With 26 benefits of an outdoor classroom listed on the first page of its Planning Guide, the Alabama Outdoor Classroom Program could be seen as mainly an evangelist for bringing teaching and learning outdoors. And it does frame the potential in outdoor classrooms about as well as any voice out there. More than just a cheerleader, however, the program provides step-by-step advice to schools seeking to create a “sustainable outdoor classroom site to be used as an effective educational tool for hands-on, outdoor learning opportunities.” The Planning Guide addresses site selection, developing wildlife habitat, building and sustaining community support and much more. The Alabama Wildlife Federation has been the principal sponsor of the Outdoor Classroom Program since launching it in partnership with the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in 1997.
Design for Learning: Values, Qualities and Processes of Enriching School Landscapes, a 2000 publication of the American Society of Landscape Architects, places development of outdoor classrooms in the context of learning from meaningful experiences before exploring three case studies in the Seattle area and digging in to the significance of plant selections and materials to sustainable design. It ties the multiple perspectives together in practical terms, saying, “Such sustainable practices create an interactive laboratory for student and community learning.”
The Boston Schoolyard Initiative, which revitalized 88 Boston schoolyards between 1995 and 2013, focuses readers on a short list of what its designers regard as the essential components of all outdoor classrooms in its 2013 Outdoor Classroom Design Guide. At the risk of sounding formulaic, though likely saving enormous time getting to smart decisions, authors of this guide tell prospective developers to include a gathering area for an entire class, dispersed seating for one, two or three students, pathways with very definite specifications, a meadow area of at least 500 square feet and a similar-sized woodland area.
With a bit of a warning that many outdoor classroom projects fall into disuse as soon as their second year, the Georgia Wildlife Federation packs scores and scores of great ideas to bolster prospects for long-lasting success into a 40-page developer’s manual. Planning First to Make Your Outdoor Classroom Last. A Best Management Practices (BMP) Guide for Creating and Sustaining Outdoor Classrooms in Georgia, a 2004 publication, serves up common-sense suggestions aimed at building support among students, faculty, staff and the community; making curricular connections; handling upkeep and raising funds.
The Jeffers Foundation, which funds environmental education initiatives around Prior Lake, Minn., uses the term outdoor classroom a bit differently than others. Rather than speaking of it as a specific place that has been set up for teaching purposes, it’s simply the outdoors. Jeffers offers teachers ideas upon ideas for using the great outdoors to teach everything they do indoors in several videos and Power Point presentations.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources collects more ideas for outdoor classroom features into one document than will possibly fit into space available at Myers Middle School. From an animal tracking plot to succession areas to a tree seedling nursery, its 2012 Guidelines and Features for Outdoor Classrooms offers a glimpse at the educational potential in an outdoor classroom.
Life Lab, a nonprofit in Santa Cruz, Calif., that supports development of school gardens, and the Center for Ecoliteracy, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that supports teaching about sustainable living, put the garden at the center of any outdoor classroom initiative in Getting Started – a Guide for Creating School Gardens as Outdoor Classrooms. The guide, published initially in 1997, ranges from building an organization to tackle an ambitious project to serving academic purposes. “A school garden puts the natural world at students’ fingertips,” the guide says. “This living laboratory—whether a planter box, an outdoor garden, or an indoor growing area—offers a rich context for exploring science, nutrition, social studies, math, art, language arts, and more.”
Non-profit Nature Explore, a joint venture of two other non-profit organizations, supports schools in designing, developing and using outdoor classrooms with design services, workshops and conferences, products for use in outdoor classrooms and connections between outdoor classroom leaders.
Building Outdoor Classrooms – A Guide to Successful Fundraising. From Focus on Forests, a collaboration of the Ontario Forestry Association, Focus on Forests (a unit of the forestry association) and TD Friends of the Environment Foundation, discusses what an outdoor classroom is, how it can be used and how to create one. Though it covers much of the same ground as other resources, working through it slowly is sure to prompt yet more thinking about the vast possibilities in a school-based outdoor classroom.
The University of Tennessee Extension identifies 39 features to consider including in an outdoor classroom in its 2006 publication, Developing an Outdoor Classroom to Provide Education Naturally, and then a dozen ideas for cross-curriculum integration. In addition are references to more publications about outdoor classrooms and wildlife habitats.