Facilities (Campus Spaces)

How to Design Outdoor Learning Environments

Outdoor Learning Environments


“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in,” said John Muir, father of America’s National Park Service and a founder of the Sierra Club. “We use that quote with user groups when designing outdoor space,” indicates Stephen Carroll, ASLA, LEED-AP, principal of EPTDesign, a California-based landscape and architecture firm. “There’s a desire, and we’ll continue to see that desire, to provide outdoor learning opportunities on college campuses.”

Carroll sees several reasons for this trend. First, both LEED and the push for sustainability have done a lot for landscape architecture in the last 10 years. “People are saying, ‘If we’re trying to condition indoor spaces in an energy-efficient manner and putting sensors on lighting in order to utilize natural light as much as possible, why don’t we just take it outdoors?’” he says. Second is cost. Facilities have become so expensive to build that, if there’s ever an opportunity to create an outdoor venue, administrators are more onboard with it than they were 10 to 15 years ago. And third is value added. “One client really talked about the value of outdoor learning for recruitment,” he says. “I think students are attracted to outdoor space, even feeling stuck indoors. There’s a sense of freedom when they can enjoy the outdoor environment. It’s a return on investment, and that’s a strong positive when designing outdoor spaces.”

The trend toward outdoor learning spaces is just gaining momentum. Carroll indicates that the next 10 to 15 years will show the development of far more. He also notes that outdoor learning spaces do not need to be strictly prescribed as “classrooms.” Learning can occur in many types of outdoors spaces. Following are things to consider when planning your project, along with success stories for a little inspiration, that come from two leading bicoastal firms, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in New York and EPTDesign, as well as a college professor who uses an outdoor learning space.

Outdoor Learning Environments


THE SKY’S THE LIMIT. Institutions that deliberately develop opportunities for learning and instruction to take place outside of facility walls are discovering that both the natural and built environments of the campus are being used as learning spaces to promote social interactions, conversations and experiences that enhance student learning.

Start With Programming Needs

A solid way to begin designing your outdoor space is by evaluating your programming needs. “That’s where we start,” says Carroll. “Students and faculty don’t want just an outdoor classroom or just a pretty landscape. There are things they want that are unconventional from typical classroom settings. Plus, the same comfort and elements that are found indoors are desirable outdoors. So we have to ask how do such things as lighting, seating, varied weather conditions and sound affect the space?”

One example of the results of strong programming is Studio Art Hall at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, completed in October 2014. “What was desired in terms of outdoor space was an environment that inspires artists working on varied media (sculpture, photography, drawing),” recalls Carroll. “We had a lot of dialogue about plant material, color and texture in terms of inspiring the artists.” The space was designed to feel indoors/outdoors, and it can inspire across all disciplines, such as the School of Journalism. It was also important to keep it flexible and provide ample room. “Interestingly,” he says, “in our minds as designers, we thought there were a lot of voids, and we didn’t want the space to feel empty. Yet, the students use it constantly. The lesson is that a space doesn’t always have to be filled with inanimate objects. Rather, we can allow students the flexibility to use it according to their needs.”

Another example, also from the Pomona campus, involves programming for Millikan Science Hall, which will be complete this summer. The Math group desired a traditional outdoor learning space, complete with lighting, bench seating and magnetic outdoor blackboards.

The Physics group, however, had a unique need: they were interested in providing outdoor interactives to be operated by students and faculty. “They wanted pieces that they had tried and failed to create indoors, like levers, because of space constraints,” says Carroll. “We wanted them to be elegant in their aesthetic and construction, not playground-like. What we’ve designed are large turntables that are embedded in the ground so you can walk across them when they’re not in use but are fully operable for studying centrifugal force. Similarly, the seesaw lever piece duals as seating when not in use. We used our design sensibilities to help them determine what they’d like aesthetically and, when it’s not in use, it feels like a garden, as desired by all user groups. It is an unconventional space in that there is not a typical stage or place where a professor can stand and teach, yet it is exactly the outdoor learning space the faculty had in mind.”

