Outdoor Spaces

Reconnecting with Nature: Exploring the Benefits of Outdoor Learning Environments

By Catherine Dalton, AIA, RID, LEED AP BD+C, and Hank Thomas, PLA, ASLA

In the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased reliance on screens and digital media has led to a shift back toward outdoor learning environments. This change aims to counteract the fragmented and disorganized information streams that have been challenging students’ attention, focus, self-regulation, and reflective capacities. Studies have shown that exposure to green spaces can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression and attention-deficit disorders, promoting a positive mindset and enhancing overall psychological resilience. By incorporating nature into the learning environment, schools can create nurturing spaces that prioritize the holistic development of students' mental and emotional health.

The concept of reconnecting with nature in schools is gaining momentum as we begin to understand the greater benefits these spaces provide within the educational framework, such as learning in multiple dimensions; academic learning; social interaction; personal development and well-being; mental, physical, and social health; creativity; and much more. Outdoor classrooms offer a wider range of uses, stepping beyond the limitations of indoor teaching spaces. These spaces not only enhance academic excellence but also promote holistic development and well-being. Additionally, they present an opportunity for existing schools to augment their campus and learning opportunities in a way that is typically affordable and easily integrated. In this feature, we will delve into the multifaceted importance of outdoor classrooms in schools, exploring their impact on human connection to nature, mental and emotional needs, sense of safety, and fostering natural curiosity.  We’ll then explore the practical considerations for their implementation and functionality.

Outdoor classrooms offer an ideal setting for nurturing a child’s natural curiosity, offering endless opportunities for hands-on discovery and inquiry-based learning. Whether observing nature itself, conducting experiments, or exploring ecosystems, students are able to be actively engaged in the learning process, hopefully sparking a sense of wonder and awe that ignites a lifelong passion for learning. Trends in outdoor learning environments are moving away from manicured lawns towards naturalistic landscapes to support child-initiated learning and critical thinking around complex systems. This adjustment has multiple benefits. The natural environment embodies what can be described as a complex system, one that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate indoors. Whether it's the intricate process of grass absorbing water and carbon dioxide from the air and soil to produce oxygen or the ecosystemic relationships supporting the growth of grass as sustenance for various animals, the layers and intricacies of natural systems abound. Yet outdoors, complexity becomes simplicity; though many processes are constantly occurring, we are in every direction surrounded with a vastness that envelops us.

When Planning for Schools

Approach outdoor learning as a free-flowing extension of the school. Community stakeholders should be engaged early in the design process to identify and understand needs and wants, and workshops should be held with the school’s educators to map curriculum for outdoor learning. This design process will prevent outdoor spaces from becoming an afterthought and provide opportunities for purpose-driven decisions. Utilizing this process for a recent North Texas School replacement, we began the project with stakeholder conversations around community use and needs. We learned that the school is located within a food apartheid, lacking equitable healthy food access. As such, there was strong support locally for teaching students how to grow their own food through gardening. Beyond simply providing a garden space, we partnered with a local organization to source best design practices and curriculum integration to achieve longevity and manage the expectations of food yield, with the goal of students taking these practices back to their families and implementing their own gardens at home. Furthermore, in workshops with students and teachers/administration we discovered among both groups a common need for de-escalation spaces: trails for teachers to self-regulate stress and outdoor spaces for students to calm and center themselves. Additional conversations with administration led us to realize the need for an outdoor sensory space to serve the school’s unique population of special needs and early childhood students, which is double that of average schools. Through visualizations, student-led creation, and curriculum mapping, a curated and master planned outdoor learning environment was purposefully designed and coordinated with the educational planning for this North Texas Elementary School.

Image courtesy of Garrison-Jones Landscape Architects

Experts agree that natural play leads to healthy bodies and positive lifestyle outcomes. Curriculum-based outdoor learning leads to creative and self-regulated learners, and school gardening leads to increased empathy. Consider providing a variety of spaces to accommodate play, interaction, group participation and student-centered tasks that can align with educational frameworks such as UDL (Universal Design for Learning) and NBL (Nature Based Learning).

A viable outdoor learning space should lower the barriers of accessibility to nature with transparent security from the outside, plus shade and shelter from the elements. Creating centrally located spaces or multiple spaces evenly dispersed across the campus will allow frequent opportunities for “green breaks” and frictionless transition from the indoor classroom to the outdoors, as well as foster familiarity with teachers who may shy away from outdoor learning.

In a recent poll among 18 countries, North America (tied with Taiwan) noted the most significant barriers to outdoor learning was a lack of confidence by educators in working outside and uncertainty about linking to the curriculum. Larger multipurpose outdoor spaces with flexible seating and Wi-Fi can help enable the professional development that teachers seek for outdoor learning.

Outdoor learning environments should foster a sense of inclusion and can be achieved through sensory-based trails that provide not only the benefits for diverse learning, but also self-regulation for students, and de-stressing effects for teachers.

Don’t Forget the Details

Designing outdoor learning environments requires careful consideration of various components to ensure their usability and functionality:

  • Access/Security: Providing safe and accessible pathways to outdoor classrooms is essential to accommodating students of all abilities and ensuring inclusivity.
  • Hardscapes: Incorporating durable materials such as stone, concrete, or wood decking helps create functional outdoor surfaces resistant to wear and tear.
  • Softscape: Introducing native plants, trees, and greenery not only enhances the aesthetic appeal but also contributes to biodiversity and environmental sustainability. Native plant materials and features have the ability to decrease long-term maintenance costs along with the limitation of herbicides or other chemicals that normally promote commercial landscape growth.
  • Furniture: Selecting versatile and weather-resistant furniture such as benches, tables, and seating areas enhances comfort and usability in outdoor settings.
  • Shade: Utilizing existing large trees or installing shade structures such as pergolas, umbrellas, or awnings will protect students from harsh sunlight and inclement weather, ensuring year-round usability.
  • Access to Water: Providing access to water sources such as drinking fountains, sinks, hose bibs or rainwater harvesting systems promotes hydration and facilitates outdoor activities.
  • Ease of Maintenance: Designing low-maintenance landscapes with minimal irrigation requirements and easy-to-clean surfaces reduces the burden of upkeep and ensures long-term sustainability and useability.

American children’s book author Laura Ingalls Wilder may have explained it best when she said, “Some old-fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat.”  In an era marked by increasing urbanization and digital immersion, the disconnect between humans and the natural world has become glaringly evident. Outdoor classrooms serve as sanctuaries where students can forge meaningful connections with the environment, where their senses are not stimulated by screens and games and social media, but by the caterpillar transitioning to a butterfly. Outdoor learning environments can offer a learning experience like no other; but only if we allow them to teach us.

Catherine Dalton, AIA, RID, LEED AP BD+C, is the K-12 Market Leader with KAI Design. Hank Thomas, PLA, ASLA, is a Senior Associate with Garrison/Jones Landscape Architects.