Courtyards and other outdoor areas are critical elements in how a school functions—and they shouldn’t just be an afterthought when designing school buildings.
With careful planning, schools can make effective use of these communal spaces to help create the right school culture and even support learning beyond the classroom. In fact, the pandemic has proven the value of these spaces in supporting high-quality teaching and learning.
As schools have tried to spread students out to maintain safe social distancing, many have taken advantage of outdoor areas to create additional learning spaces. K-12 leaders have found this process much easier with spaces that are intentionally designed to serve many functions—such as empowering students to engage in continuous learning.
Benefits of Outdoor Learning
Outdoor spaces offer many opportunities to extend learning, and research suggests there are both educational and health-related benefits to learning outdoors. For instance, breathing fresh air can clear students’ minds and help them think by increasing the amount of oxygen their brains receive. Being outside can also reduce stress and improve students’ emotional well-being.
One study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that students paid more attention in class after an outdoor lesson. Other studies have linked outdoor learning to reduced stress, more enjoyment of school, and longer retention of information.
When designing outdoor spaces, it’s important to provide many seating options for different group sizes. Use weather-resistant materials that can withstand the elements, such as NeoLounge2 round, square, or bench-style ottomans that are designed for indoor or outdoor use.
Also, think about mobility: Do you want students to be able to move outdoor tables or furniture? “If not, consider anchoring tables and using attached seating,” says Ofelia Gonzalez, an interior designer for School Specialty.
Smart Design Elements
When designing and equipping outdoor spaces that can inspire learning, here are four core principles to keep in mind.
For schools to get the most value out of outdoor spaces, these should be multipurpose spaces that can support many different kinds of activities. Equipping these spaces with a variety of furniture types allows for many uses. Choosing agile, modular furniture that can be configured in multiple ways makes it simple to convert spaces from one use to another, or to create flexible groupings of different sizes.
If students are going to reflect on what they’ve learned or continue a discussion that began in class, they need comfortable and easily accessible places to sit down and talk, read, study, or look up information. Outdoor space should be furnished with comfortable, appealing seating that draws students to the space and encourages them to stay and talk or do work between classes or after school.
For outdoor learning to become a reality, students need tools and materials to support continuous learning. Sidewalk chalk works well for writing on outdoor surfaces, because it washes off easily — and mini-whiteboards can be used to brainstorm and share ideas.
Will students be taking laptops or tablets outside to learn or study? If so, think about how you can meet students’ power needs with strategically placed electrical outlets—such as covered outlets embedded within tabletops, chairs, and other furniture. Make sure WiFi coverage extends to these outdoor spaces as well.
Students are most likely to use outdoor spaces as extensions of the classroom if they feel inspired to continue their learning. Schools can help foster a culture of continuous learning by making courtyards and other informal learning spaces intellectually engaging and stimulating.
For example, equip these areas with furnishings, artwork, decorations, and age-appropriate tools that inspire curiosity. Objects such as sculptures and manipulatives can encourage students to think, reflect, and explore.
To learn how School Specialty can help you design and equip outdoor spaces that inspire and support continuous learning, contact us today.