the completed Manor College outdoor classroom

Thinking Outside the Building: Designing an Outdoor Classroom

Outdoor learning isn’t a new new concept: outdoor classrooms may have become increasingly trendy in recent years, but California has an “environmental education” movement dating back to the 1960s, while Waldkindergärten (“forest kindergartens”) started cropping up in Europe as early as the 1950s.  With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, historians and journalists pointed out that open-air schools helped curtail the transmission of tuberculosis and other contagious diseases in the early 1900s, and may prove useful in the present crisis.

Earlier this year, Manor College enlisted our help in creating a new outdoor classroom for the benefit of their students and faculty.  In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the design considerations that we encountered on this project.

Pop-Up or Permanent?

Some higher education institutions pivoted quickly to outdoor learning by employing temporary solutions – for example, UC Davis and the University of Virginia both utilized tents.  Other colleges, such as Saint Michael’s in Vermont, offer degree programs in environmental science, agriculture, and similar fields and have been fostering outdoor learning environments for years (Saint Michael’s established their Teaching Gardens in 2004).  How long you envision using your outdoor classroom will dictate the permanence of its components.  Our client had begun exploring outdoor learning spaces some years ago, including the addition of a gazebo in 2017, so our design and construction needed to stand up to long-term use.

Manor College's outdoor classroom gazebo
Manor College added this gazebo to the campus in 2017 but it was inefficient for its purpose. This is the site of the new outdoor classroom.

Purpose-Driven Features

Before jumping on the outdoor classroom bandwagon, carefully consider its intended purpose.  Will it be primarily used for small seminars, or need to accommodate larger groups?  Are you looking to construct something to host classes outside only when the forecast is cooperative, or do you need to factor weather-proofing elements (ex. overhead shelter) into the design?  Is this a space where lectures will be given, or does it need to be large enough to hold dance troupes, orchestras, or other performing arts ensembles?  Manor College opted for a simple “theatre in the round” approach, with a central circle surrounded by three tiers of seating, making it a multi-purpose space suitable for a number of uses.

close-up of hardscaped outdoor classroom at Manor College
The terraced seating was a natural fit with the gentle slope of the location.

Location, Location, Location

Choosing the right spot for your outdoor learning space is an important decision.  Tucking it into a quiet corner of the campus may seem ideal to reduce distraction, but putting it too out-of-the-way may deter faculty from holding classes there.  On the other hand, a location next to a high-traffic road, sports facility, or other bustling area may introduce too many distractions for effective learning.  Be sure to consider accessibility for all potential users of the space: a classroom that seamlessly facilitates wheelchairs, ASL translators, and other potential aids will make for a more welcoming experience.  When possible, it’s also nice to “go with the flow” of the surrounding landscape instead of against it.

The new outdoor classroom at Manor College is built into the side of a small hill; the terraced seating blends seamlessly into the surrounding slope.  Some attractive landscaping boulders and perennial shrubs provide a nice natural border for the space.  A smooth paved path connects the classroom to surrounding walkways, helping ensure its accessibility by all faculty and student body members.

hardscaped outdoor classroom, with Manor College banner in foreground
Planting progress: some attractive shrubs provide a lovely border to the new classroom.

Parting Thoughts

With so much of modern life bound to technology and various screens, it feels important as ever to maintain some connection to the natural world surrounding us.  Countless studies and newspaper articles demonstrate that outdoor education provides a variety of benefits, including more engaged students, higher academic achievement, and fewer absences.  While the sky’s the limit regarding the types of outdoor furniture and equipment you can include in such a space, our Manor College project shows that a relatively straightforward but thoughtfully designed structure can be highly effective.  If you have additional questions before getting started on your own outdoor classroom, don’t hesitate to contact us – we’re here to help! 

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