Learning by Experience

The ice rink at Marine Elementary in Stillwater, Minn., used every winter for physical education classes and learn-to-skate instruction, needed renovation. The boards and posts were deteriorating, and the grade of the floor and liner problems made the rink difficult to flood and maintain properly. A parent volunteer took on the project. To raise funds, boards were sold. Anyone could “buy a board” and have it engraved on the inside of the rink for a minimum donation of $25. The renovation was complete in time for skating season.

No doubt Marine’s teachers were happy to see the renovation complete. “The classroom teacher is responsible for physical education three days a week,” says first-grade teacher Cathy Wegener. “When the rink is up, we use it for outdoor physical education time. We also have buddies between the kindergarteners and sixth graders and between the first and fifth graders, and they use it for community-building time. When it’s not iced, we use it for soccer or tag games because it has boundaries.”

Clearly, Marine Elementary’s outdoor learning space is invaluable. And experts — teachers, administrators, architects — are recognizing the value of outdoor learning spaces to students’ growth, education and development. “Children are sponges on legs,” notes Ian Proud, a research manager for Lewisburg, Pa.-based Playworld Systems. “To facilitate their engagement with the outdoors is to give them the opportunity to be children, to live and learn.”

“One of the benefits of outdoor learning space is that students learn by experience — touch, sight, sound, smell,” says John Fabelo, AIA, a partner with Dayton, Ohio-based LWC. “It’s a much more full experience in terms of what they’re getting. When they’re outside, students are much more in tune and their senses are turned on.”

Could an outdoor learning space be a forest? It is at Marine Elementary. Comprised mostly of hardwoods, it includes benches, a gaga dodge ball pit and a human foosball pit. “We use it for environmental education,” says Wegener, who manages the forest, “such as spring planting and culling the invasive buckthorn. We use it for math and writing poetry. We also use it for physical education and recess.

“It’s a valuable asset in that it gives those children who don’t have much contact with the outdoors an opportunity to explore the outdoors,” Wegener continues. “The reason children don’t have much contact with the outdoors is because their time is tightly programmed.

They need the opportunity to interact with nature, to sit quietly and listen to nature, to interact with each other on problem solving,” she continues. “The school forest is the perfect place for community and for students to work together.”

With an ice rink and a forest, Marine Elementary’s outdoor learning spaces are perhaps not what traditionally come to mind when one asks, what is an outdoor learning space? And the answer is a bit nebulous, as our experts prove.

“Historically in the United States,” says Vicki L. Stoecklin, MSED, Education & Child Development director for Kansas City, Mo.-based White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, “they’ve been spaces where teachers take children to study nature. So, spaces like arbors, areas where the arts or reading can occur, a recirculating stream or a vegetable garden.”

“They’re simple spaces, if done right,” says Mark Quattrocchi, AIA, principal 
of Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, Santa Rosa, Calif.

“A lot of times we’re not trying to simulate a classroom,” says Fabelo. “We’re looking at the opportunities that are already there and how to bring them into an experienced learning environment. We start by understanding from the faculty what their goals are and how the curriculum pairs with the environment.”

For example, at the Charity Adams Earley Girls Academy in Dayton, which was renovated and had an addition built in 2010, and which is on 12 acres and has a water source running through it, administrators wanted to think about art and science. Thus, the outdoor classroom is space where teachers gather the students and tell them what the day’s lessons are. The students go into the outdoors to complete a task, such as finding leaves, and come back to the classroom to tie what they learned to the curriculum.

As outdoor learning spaces become more and more incorporated in school design, one can’t help but ask, what needs to be considered when designing them to ensure that they’re useful? The experts have several thoughts.

1 Ownership: Stoecklin notes two pieces of creating successful outdoor learning spaces that are often ignored. The first is engaging the maintenance staff, parents and teachers in the planning process. “It affects everybody, so everybody needs to have ownership.” The second is providing teachers with support, resources and training to know how to adequately use the space and, therefore, help the children use it.

2 Maintenance: “Having a maintenance plan is extremely important,” says Stoecklin. “It should be discussed from the beginning, as everything requires maintenance: asphalt, concrete, plant materials.”

3 Community: “I also think it’s important to connect outdoor learning spaces to the community,” says Stoecklin. “How can it become a community-wide project? Maybe there are parents who know a lot about plant materials and can contribute. Maybe the Boy Scouts of America, a local garden club or the Lions Club can make a contribution.”

4 Shade: Quattrocchi recommends providing protection from the elements. His ideas range from shade trees to orienting away from the sun to providing a covering from the rain. In fact, the recently completed American Canyon High School in California, with an enrollment of 2,200, is broken into four small learning communities, each having an outdoor learning area that is covered with a tensile membrane structure. Yet, they also are part of a larger courtyard so that the entire school can gather outdoors for a performance or large group learning experience.

5 Storage and Connection: “There are going to be materials that the teachers and students will use,” Stoecklin says, “and they’re so much more accessible if they’re stored next to the area where they will be used.”

Complementing storage is that the space itself should have easy access from physical classrooms. “Outdoor learning space won’t be used if you have to cross a field to access it,” says Quattrocchi. “Even if it is well designed, if it is in a non-supervised, non-ownership part of the school, it may be used in a manner it wasn’t intended.”

Fabelo agrees, noting that it’s important to look at outdoor and indoor learning spaces as connected, rather than segregated: “It’s not about having either an indoor or outdoor learning space, but having both for fluidity.”

6 Variety: “I think a successful outdoor learning space includes a lot of different resources,” says Fabelo, “like as a play area, a gathering/teaching space, and free space.” Yet, if that isn’t available, he suggests something as simple as a covered porch, which his firm recently completed on Kemp Elementary in Dayton, which houses 473 students. Every classroom has access to the 10-foot to 12-foot spaces. He notes that the teachers enjoy simply allowing the students to take breaks on the porches.

“I believe we have to succeed in engaging children with nature so that they can realize the growth that comes from that experience,” says Proud, “whether we do it in a formalized outdoor classroom setting or whether we extend it to the learning that happens informally.” Outdoor learning spaces are the key to that engagement.