getting children outside and more active
- Involving children in hands-on, loose-parts outdoor play
- Creating opportunities to learn how to handle outdoor risks safely
- Connecting children to nature in ways that encourage them to connect more deeply
- Teaching children about cause and effect through outdoor and interpersonal activities
- Providing children with a wide range of activities that support their holistic development
How to Build An Outdoor Classroom
If you would like to know more about how to design a successful outdoor classroom, check out our previous blog post: Designing an Outdoor Classroom: 5 Simple Things to Consider from July 2018.
To get you started, ask yourself these 5 simple questions 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, a place for play.
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?
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