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Getting Started with Outdoor Learning - Inspirational Design Ideas for the Pandemic and Beyond

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Blog Series #3

In our last BLOG post, "Outdoor Learning and Social Distance Design", we discussed the benefits of outdoor learning and how it could be a great option for schools when students return to in-person learning. Overall, the most beneficial element to outdoor learning is it brings students from an indoor, enclosed, limited-sized classroom space to a larger, more spread out, outdoor space which makes social distancing a lot easier and in-person learning a lot safer. Now that schools are starting to plan for and return to hybrid or full in-person learning, we thought it would be a great time to share some ideas for Getting Started with Outdoor Learning!

Shade and Social Distance Seating

We know open-air classrooms can have a profound effect when trying to social distance students by giving them the much needed space. With so many rules and policies changing daily it's important to have options for agile classrooms and spaces that flex and adapt to meet changing needs. An open-air classroom first and foremost needs shade. Shade provides shelter from harmful sun rays, can lower the temperature and it safeguards against the elements. USA Shade and Custom Canopies have DSA shade options that can be a quick and easy way to expand shaded learning spaces at schools.

A designated shade and seating area encourages safe group-based collaborative learning as well as stimulating social and emotional learning. There are many ways to design a socially distanced floor plan with shade and seating safely. Wabash Valley and USA Shade have combined forces to design several socially distanced plans that combine the shade and seating options for a variety of student numbers. These shade and seating options also provide lots of versatile usability for not only learning but dining, assemblies, playing and more!

Gathering tables are the perfect seating solution to optimize school outdoor spaces and they are very economical and scalable. These gathering tables from Wabash Valley are available as in-ground or surface mount and come in a variety of plastisol or powder coat colors. Removable tabletop divider systems can be added to enhance collaborative learning environments and social engagement while protecting the spread of germs between students in close proximity. It is important not to forget ADA accessible seating areas and pathways when designing these spaces as well.

Click HERE to check out more Resources for Shade and Outdoor Learning!


Low Cost Temporary Solutions

With so many unknowns it can be hard to know if and how much funding will be available for any updates or upgrades to schools in the near future. We want to explore some low cost temporary solutions to get your Outdoor Learning space together quickly and with minimal costs.

Use Existing Seating and Shelter

Seating and shelter strategies can differ from school to school depending on what's already available. Using existing picnic tables, seat walls, log rounds, hay bales and benches where available can be a simple and cost effective solution. Moving the seating under existing trees or building overhangs can be a quick, inexpensive way to get an outdoor learning space together.

Low Cost Seating Options

This Convertible Bench/Table can be a great portable, low cost solution for quickly adding more seating outdoors for outdoor learning areas. Wabash Valley Signature Series Bench/Table Combos come in either a 6' or 8' portable option. Use it as a Bench or a Table as needed, simply convert the seat back to the vertical position for Table.

Expanding Play on the Playground

Play Expansion Pods can be a great multi-functional, low cost solution for quickly adding more play and seating outdoors. These Single Pod Seats with Tot Table from Miracle Recreation are affordable and easy to install to expand not only learning space but more play space on an existing playground.

Another quick and low cost way to expand play and learning outdoors is using a simple stencil and paint. A temporary stencil design can add shapes, games and drawings to a blacktop or walkway and is a great way to temporarily add a fun play element to a space with limited funds.

Low Cost Scenario Plans

This plan from Green Schoolyards America shows a low cost scenario for ways to bring learning outdoors with 50% of the students back on campus. Check out more Planning Case Studies which include a range of site design scenarios, including low cost options on their website HERE!


Long Term Permanent Solutions

These ideas could help give you inspiration to help expand your Outdoor Learning space into a multi-functional space that can be used not only immediately but as a long term permanent solution. We've designed and sketched out several Learning Pod ideas to inspire you!

Learning Pod

A basic Learning Pod infrastructure needs these elements to make a complete and safe learning space for students: basic seating, protection from the elements, outdoor teaching supplies and storage.

Basic Seating

Adding additional seating with temporary or permanent outdoor desks, benches, tables and stools can be done easily with many products we have available.

This graph, developed by Green Schoolyards America, helps you estimate the size of each outdoor learning space for your school's seating needs.

Protection from the Elements

When looking to protect students from the elements there are many options including utilizing mother nature. Using existing trees for natural shade is a great, easy cost-saving option. For spots in the full sun, adding shade tents or umbrellas could protect the students not just from the sun but rain and other weather elements.

Outdoor Teaching Supplies and Storage

Students don't normally sit around all day so it's important not to forget to use nature as a hands on tool that gets the students out of their seats and excited about learning about nature and the world. Using gardens for hands on learning outside is a great option. It's also important to remember our teachers and their teaching supply needs. Outdoor chalkboards and tool sheds and supply storage boxes can make a world of different for a teacher who is teaching "outside of the box".


Learning Pod Idea #1

Social distance seating with reusable/movable desks (UPC Parks), DSA approved canopy (Custom Canopies), chalkboard and supply storage for teachers (Elephant Play). Can be used over cement, blacktop or grass (permanent or semi permanent option).


Learning Pod Idea #2

Social distance seating with reusable/movable cubes with chalkboard for outdoor learning (Elephant Play). Place under trees or existing shade structure for coverage from sun and elements. Can be used over blacktop or cement surfacing (temporary and can be put away each day and moved out when needed).


Learning Pod Idea #3

Social distance seating with posts and benches that need to be installed in grass area (easy to remove later), shelter that can be placed temporarily then relocated later, (or trees for shade), and chalkboard. Can be used over grass field (semi permanent, can be easily moved after no longer needed). Good design for larger group of students (12-20 students). All products by Norna Playgrounds.


Learn/Play/Eat Pod Idea

Another idea for a more permanent solution is to incorporate areas for learning, playing and eating all together! This sketch gives some ideas of products utilized in a way that works together for long term social distancing use. All products by Norna Playgrounds.


Resources on Outdoor Learning

Want to learn more about the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative? Green Schoolyards America has some wonderful resources compiled on their website HERE.

Green Schoolyards America has many great ideas and tools to help guide schools as they think about using outdoor classrooms to safely reopen. Here is an example of one local school in the Bay Area who has reopened safely by using outdoor classrooms.

Golestan Education is an independent school that serves 100 children in PreK - 2nd grade classes and an after school enrichment program. After a spring semester of distance learning, they re-opened this summer on June 22nd. They plan to re-open for their fall semester on September 2nd, if their county health department allows schools to resume onsite learning.



More BLOGS in our Series

"Inspirational Design Ideas for the Pandemic and Beyond"

Check back soon for more Inspirational BLOGS!

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