The movement for well-designed outdoor classrooms gets a push from the pandemic.
When students returned to Portland Public Schools in Maine this fall, they did so in classrooms that looked at least somewhat like what many outdoor learning advocates have long envisioned: rings of tree stumps arranged in a forest clearing, chairs spread across grassy lawns, upturned buckets placed between raised garden beds. These makeshift learning spaces were a response not to the overwhelming evidence that outdoor education improves health and academic performance, but to the need to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
Caught between the risks of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of online learning, school administrators have embraced outdoor learning at an unprecedented pace. In the past, explains Sashie Misner, ASLA, a landscape architect and volunteer with Portland’s Rapid Response Outdoor Classroom Initiative, outdoor classroom projects “have been bottom up, working with a teacher who is interested in doing this. So you’re trying to convince the administration. Now, it’s the administration saying, ‘We really need this.’ So it’s a whole different thing, and you have to grab it and push it as far as you can.”
Misner is one of 21 volunteers helping schools identify potential locations for outdoor classrooms and think through issues such as access, acoustics, and shade. The pro bono effort, which is coordinated by the Portland Society for Architecture and the longtime green schoolyards advocate Laura Newman, was launched in July 2020 and is part of a larger, nationwide mobilization led by Green Schoolyards America.
The work is a direct answer to immediate public health concerns, but the benefits could extend beyond the current moment, says Claire Latané, ASLA, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and an expert on how the design of school grounds affects students’ mental and physical health (see “The Schoolyard Is Sick,” LAM, June 2019). Latané says that learning in a more natural environment positively affects student behavior, academic performance, emotional well-being, and even the perception of students’ abilities by teachers. “There is overwhelming evidence that students need this. They need it. This is not window dressing,” Latané says.
When Green Schoolyards America launched its National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative in May 2020, Latané recognized that schools would need help siting and designing these new outdoor classrooms. She contacted the organization’s CEO, Sharon Danks, and suggested she convene a working group of design volunteers who could assist schools with their planning. Within two months, Latané had 250 volunteers from 31 states and seven countries and had received 130 requests for design assistance. “It’s been great to see so many people realize what a need, and an opportunity, this is,” she says.
Still, delivering hundreds of outdoor classrooms in a matter of weeks is no small feat. Even for schools in mild climates, moving classes outdoors requires space to physically distance, protection from sun and rain, and a bevy of new—often old-school—supplies such as easels and chalkboards. Designers also need to factor in the needs of different age groups: for instance, locating classrooms for younger age groups near a school building so that kids can safely walk to the bathroom, or ensuring that spaces are well-defined. “Kids need a clear boundary,” says Amy Bell Segal, ASLA, a landscape architect involved with the Portland initiative. “They need to know that this circle of stumps is our classroom.”
A bigger challenge will be ensuring that outdoor classrooms are evenly distributed. In Portland, the school district committed to building an equal number of outdoor classrooms at each school, and organizers made sure that no school was left without a design team. Nationally, Green Schoolyards America is prioritizing Title I and other high-need schools. “This is really about equity,” Latané says. “This is about organizing volunteers for those schools that have no resources.”
For Jennifer Nitzky, ASLA, a landscape architect in New York City and the volunteer coordinator for Green Schoolyards America’s outdoor classroom initiative across the Northeast, the recent mobilization is an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of landscape architecture. “Being at the forefront of this,” she says, “working with schools and principals, we are building public awareness without even trying.”