Building an Outdoor Classroom Amphitheater
Dan Balkan
James Madison University

wood shopA team of James Madison University (JMU) Industrial Design students helped bring to life the Keister Enchanted Forest. This was a 13-week project with Keister Elementary to help rebuild their nature trails and encourage outdoor learning. Our class was split into four main projects in order to completely transform the trails (the hobbit door, a play area, way-finding and the amphitheater/outdoor classroom), and I was part of the team who helped develop and build the amphitheater. From the beginning we knew we needed a way to create a physical space within the woods that would act as a structured area without the feeling of classroom walls.

bracesThe process we used is known as bent lamination and consists of gluing thin strips of wood on top of one another around a mold in order to achieve an elegant and structurally sound wooden curve in a more effective and less wasteful way. The JMU industrial design program partnered with Jeremy Harold, Green Space Manager at City of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Rock-town Urban Wood for in-kind donations as well as a $4,700 grant from the Harrisonburg Education Foundation in order to gather materials for this huge project.

finished coverOur team took the ash wood boards we were generously given and processed them down into square and usable material. These boards were then resawed into thin strips that could bend without breaking (approximately 1/8th inch) and cut to length to achieve the overall size of our amphitheater. A mold was then created out of medium density fiber board (MDF) and pink foam that were cut out on the computer numerical control (CNC) and covered in weather stripping and packing tape in order to protect the wood and make sure it would not stick to our mold during the gluing process.The strips were then coated with an even layer of Titebond 3 wood glue, clamped into place, and left to dry for at least 24 hours. The ends of the arcs were then trimmed and the cross beams (straight pieces of the same 1/8th inch ash wood) were nailed into place, connecting the three arcs together. The fabric material on the outside of the wooden frame is ballistic nylon and is what gives the amphitheater its sound amplification properties. This ballistic nylon was stretched and stapled onto the frame before covering it in boiling water to shrink the nylon around the wooden frame.


Kiana Rudacille, Lily Taylor, Griffin Barbeau, Kate Sharp, Dan Balkan, and Manuel Villar May.