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Suzanne E. Hiller

In recent years, there has been an uptick in interest for integrating outdoor classrooms or green schools (e.g., undeveloped spaces) as part of the formal curriculum. The potential of instructing in the natural world has inspired many innovative outdoor instructional practices, such as using mobile apps as technology-mediated guided prompts for fostering scientific observations and as classification tools (McClain & Zimmerman, 2016; Wallace & Bodzin, 2017; Zimmerman & Land, 2022). Other recent activities include innovative water quality monitoring programs (Hiller, 2023), citizen science activities where students work with professional scientists (Hiller & Kitsantas, 2014; Koomen et al., 2019), outdoor mathematics trails (Barbarosa et al., 2022), and countless ways of integrating classroom tasks.

Research on Outdoor Classrooms
Just as educators and administrators have noted the positive benefits of instructing children outdoors, researchers have been assessing the impact in a variety of ways that relate to academics, motivation, and well-being for students in both elementary and secondary levels. For instance, Mason et al. (2022) found that second and third graders who engaged in mathematics activities in green schools increased their performance on mathematics tasks, had improved attention and memory recall, exhibited positive moods, and perceived that being in nature had restorative benefits. Similar results occurred during a quasi-experimental study in Bangladesh with elementary students who also made gains in mathematics and science while indicating improved collaborative skills and greater physical comfort working in an outdoor setting (Khan et al., 2020).

Middle and high school students benefit from working in outdoor spaces as well. Swedish seventh and eighth grade students who had regular and frequent instruction in the outdoors outperformed their peers in both mathematics and biology (Fägerstam & Blom, 2013). For secondary students in Hong Kong and Australia, students who had exposure to outdoor instruction perceived that they had an increased mastery of skills, greater confidence, and stronger interest for learning (Thomas, 2018).

Because of the growing evidence that learning in school yards or nearby outdoor settings is good for students, educators and administrators are often invested in designing and building outdoor classrooms. In this endeavor, some key issues center on (a) considerations for design, and (b) using and maintaining the outdoor classroom (Hiller, 2022).

Outdoor Classroom Design
When setting out to create an outdoor classroom, consider the distinct features within a given space. Physical movement is particularly important for student development and well-being within outdoor social settings (Romar et al., 2019). For this reason, design elements should encourage climbing, exploring, running, jumping and building. In addition, integrating features like flower and vegetable gardens and water features further encourages movement and learning.

Identifying materials that are easily accessible and native to the area are useful in terms of minimizing cost as well as studying the local environment. A critical factor is to consider ways in which to preserve the outdoor classroom and how choices will impact school personnel who are maintaining the space. For instance, specific materials may create obstacles for custodial staff who are maintaining the grounds.

Planning often involves bringing nature closer to the school building; planting native plant species and installing birdhouses around the building attracts wildlife. To incorporate the outdoors inside, courtyards may include water features, flowers, and vegetable gardens. Naming areas in the school after local streams and topographical landmarks is a way to foster a greater awareness for the environment surrounding the school building.

Of course, the choices made in designing the outdoor classroom should be in compliance with local regulations and school district policies. Of the utmost importance is to be sure that students are safe with the materials/structures that have been selected, and the teachers can monitor the students in all areas of the outdoor classroom.

When planning an outdoor classroom, one way to motivate school personnel and community members is to involve them in the process of design. Partnerships with local naturalists and environmental agencies are very helpful, especially when guests walk the school grounds with teachers and administrators for tips on using the space. Teachers can form brainstorming groups or committees to plan for the space. Some options for discussion are ways to incorporate different types of spaces, seating areas, and water features that would engage students in a safe manner. The teachers and administrators will want to ponder the ways in which the outdoor classroom can support instruction for all disciplines.

Engaging parents and involving older students in the design, construction, and maintenance encourages a closer sense of community. For high school students, building part of an outdoor space increases student confidence and a sense of responsibility (Hiller & Reybold, 2019).

Using and Maintaining the Outdoor Classroom
Creating a successful outdoor classroom program requires some preparation in terms of how the space will be used and maintained. Some factors to address include:

  • What types of materials do the teachers need to instruct outdoors?
  • How will teachers reserve the outdoor classroom?
  • How will student safety and needs be addressed?
  • Who is responsible for maintaining the outdoor classroom?
  • What steps can be taken to curtail potential vandalism?

Once students and teachers engage in learning through the natural world, there can be a lot of interest and excitement for using the space. An administrator can support the teachers by taking an inventory about the types of materials that will be needed in the space (e.g., magnifying glasses, scientific sensors, trundles). With a grasp of what is needed, teachers leverage the space in varied and novel ways. As demand to use the outdoor classroom grows, a preplanned system will help educators reserve the space to work with their students. Creating several seating areas can offset any conflicts and provide greater flexibility for learning.

Just as within the school building, student safety is paramount. It is advisable that teachers have communication tools outdoors (e.g., walkie talkies, cell phones), so that they can contact administrators and school nurses in light of an accident or bee sting. Further, the site must be accessible for all students, including those individuals who use crutches, wheelchairs, or have a disability.

With wear and tear, the outdoor classroom will likely require some maintenance oversight. Whether it be custodial staff, an administrator, parent volunteers, or a team of school personnel, having individuals oversee the grounds helps to address issues related to wear and tear. At times outdoor classrooms succumb to vandalism. When designing the outdoor classroom, it is advisable to consider what type of vandalism might occur and how to prevent any type of destruction.

While there are many factors to reflect on when designing, using, and maintaining an outdoor classroom, this added feature on the school campus has the potential to improve learning experiences for all students. Evidence suggests that the positive benefits for student achievement, cognitive functioning, STEM motivation, and well-being offset any challenges to implementing an outdoor classroom initiative.

Barbosa, A., Vale, I., Jablonski, S., & Ludwig, M. (2022). Walking through algebraic thinking with theme-based (mobile) math trails. Education Sciences, 12(5), 1-26.

Fägerstam, E., & Blom, J. (2013). Learning biology and mathematics outdoors: effects and attitudes in a Swedish high school context. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 13(1), 56-75.

Hiller, S. E. (2022, December). Outdoor classroom design for student achievement, motivation, and well-being [Conference presentation]. The Symposium of Sustainable Development Goals, Laboratory of Architectural Planning First Annual Meeting, Hokkaido University, Hokkaido, Japan.

Hiller, S. E. (2023, January). New horizons in STEM career motivation: Contributory, collaborative, co-created, and student-directed citizen science [Paper presentation]. The Eighth Annual Hawaii International Conference on Education, Honolulu. Hawaii.

Hiller, S. E., & Kitsantas, A. (2014). The effect of a horseshoe crab citizen science program on student science performance and STEM career motivation. School Science and Mathematics Journal, 114(6), 302-311. 

Hiller, S. E., & Reybold, E. (2019). Naturalists’ perspectives of adolescents as citizen scientists. In S. E. Hiller, & A. Kitsantas (Eds.), Enhancing STEM motivation through citizen science programs (pp. 131-163). Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Khan, M., McGeown, S., & Bell, S. (2020). Can an outdoor learning environment improve children’s academic attainment? A quasi-experimental mixed methods study in Bangladesh. Environment and Behavior, 52(10), 1079-1104.

Koomen, M. H., Hedenstrom, M. N., Moran, M., & Oberhauser, K. S. (2019). I didn’t know what real science was or what it could be: Citizen science and interest in STEM education and careers. In S. E. Hiller, & A. Kitsantas (Eds.), Enhancing STEM motivation through citizen science programs (pp. 131-163). Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Mason, L., Manzione, L., Ronconi, A., & Pazzaglia (2022). Lessons in a green school environment and in the classroom: Effects on students’ cognitive functioning and affect. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(24), 16823.

McClain, L. R., & Zimmerman, H. T. (2016). Technology-mediated engagement with nature: Sensory and social engagement with the outdoors supported through an e-Trailguide. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 6(4), 385-399.

Romar, J.-E., Enqvist, I., Kulmala, J., Kallio, J., & Tammelin, T. (2019). Physical activity and sedentary behaviour during outdoor learning and traditional indoor school days among Finnish primary school students. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 19(1), 28-42.

Thomas, G. J. (2019). Effective teaching and learning strategies in outdoor education: Findings from two residential programmes based in Australia. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 19(3), 242-255.

Wallace, D. E., & Bodzin, A. M. (2017). Developing scientific citizenship identity using mobile learning and authentic practice. Electronic Journal of Science Education, 21(6), 46-71.

Zimmerman, H. T., & Land, S. M. (2022). Supporting children’s place-based observations and explanations using collaboration scripts while learning-on-the-move outdoors. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 17, 107-134.