By Pat McNamara
What better way to bring to life what kids are learning about inside the classroom than to bring them outdoors where they can spread out, get creative, and truly experience learning?
The pandemic created a need for kids to social, or rather physical, distance from each other. As such, outdoor learning environments have become an effective way to keep students engaged, connecting what they are learning indoors with what they find outdoors and doing more learning through hands-on experiences.
The outdoors provides teachers the ability to bring learning to life and do activities they may not be able to in the classroom. Educators have an opportunity to set the stage for this new classroom.
The benefits of learning outdoors include:
- Ability to move and interact more freely
- Learning through hands-on experiences, which increases retention
- Increases creativity
- Environmental awareness
- Variety in teaching forums
- Engages teachers and students
Schools and teachers are beginning to adopt the outdoors as the new classroom, or one element of it, at least, trending away from the traditional classroom learning model.
Site Furnishings for Outdoor Learning Spaces
When designing an outdoor learning space, you want it to be comfortable and conducive to learning. An ideal outdoor classroom should include shade, tables and/or benches, trash receptacle and a hand sanitation station.
Seating: Indoors or out, your students (no matter the age) will be doing some sitting. Find the type of seat that will work best. Bench seats with or without a back are durable and can even be a place where students do their work.
For younger students, you might want to be creative and choose individual seats that are tree stumps or boulders, something that will stir the imagination.
Solar powered bench seating with charging stations may be a good solution for older students or classes where tablets/computers will be used.
Tables: Students may be moving more freely, so traditional desks are probably too restrictive. Plan for how many need to sit at each table and the type of work they may be doing. Round, square or rectangle shape? Attached seating or not? When health and wellness are a concern, it’s easy to create a four-way tabletop barrier simply by adding safety shields.
Shade: Keep students (and teachers) cool and protected with a shade structure. Umbrella shades are ideal when needing to shade picnic tables, benches, or smaller play areas. Shades, too, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from umbrella to square, rectangle and more.
Consider a shade integrated with either tables or benches. This offers an easy solution, especially if smaller groups within the classroom are needed to do group projects.
Finally, hand sanitation stations keep students from having to go in and out of the building and offer an effective alternative to soap and water. While there may be drinking fountains outside, make sure they are in close proximity to students. Manage classroom litter and trash with a coordinating trash receptacle.
Choosing Site Furnishings
One option is to purchase a pre-packaged outdoor classroom, where the vendor has already chosen specific items. This can be an affordable solution, and you still have some ability to customize.
Another option is to design your own outdoor classroom, where you select the specific items.
When choosing your site furnishings, keep in mind:
- Choose furnishings that are durable and weather resistant.
- Ensure furnishings accommodate any children with special needs, such as wheelchairs or other mobility devices.
- Customize furnishings to coordinate with your school colors and/or mascot.
- Choose age-appropriate furnishings and learning elements. For instance, for younger children, include a weather theme when choosing seats, tables and/or educational elements.
- Facilitate health and wellness of students by including hand sanitation stations and trash receptacles to manage classroom litter.
More Than a Classroom
Every school courtyard should have outdoor furnishings so students can eat lunch, study and do a little socializing while still social distancing. Outdoor furnishings at Lightridge High School provides an area for lunch, study and socializing. When this high school opened, it furnished its outdoor courtyard with five round portable picnic tables and two trash receptacles.
- Portability allows you to move tables where they are needed.
- Round tables make it easier for social engagement.
- Blue matches school colors.
- Four attached seats allow for easy wheelchair accessibility.
Pat McNamara is the owner of MaxPlayFit, a locally owned and operated small business in Lynchburg that specializes in top-of-the-line commercial playgrounds, site furnishings and fitness equipment, www.maxplayfit.com.