Inside the Outdoor Classroom

Inside the Outdoor Classroom

Across North America and in developed countries around the world, children’s health, development, learning, and well-being have been seriously compromised by decades of lifestyle changes that have dramatically altered childhood. Key among these changes is the significantly reduced amount of time spent outdoors by today’s tech-obsessed generation, when compared to their parents and grandparents. Journalist Richard Louv called this phenomenon, ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in his thought provoking book, The Last Child in the Woods, and opened the nation’s eyes to the positive developmental effects that nature has on our children.

The Outdoor Classroom Project (OCP), an initiative of the Child Educational Center (CEC), Caltech/JPL Community, in La Cañada, California, is founded on the belief that children benefit from spending substantial amounts of time outdoors, and that early care and education programs present a unique opportunity to facilitate teacher-supported, rich and engaging outdoor learning experiences.

The Outdoor Classroom can be created and used with almost every curriculum, for any population of children, and at virtually any program of early care and education. The Outdoor Classroom Project’s goal is to educate teachers, administrators, and parents about the value of outdoor play for children’s development, and help cultivate stimulating outdoor environments and activities.

Characteristics of the Outdoor Classroom

  • Most activities that can be done indoors can be done outdoors. Some activities occur best outdoors; some can only occur outdoors.

  • Children spend substantial periods of time outside, and it is easy and safe for them to get there; they are free to move easily between the indoors and outdoors.

  • There is a full range of activities for children to participate in, including many activities that are traditionally thought of as “indoor activities.”

  • The outdoor space offers a balance of areas for physically active and less active play.

  • While outside, children frequently have the opportunity to initiate their own learning experiences and activities, with teachers available to support them.

  • The outdoor curriculum evolves from and changes with children’s changing needs and interests.

  • Children experience nature in as many ways as possible.

The main goal of outdoor classrooms is to forge a bond between children and nature, so that the children will become knowledgeable about the environment and take good care of it as adults. As it turns out, there’s plenty more to like about them. Read on for more. If you're already thinking of building an outdoor space, you can also search ‘outdoor’ on to see additional ideas. 

image ©  Marathon

image © Marathon

Hedge School, Carlow, Ireland

Architecture design and research studio AP+E created a playful Amphitheatre of timber columns for use as an outdoor teaching space for a primary school in Carlow, Ireland, pictured above.

Named Hedge School, the pavilion was the winning design in a competition to create an interactive outdoor structure designed with children in mind. The name refers to Irish hedge schools from the 18th and 19th centuries, where children were taught outside surrounded by nature.

AP+E developed the project to be educational and "a usable piece of art", bringing in nature to help create a stimulating outdoor learning environment. The architects integrated vegetation into the structure to act as a teaching aid. The students can grow their own food and watch how the plants develop over time. As the plants and creepers grow, the Hedge School will become more sheltered. In this way, the evolution and maintenance of the pavilion becomes part of the learning process. Through the use of different plant varieties, AP+E ensured the pavilion will grow all year round with minimal maintenance, and the seasonal changes will create a continuously evolving appearance.

A series of raised wooden platforms provide seating within the pavilion, similar to an auditorium or Amphitheatre. The platforms can be used as both seating and stairs and the children are able to plant their vegetables in the integrated plant beds. The un-programmed space is designed to stimulate a variety of uses, including performance, outdoor cooking lessons and play. The robust, low-cost structure was built using plywood and steel wire, for sustainability, durability and to comply with the strict competition budget. Key to the success of the project was to engage the pupils in the process and allow them to take ownership of the project. For this reason the construction was carried out during school hours. Different classes carried out the actual planting, in accordance with an outline planting strategy provided by AP+E.

The innovative Hedge School offers an alternative education situation in which children learn from observation and interaction with their direct environment. Through planting, growing, studying and finally eating their plants the children are not only taught basic life skills but more importantly, how their actions directly impact their surroundings.

Boston Schoolyard Initiative

When the Boston Schoolyard Initiative (BSI) was originally formed in 1995, Boston's schoolyards were dreary asphalt lots. When the initiative wrapped up in 2013, the incredible BSI team had transformed every feasible k-8 schoolyard in the city - 88 in total - into inspiring centers for play, learning and community. Common elements include play equipment, painted graphics, site furniture, public art and, of course, outdoor classrooms.

From the beginning, the BSI objective was to add plants and green space to urban neighborhoods. Over the next 18 years, together with the City of Boston, the public-private partnership would invest more than $20 million in schoolyards and education programs in Beantown. While all the renovations included teaching and learning components, the more clearly delineated outdoor classrooms included in every schoolyard renovation since 2007, are specially designed to support teaching and learning and provide a dose of nature just outside the school door. BSI outdoor classrooms include a sample woodland, urban meadow, planting beds and more. Plus a pair of specialized outdoor classrooms features a greenhouse at Boston Latin Academy, and a wetland at West Roxbury High School.

Building on the success of several earlier pilot projects by the BSI, Boston-based Klopfer Martin Design Group developed a “kit of parts” design approach to outdoor classrooms at Boston Public Schools sites to integrate the experience of outdoor learning into urban schoolyards. They employed this approach at nine sites throughout Boston, each using the kit of elements and spatial strategies that enable teaching and allow for flexibility of use, but designed to work with the particular opportunities and constraints of that schoolyard and to meet each school’s unique needs. The firm won a 2014 Boston Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award for its work on these projects, including Russell Elementary School, pictured above, and Henderson Elementary School, above.