Outdoor Learning Environments

Outdoor Learning Environments


WHAT GROWS HERE? The Victory Garden and Community Greenhouse on the campus of Vermont’s Marlboro College were born of student initiative. The projects — idiosyncratic of the self-governing community and student-led academic program — were created bottom-up. The garden and greenhouse are spaces of experimentation to relearn essential human skills — i.e. how to grow food.

Provide a Variety of Sun and Shade Spots

In areas of the country that have four seasons, one goal for the successful design of outdoor space is to extend the times of year in which it is pleasant to be outdoors. Therefore, outdoor space in warmer climates must provide more shade and outdoor space in cold climates must provide more access to sunlight. “On the Pratt Institute campus in Brooklyn, where I did a master plan, I noticed a spot where students hung out on shoulder seasons — late-ish fall and early-ish spring,” says Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a principal at Mathews Nielsen. “I realized it was because that space received reliable sun and protection from wind. When the campus received a donation for landscaping and the president asked me where and how to use it, I recommended investing in that space. It is even more inviting now because students have a place to sit.”

Provide Seating Flexibility

Outdoor learning space must provide the greatest degree of seating flexibility so that students can sit alone, with one other person or in a group. It should allow for people to communicate eye-to-eye, and it should include wireless Internet access in order to do online research to clarify a fact during a discussion. “Sometimes grass is the perfect solution,” says Nielsen, “but not every climate is suited to sitting on the grass. In that case, any type of surface, raised or flat, allows students to lie, lounge, picnic or spread out with their laptops.” An example is the spot on the Pratt Institute campus (seen on page 19). “It has an elevated amphitheater, if you will,” Nielsen describes. “Instead of sloping down, it builds up. We also created one at SUNY Purchase campus, which is a sloping lawn [seen above]. It rises up so students can walk up and look out from it. A testimony to its success is that I have seen classes conducted on it.” She also describes a recent project at Haverford College in Pennsylvania as a plinth on top of a hill where students can lean against walls and hang out under trees or on grass in either sun or shade.

Outdoor Learning Environments


Consider Eco-Revelatory Design

Eco-revelatory design is a partnership between nature and people. It enhances site ecosystems yet reveals some of those ecological processes, thus engaging users in the site. The Millikan building is an example. “We know children will use the facility for educational programs,” explains Carroll, “why not expose them to water conservation as well? To that end, we brought the facility’s downspout inside. It runs across a bench, spills across a grade, then runs across the patio and into a bio-swale.”

Allow Students to Lead

Imagine outdoor learning space that is defined, yet not defined, so that students can determine how to use it. The example in this instance is Vermont-based Marlboro College’s Victory Garden and Community Greenhouse, which have seen a number of iterations through the years, all driven by student initiative.

“The college is built on land that was once a farm,” explains Todd Smith, chemistry and biochemistry professor, “and includes some of the farm’s original buildings.” Today the farm includes a garden and greenhouse. Smith himself uses the space for his general chemistry lab course to grow sunflowers and algae to make biodiesel fuel.

Between the original and contemporary farm, however, the space has hosted a number of projects. For example, in the early- to mid-2000s, it included a low-cost, low-tech hoop greenhouse that collapsed when too much snow fell on it. “With more awareness about human impact on the environment,” says Smith, “even after the greenhouse collapsed, students wanted to connect with the environment in a hands-on way.” One student drove a plan to build a sturdier greenhouse — one that was architectural as well as functional.

“The whole effort is ongoing,” Smith continues. “As the student body’s interests around sustainability and environmental efforts change, the faculty changes with them. We work with the students to use the space as they desire, and not force the use for our desires.”

One more thoughts on the outdoors from John Muir: “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.” May it be so for students lucky enough to learn in outdoor classrooms.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .