Learning Potential in the Outdoors

Every environment has the potential to be a learning environment, but a better understanding is fostered with elements that children and adults can discover, observe and interact with. Copley Wolff Design Group, a leading landscape architecture and planning firm located in Boston, MA, designs landscapes for K–12, higher ed, cultural institutions and public park clients. For these clients, the firm often incorporates signage, artwork, water play, gardens and paving to provide a gamut of learning opportunities. Signage and artwork tell a story — the history of a neighborhood, how a rain garden works or what kind of plants and wildlife are found in the region. Water play is used for cooling off, but can also be a source of sensory development, providing opportunities to see, touch and hear the water as it bubbles and flows. Gardens offer a range of formal learning potential as well as community-building. Plantings are used to teach students about a site’s microclimate and ecology and paving can be used to demonstrate patterns, counting, numbers and measurements.

outdoor learning water play space 

Water Play and runnels offer opportunities to see, touch and hear the water as it bubbles and splashes, engaging children’s senses

A Key Role for Early Learning

Children’s everyday places and activities influence their intellectual learning as well as their physical, emotional, social and spiritual development. The environment around a school can play an important role in education and school landscapes are being transformed into interactive places of learning. Landscape architects are being tasked with creating educational landscapes that are meaningful and useful to both the academic institution as well as the community. They are playing a key role in creating site designs that provide many layers of learning that include both formal curriculum as well as informal discovery of and interactions with landscape.

Montshire Museum of Science 

Visitors at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, VT, release ping pong balls and follow them down the Rill, watching their momentum when underwater surfaces change.

The recently completed King Open/Cambridge Street Upper Schools and Community Complex (KOCSUS) campus in Cambridge, MA, is comprised of an elementary school, middle school, public library, department headquarters and community pool. It supports the City of Cambridge’s Innovation Agenda for 21st-century learning while maintaining the unique culture and heritage of the community.

Montshire Museum of Science

Visitors at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, VT, can turn themselves into a human sundial.

Copley Wolff Design Group worked with architects William Rawn Associates and Arrowstreet, as well as a wide range of stakeholders, to develop a site design that integrates play and learning opportunities throughout the campus. Features include the Reading Garden — an intimate garden space shaded by dense multi-stem birch trees that provides a magical outdoor space for Library story times; the Central Courtyard — an enclosed area for outdoor experimentation and learning which includes community garden beds, a 30-foot-long working rain garden, stadium seating and a sloped turf area for outdoor classes and play; five unique playgrounds designed for children from pre-K through 8th grade; an immersive splash pad; and outdoor
basketball courts.

Arced concrete walls along the streetscape were initially conceived of as a safety device. However, by integrating a water pump and runnel into the top of one of the walls, they have become a favorite play feature for students, allowing kids to experiment with the flow and velocity of water as it moves down the wall and feeds into the adjacent rain gardens.

Including Education in Public Installations

At the Montshire Museum of Science, Copley Wolff Design Group worked with the museum to create a landscape that became the exhibit versus designing a landscape that the museum would populate with exhibits. At Science Park, kids and their families can explore the properties of water and other wonders of nature in a series of exhibits along the downhill flow of a meandering stream that includes a 250-foot waist-high concrete watercourse called the Rill. Part of what makes Montshire unique among science museums is their integration of indoor and outdoor experiences and making that as seamless as possible. Views from inside create opportunities for immediate curricular connections. For example, an exhibit behind glass inside the museum demonstrates how fluid moves around objects. Outside, ripples and ping pong balls in the Rill extend the understanding in a more realistic setting. In addition to watching the momentum of a ping pong ball as it floats on the water through various obstacles, the Science Park also presents a musical fence with varying-sized pipes, a stone that sings when rubbed with wet hands, water bells, whisper tubes and a display where pebbles dropped in a box fitted with nails sound out in song. The entire landscape outside the Museum of Science offers a variety of opportunities for learning and fun.

Integrating the Outdoors Into Higher Ed

University of Connecticut new Student Recreation Center

Rain gardens have been incorporated into the site design at the University of Connecticut’s new Student Recreation Center.

Learning outdoors is not just for children’s play and discovery. In response to today's concern for the environment and growing curricular demands to teach about the natural world, educators are rediscovering the outdoors is a great teaching classroom. When designing landscapes, stormwater infrastructure is typically hidden underground because it is considered an eyesore and a blemish on what could be a beautiful college campus. Copley Wolff Design Group has been working on the University of Connecticut’s Storrs campus for close to 10 years, redesigning several prominent courtyards and, more recently, a new Student Recreational Center designed by JCJ Architecture. The university takes a different approach with their stormwater infrastructure. Instead of concealing it entirely underground in storage tanks and cisterns, they tasked Copley Wolff and the design team with placing it above ground so that it reveals the natural process and educates students and visitors. As the water transport becomes visible, students have the ability to grasp the connection between individual actions and water quality and quantity. Features incorporated into the site design include raingardens, permeable pavers and porous asphalt. Integrating the green infrastructure into the site design became a learning opportunity for the university’s engineering and design students as well as the greater campus community. The goal of the stormwater resource management on campus is to minimize and manage stormwater at the source, but to also inspire exploration, interpretation and understanding of water management systems and their impact on the environment.

The University of Connecticut has long been known for its dedication to environmental sustainability and has made impressive strides towards a greener campus, incorporating porous pavement, bioretention swales, green roofs and native/acclimated plant materials into the site design. The university’s commitment to sustainable campus development is holistic. Students have designed interpretive signage to highlight the functional aspects and importance of green infrastructure in the landscape. The signs creatively illustrate how the green infrastructure elements reduce storm water run-off quantity and improve the water quality. The signs utilize graphics and text to illustrate the green infrastructure as both an important stormwater element and are also an attractive amenity on campus.

As landscape architects, we will continue to work with schools, universities, and educational institutions to provide learning experiences for all ages. Integrating educational elements into the site design provides opportunities for students to engage all their senses; offers physical, cognitive and psychological benefits; and promotes social interactions, conversations and experiences that enhance student learning.

University of Connecticut green infrastructure 

Green Infrastructure on campus has become a learning opportunity for the University of Connecticut’s engineering and design students as well as the greater campus community.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.