The outdoor classrooms are small spaces carved out of the already limited space available on each school property, and often have minimal separation from adjacent streets and residences. These spaces were underutilized areas of asphalt, concrete, or weedy, compacted earth before being converted into vibrant, green environments for teaching and learning. Supported by teacher training from BSI, the greatest measure of success of these spaces has been their high level of use by classes in a variety of subjects: science, art, and writing, among others. These lively, textured and experiential spaces have engaged students and teachers, and have become both a resource and source of pride for the schools.

For more information, check out the BSI’s Outdoor Classroom Design Guide which outlines concepts that the Initiative has refined over the years in conjunction with professional landscape architects.


Play Perch, Syracuse, New York

The internationally-recognized Jowonio School, located in Syracuse, New York, welcomes children from 3 to 6 years old, and is guided by the philosophy that students with special needs and traditional needs should be educated in an inclusive setting. Up to 30% of Jowonio students have some physical or mental disability, including autism, impaired vision, and limited mobility. The school attempts to provide an environment where all students can take part in as many activities as possible.

The preschool sits at the bottom of a low glacial drumlin and features a nature trail that make a loop half way up the hill, along a ridge below the top of the hill, and back down the hill again. The wooded escarpment behind the school allows Jowonio to address nature deficit disorder, with some classrooms venturing out every day unless the temperature falls below 20°F.

In 2012, the preschool approached the Syracuse University AIAS Freedom By Design group to design and build an accessible outdoor classroom right on the nature trail. The design build project was established as a 3 credit independent study course as a way to experiment with the integration of student–led community service into the curriculum.

From the outset, students developed and devised an identity for the project, Play Perch, with a design inspired by both the Eastern Bluebird (the New York State bird) and the AT-AT Imperial Walker from Star Wars! The final design called for a level platform around an old-growth tree that stretches off the nature trail into the air above the slope.Play Perch is supported by six splayed pairs of columns arranged in a v shape around the 12 x 20 foot platform. The posts are connected to the undercarriage of the structure and to the foundations below using custom steel splines.

The ambitious design embeds environmental education in an outdoor pavilion, incorporating sun, wind, water management and the like to educate young children about natural forces. The walls consist of timber frames with perforated weathering steel panels modeled after the feathers of a bird, with variations in the aperture size to create windows. The roof consists of polycarbonate panels with steel Unistrut supports. Gutters in the roof overhang considerably so the children can observe the water running off and falling on a splash rock below. The roof forms an oculus around the tree for the children to lie on the floor and peer up into the branches. At the fully wheelchair-accessible entrance, the roof peels up to mimic the tail feathers of a bird. The large copper clad cantilevered window, the beak, is a polycarbonate sheet that tilts out to maximize the children’s view from the highest point in the plan.  A custom-ordered climbing net stretches across the opening between the floor and the tree both above and below the platform.

Langevin School, Calgary, Alberta

Langevin School in Calgary, Alberta, Canada is well-known for its inquiry-based Science Alternative Program, so it’s not surprising their school ground greening project embodies many elements of the K–9 Science curriculum. It also reflects their Schoolyard Committee’s desire to create a dynamic, interactive learning environment.

Recognizing the educational value of the planning process, the Schoolyard Committee and the landscape designer, Leta van Duin, engaged the school’s 631 students and their families in the conceptualization, design and installation. Students expressed an interest in a rain garden, hill slides, tree forts, boulders, stepping-stones and logs, so those elements were integrated into the design too.

And what green schoolyard would be truly green without trees? With the support of the Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds program which provides funding to help schools create outdoor classrooms, the school was able to plant 32 native trees such as lodgepole pine, bur oak, Brandon elm and trembling aspen, all of which will contribute to a positive environmental legacy.

In addition to the outdoor classroom, pictured above, dubbed the Cosmic Vortex Amphitheatre due to the spiral artwork on the tiled floor, the school installed a cistern for storm water capture and reuse, which is fundamental to the sustainability of the project as the site does not have a traditional water supply to establish or sustain vegetation. This unique feature will provide water to the newly planted trees and shrubs through irrigation channels.

Even though the project site occupies only a small piece of land within the Langevin Schoolyard, there is little doubt the benefits to community members, students, the environment and wildlife will be far-reaching and long lasting.

Bagley Outdoor Classroom

Finally, just in case you were thinking that outdoor classrooms were only for the preschool and elementary set; architect David Salmela designed the Bagley Outdoor Classroom, a LEED Platinum building on the University of Minnesota campus, Duluth. The new sustainable learning center was built on an old, unused volleyball court, encompassed by a maze of trees. Although the area has a nice setting for running, hiking and exploring, the university never made the most of it. The construction itself occupies a small area, accommodating only the indoor open classroom. The outdoor classroom, envisioned as a patio, supports courses in biology, physical education and recreation, environmental studies, engineering, and many more.

The outdoor classroom is created by the paved area defined by the fireplace, wood storage and reclaimed wood benches. The indoor classroom is a rhythm of exposed recycled timber structure punctuated by large openings to the south that create the connection between the outdoor classroom and indoor space. Boasting large openings and exposed timber beams, the interior is designed to bring more of the exterior inside. The idea was from the very beginning to establish a connection between the two types of classrooms.

The indoor classroom has been awarded the 2012 COTE Top-Ten Award and is a LEED Platinum certified building. Since its opening, the structure has exceeded environmental performance and design goals. Both the indoor and outdoor space has become a favorite gathering place for students and the University for both impromptu gatherings and formal events.

As these examples show, great design can bring kids closer to nature, and help alleviate the effects of nature deprivation.  While it’s easy for outdoor education to get lost in the press of curriculum demands, teachers who find a way to take their students out of the confinement of the classroom walls are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the value of learning first-hand about nature and conservancy.

Thinking of building an outdoor space? Search ‘outdoor’ on

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