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Building an Outdoor Classroom

While the initial idea of designing an outdoor classroom may be daunting, the process can be relatively simple and fun with some thought and planning. Below area steps to help you plan and build your outdoor classroom.

Basic steps to designing and building an outdoor classroom

  1. Determine your team
  2. Outdoor Space Planning Should involve a wide variety of stakeholders including parents, teachers, grounds crew or custodians, administrators, students, community members.

  3. Determine your goals
  4. Working together, the team should determine the goal of the new space. Do you want more of a natural playground with climbing logs and digging areas? Do you want a natural classroom with a weather station, native plants and composting station? Do you want a garden focused on teaching food production and farm-to-school practices? Or, do you want a combination of all? Determining this will determine what goes into your classroom.

  5. Determine your space
  6. Decide where your new outdoor classroom will go. Make sure you have cleared this decision with all school and district administrators before you move on. Having a dedicated space provides an important distinction between your outdoor classroom, the playground and open fields. Determining the location and size of your outdoor classroom space will determine the features you can have in your space

  7. Begin laying out your design
  8. Print or draw a large map of your area (ideally the map would be to scale). Thinking back to your goals, determine what features your space must have, what would be nice to have and what is not necessary. View photos of various essential and optional features.

    Must-have features of an outdoor classroom

    Entrance sign
    Make sure everyone knows this is a dedicated space and everyone is welcome.

    Seating or benches
    This is a space for all students, visitors and teachers to sit while making observations, reading or doing other lessons.

    Border or fence
    This is critical to ensure the safety of students as well as allowing the teacher to focus attention on lessons, not student safety.

    Storage
    You will likely need shovels, rakes, buckets, etc. and will need a sturdy, lockable space to put them. This can be inside the school or in a lockable shed.

    Tables
    These can be simple or formal, but having tables will be important when completing lessons and collecting data.

    Gathering space
    This is a space for the entire class to gather for a group lesson.

    Native plants
    Not only will native plants grow better and require less maintenance, but they will also help meet many state educational standards.

    Source of water
    A water spigot is critical for garden maintenance.

    Optional features of an outdoor classroom

    Place for documentation
    This could be a kiosk or sign cabinet used for displaying student work completed in the outdoor classroom.

    Weather station
    This can include simple weather instruments (thermometer, anemometer, rain gauge, wind sock, hydrometer, barometer, etc. Or it can be a wireless model which transmits information to a receiver inside the school.

    Vegetable garden
    This a place (with or without raised beds) for students to grow vegetables and fruits.

    Raised beds or planters
    These become increasingly important if you have poor soil quality in your area but want to have vegetable or herb gardens.

    Pollinator garden
    This is a specific area devoted to native plants which support pollinators such as bees, butterflies and beetles.

    Shade structure
    If there is no shade in your area, this is a nice addition. Cost is a consideration.

    Digging area
    Depending on the age of your students (and school/district regulations) a digging area can be an important play area. Digging area can include sand or soil for digging.

    Water area
    This could be a pond, man-made stream or fountain for students to play and explore with water.

    Balance beams and jumping stumps
    A fallen log or tree stumps become important for gross motor skills and exercise.

    Bird feeders
    These are great for incorporating wildlife into your space and a good source for making observations.

  9. Determine plan phases
  10. Depending on the size of your space, you may not likely be able to complete all aspects of your space at one time or in one year. Plan for several phases.

  11. Look for funding
  12. Although you can rely on parent support and many projects can be completed for free or fairly inexpensively, you will likely need some source of funding. Look to your PTO, local business, school fundraisers and grants.

  13. Have fun and use your outdoor classroom!
  14. Although creating an outdoor classroom can be challenging, it is well worth your time and effort. But, once you have it, don’t forget to use it.