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The Outdoor Classroom

June 10, 2021 by Jody Andres AIA LEED AP in Wisconsin School News

Taking education outdoors has its advantages and challenges. In our part of the nation, we have significant obstacles. Wisconsin's winters are among the toughest in the country. Just as we've discovered how to thrive and enjoy our climate, we can learn how to educate our students in the natural environment.

Outdoor classrooms were first created as a tool to teach students about science and the environment. In recent years, a shift has been made to a mindset of "open air classrooms", a much broader concept allowing any subject to be examined outdoors. Incidentally, this concept was used in New England in the early 1900s as a way to reduce the cases of tuberculosis that were rampant among children at the time. 

As long as proper supporting infrastructure is provided, many general education courses can occur outdoors. For example, collaboration, presentations and research about about geography, science, agriculture, and history could all be done outdoors just as well as indoors...if we prepare for it.

Challenging the norm
Challenge your design and construction partners to be creative in providing options and alternatives for seating, writing surfaces, and technology. Each must be durable for use in an exterior environment. Make the options more flexible and inviting than just building benches or attaching a marker board to the exterior wall of the school. Be certain to make the areas accessible to students at different age levels and with varied degrees of ability. 

"Shop Local" is a common theme for many communities, but it really gets highlighted when designing educational spaces for the local climate and environment. A design professional who personally experiences the weather patterns of your area and has frequently designed local structures and facilities -- and has seen how those designs have "weathered the storm" -- is invaluable.

Research and discover
As you consider how to teach more classes outdoors, look at what others have done. Lessons can be learned from camps, state and national parks, other schools, and nature-minded organizations. You don't have to develop these ideas all on your own. However, I would suggest you seize the opportunity to capitalize on the creativity of teachers, maintenance staff, local groups that are enthusiastic about the outdoors, student organizations, and more. Facilitate brainstorming sessions with various audiences to gain insights and buy-in.

Use what is available
Be certain to consider all the existing natural resources that are readily available nearby the school. Too often, we overlook what is right around us, but perhaps has been purposefully hidden for safety or because it has been deemed unsightly, like a retention pond. Discuss your desire to find outdoor spaces with your facilities director, area agriculture experts, and parks and wildlife professionals. Additionally, look at aerial views of the location by utilizing drones or mapping platforms such as Google Earth. Existing forests, grasslands, swamps, ponds, and other bodies of water should be considered as options for study and as outdoor classroom settings.

Educate as you create
When you come up with new ideas for facilities, or when you visualize elements that you want to create, consider the project as a learning opportunity. Existing educational programs in your school district, such as architecture, construction, welding, manufacturing, graphic design, and agriculture, could all be utilized to create legacy outdoor programs that will benefit students for years to come. Don't rely on outside professionals too quickly when faculty and students could do much of the work...and learn along the way.

Supply storage
Closet and storage space is a hot commodity in any school, and the need is equally vital in outdoor learning spaces. It is essential to create storage space that is safe and secure to the elements, wildlife, and criminals. Providing outdoor educators with the ability to quickly access the needed resources can make the difference between a well-delivered lesson and a program that fails to produce. 

Provide protection
Just as our schools must be designed for comfort and safety, we must ensure that our outdoor spaces are protected from the weather, including wind, rain, snow, and sun. Shielding our students from the inclement extremes extends the utilization of these settings to more of the school year and more effective learning.

Semi-protected or semi-enclosed areas can provide relief for students when exposed to the elements. Be mindful of both natural sanctuaries as well as built ones. Consider trees or significant changes in topography, covered shelters with a screen on one side, and other methods of providing relief from direct sun, light rain, or brisk winds. 

Not just for rural
If you're assuming that outdoor class options are only suited for rural school systems, think again. In population-dense areas, take advantage of the wide-open spaces that roofs provide. Existing roofs can be adapted, and new rooftops should be designed with open-air classrooms in mind. While students might benefit from having any topic taught in the open air, you can also be more deliberate in displaying teaching tools: rooftop gardens, capturing water and assessing its quality, heat islands and temperature control, architecture, and much more can be taught through hands-on rooftop learning spaces. 

Utilize sustainable amenities
Solar-power stations, rainwater-collection systems, and small-scale water treatment systems can also be utilized to teach important lessons about sustainability, technology, natural resources, and more.

A good example can be found in Darlington. In January 2016, the Darlington Community School District completed the installation of a 156-kW solar system on their elementary/middle school roof. Darlington teachers and administrators have provided students, as well as the community, with an interactive, real-time solar educational platform supporting science, technology, and math education while reducing the carbon footprint for the community. Student, teachers, and community members can observe power output on a continuous basis, noting daily patterns and the impact of cloud and snow cover. Additionally, they can compare minute-to-minute or annual solar production relative to monthly and annual building electrical loads and evaluate cost savings.

Partnerships
Sometimes, great options can be found through area partnerships. River Crest Elementary in Hudson is a prime model. At River Crest, a fantastic opportunity for an outdoor education partnership was right across the highway at the YMCA-Camp St. Croix. A partnership formed and the District has the foresight to build a tunnel under the road for safe passage. This not only benefitted the students, but the YMCA campers as well. The tunnel provides safe access between the trails and campsites at Camp St. Croix and the paved walking/bike trail that winds around the entire 43-acre school site. Now, both organizations have greater access to resources without incurring additional expense or disturbing more of the environment.

Role model and encourage
As leaders of schools, encourage all teachers to facilitate some of their lessons outdoors. Dedicate a portion of in-service or professional development programs to discussing how a unit could be taught outside. Model this behavior by taking a professional development session outside and asking staff members to discover as many advantages and opportunities as possible to teaching outdoors. Keep the concept on the tops of their minds by looking at the 10-day forecast and letting your teachers know which days the following week would be ideal to maximize outdoor classrooms.

Next steps
Assemble a group of educators, community members, design professionals, contractors, teachers, and other professionals to discuss opportunities for alternative education environments. Assess exterior assets that already exist on school properties, adjacent lands, and nearby areas. Incorporate exterior education environments in future building projects that are being completed or under consideration.

When we creatively engage with interested parties to generate outdoor opportunities for our students, we allow those students to learn lessons in a way they never would have before. Let's give our young people a breath of fresh air!


Jody Andres is a senior project architect and the K-12 market leader at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. Andres is accredited by the American Institute of Architects as a leader in energy and environmental design, a past president of AIA Wisconsin, and the regional representative for the North Central States to the AIA Strategic Council. He has worked with more than 50 school district on PreK-12 educational facilities, providing needs assessment, planning, programming, and design services. Jody can be reached out jandres@hoffman.net

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