Building Blueprints (Facilities in Focus)

Blinded by the Light

outdoor learning space


It’s the beginning of the school year, and the sun is shining in most parts of the United States. Teachers and kids would rather be outside than in. Lately, several clients have asked about creating standards for outdoor learning spaces that can be used when the weather cooperates.

Research from the University of Kansas found that 120 adults who spent significant time outdoors showed nearly a 50 percent boost in creativity as measured by the Remote Associates Test (Atchley & Atchley, 2012). The researchers hypothesize that escape from the near-constant buzzing, beeping and flashing screens allows our brains to relax, and relaxation is a foundation for creativity. Before heading outside, it’s a good idea to explore the challenges and benefits of nature’s original classroom.

Light and Vegetation

When you ask educators to name their top requests for any learning environment, natural light is always on the list. But under what circumstances is being bathed in natural light advantageous for an outside learning environment, and under what circumstances is it detrimental?

In general, natural light improves a person’s ability to concentrate. Being blinded by the light does not. Research extoling the merits of outdoor spaces for student learning and creativity mentions “green spaces” and “natural settings” and notes vegetation plays a significant role in helping deliver behavioral and cognitive benefits. A 2015 University of Illinois study noted that young children on playgrounds were much more likely to be engaged in creative play and positive adult interaction in play areas considered “high vegetation” versus “low vegetation.”

students in outdoor studio


Top-level Art. Students at Kellam High School, in Virginia Beach, Va., put finishing touches on their artwork in the art lab, situated on the school’s roof. The school’s roof also is designed to support and grow vegetation, making it a green roof and a potential source for artistic inspiration.

Time and Money

The amount of effort and money spent designing and equipping outdoor learning spaces should be directly proportional to the number of months each space can be used comfortably. If your school district resides in a part of the country where temperatures soar and plummet regularly, it’s best to make modest investments in outdoor spaces. Choose materials that can endure temperature swings and precipitation. Durability and sustainability are extremely important.

For example, combining a terraced landscape with benches is a smart and cost-effective way to create a small lecture and performance space outdoors. As the Atchley & Atchtley study suggests, unplugging from the constant ping of electronic environments can help adults and students relax and work more creatively.

Not surprisingly, art instruction works well in outside space. Students at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach make art on a roof that grows vegetation, serving as both a green roof and a well-lit teaching space.

Schoolyard Design Guide

Design Guide. There are numerous examples of transformed outdoor learning spaces in the Schoolyard Design Guide, which was published by the Boston Schoolyard Initiative. While that organization officially closed its doors at the end of 2013, they continue to maintain their website,, which contains a multitude of information, research and where you can download the guide in PDF format.

Acoustics and the Open Concept School

One of the reasons the 1970s open concept school failed nationwide was acoustics. It’s hard to engage a class and keep a class engaged when speakers and listeners can’t hear each other.

Loud, distracting noises have the same affect outdoors. That’s why outdoor learning spaces should include natural barriers such as shrubbery to pass the acoustic test: Can speakers and listeners comfortably and effectively engage in normal speaking voices?


A discussion-based class and a projectbased class function very differently indoors compared to outdoors. Requirements (power, plumbing, etc.) and adjacencies (proximity to science or art rooms) must be considered for outdoor learning spaces just as they are for indoor spaces.

The most commonly requested outdoor learning area is an amphitheater, a space well suited for performances and presentations. However, if pedagogy continues to shift away from lecture-based teaching, what do you do with an amphitheater, other than have it host performances? Consider small amphitheaters instead. They’re more flexible than large amphitheaters and can be created for minimal cost.

Model Use

Using the four considerations above, outdoor learning spaces shouldn’t require highly specialized equipment or be cost-prohibitive. Outdoor spaces should be comfortable places that meet the Goldilocks principle for temperature and light—not too high, not too low. The Schoolyard Design Guide created by the Boston Schoolyard Initiative provides insightful ideas and a helpful design checklist for outdoor learning spaces. Though primarily dedicated to play spaces, the guide includes valuable information about fencing, landscaping, site furniture, public art and green practices.

Designing successful outdoor learning spaces requires the same basic considerations as successful indoor environments. People learn best when their environments meets their basic human needs, letting them focus on the task at hand. Finding the right balance of light, temperature and acoustics as well as the right furniture and landscaping lets students and teachers escape their four walls. The outdoors is calling!

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

David Sturtz has more than a decade of experience as a teacher, administrator, educational entrepreneur and strategic planner. He has overseen the instruction of thousands of students, and he has hired and managed hundreds of teachers and supplemental instructor. Today, David serves as a project director for DeJONG-RICHTER a leading school facility planning firm. Both David and the firm are members of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI).