As schools begin to re-open for the first time during the Coronavirus pandemic many districts are beginning to implement outdoor learning environments as a way to provide an additional layer of safety to their students and community. Just this week the New York City Mayor announced that all schools in NYC would be allowed to launch outdoor learning initiatives next semester. "We know outdoors is one of the things that works, It's gonna open a lot of opportunities." Mayor De Blasio was quoted as saying (link).
With this trending style of classroom, there is much for school administrators, teachers, and staff to consider when preparing a safe and efficient learning environment for their students. Below is a list of steps necessary when setting up the schoolyard for an outdoor classroom, including proper on-campus location and outdoor amenities that promote social distancing, sanitation, and shade.
Step 1 - Plan for your outdoor classroom location
Outdoor classrooms are versatile in the sense that they can be placed in a number of different locations. Popular choices to establish an outdoor classroom are within gardens, in open fields, an empty lot, under an existing pavilion and large trees, or around outdoor athletic spaces such as basketball court, soccer, and baseball fields. Make use of trees, lakes, or other natural scenery to provide your students with an engaging, stress-free atmosphere.
When considering the location for the outdoor classroom, safety is always the number one priority. This includes protecting students, wildlife, and the environment from potentially hazardous situations. Stay clear of a site that is in close proximity to car/bus lanes or busy roadways. It is also a good idea not to be too close to active sporting functions where distraction and fly balls are common. Keep away from perimeters of unsecured tree lines and bodies of water to prevent invasion on local wild animals and plants that may reside in the area. Also avoid potential dangerous objects, such as storm drains, dumpsters, air conditioning units, etc.
Be sure the space is large enough to account for health/social distancing guidelines (6 feet apart from another person or about 2 arms’ length). Reserve a section for teachers to stand front and center, whether it be in the middle of a circular formation or at the head like in a standard classroom to allow students to hear lectures while providing optimal supervision of the class.
Step 2 - Furnish your outdoor classroom
Once space is determined, there are several provisions that can be used to make an outdoor classroom not only functional but comfortable. Site furnishing that provides shade, seating, and cleanliness are essential to promote a healthy learning environment. Below are considerable options to set up a successful classroom outdoors:
- Umbrellas - Using umbrellas to provide shade coverage for students is a non-permanent, cost-efficient solution. These items can typically be placed within the center of a picnic table and anchored to a weighted umbrella base below. Most commercial umbrellas are tested to withstand wind gusts of up to 40 mph and are equipped with canopies that are completely waterproof. Cantilever style umbrellas are another popular choice as they hang over the occupants and provide a larger amount of coverage without imposing posts. Umbrellas can be installed and dismounted with ease and are low-maintenance.
- Shade structure - Shade structures are larger permanent canopies that will relieve the entire class from extreme brightness and heat caused by the sun. These products come in a variety of sizes to optimize coverage to any area at a given location. Multiple eye-catching styles will create an inviting atmosphere that encourages students to want to take their studies outdoors. Liability is also low as the columns are fixed to the ground and the fabric typically has a minimum 8 ft. entry height. Schools can use fabric shades structures as a temporary solution for sun protection while battling the current pandemic situation. But these artificial covers are also a long term asset that will enrich outdoor learning for many years thereafter.
- Large Trees - To save a considerable margin in the school’s budget, full leafy trees can also provide great shade coverage. Take advantage of the natural cover provided by any large trees that are already established on the grounds. Setting up a classroom in an area such as this will surely make for a unique learning environment!
- Outdoor desks - Individual desks that consist of non-porous, easy to clean/sanitize materials that are impervious to the outdoor elements. Outdoor desks are made for one student at a time and typically share the same front-facing characteristics as a desk you would find indoors. Thermoplastic or powder-coating protective layers make suitable options to set up and leave outdoors fulltime as they are extremely weather-resistant.
- Picnic Tables (with or without umbrellas depending) - Picnic tables provide a large tabletop space for reading/writing and can seat multiple students at a time. Any industrial material for the tabletop and seats are suitable for an outdoor classroom, however, fiberglass is usually the recommended choice as its flat, smooth surface makes it easier to do schoolwork on. To mitigate the risk of disease transmission, transparent table dividers for thermoplastic picnic tables can be installed to obstruct the airflow between occupants.
- Benches - A cost-efficient, space-saving seating solution that can be easy to rearrange or fix depending on the demands of the outdoor classroom. Implementing benches as the primary source of outdoor furniture, however, doesn’t provide students with a tabletop surface, leaving little room for writing or an area to place supplies. Such accommodations would be most suitable for instances where demonstration is the key style of learning rather than a lecture that requires taking notes.
- Bleachers - Portable bleachers make for great outdoor classroom seating as they provide large multilevel spacing that is ideal for social distancing. With many long rows, one bleacher can have enough capacity to accommodate the entire class safely.
- Receptacles - Trash cans and recycling stations are a means of keeping the ground free of unwanted litter. By including a trash receptacle within the outdoor classroom space, students and teachers will have a place to discard papers, bottles, pens, food, and more while class is in session. In addition to a clean campus, this also maintains a healthy environment for both students and wildlife by not subjecting animals to potential harmful debris or inviting pests such as ants or rats to the area.
- Sanitation Stations – The Coronavirus has redefined the importance of public hygiene. This is even more prominent within schools where social distancing and the use of the same surfaces are not always avoidable. Access to filled sanitation stations should be available at all times. Even in a world not distressed by a global pandemic, having obtainable hand sanitizer and/or wipes positioned on site of the outdoor classroom will allow students to disinfect surfaces shared by other classes before and after use. This will prevent germ spread and remove dirt from hands before returning inside. Sanitizer dispensers can be mounted to a centralized location via a stand, table, or post.
Step 3 - Arranging the components to maximize safety and sanitation
Although your classroom may be outdoors, there is still a need to abide by CDC guidelines when it comes to social distancing. In order to accomplish this, it is important to gather measurements of the total amount of space that you have available to you. Once this is done, examination of your seating solution is needed. You should determine, based on the type of product you are using, how many occupants it can hold while accounting for social distancing.
With this information in hand, you are now able to determine class size by the number of seating products you are able to place within the total space available to you. CDC guidelines recommend a 6’ distance between students at all times. You can designate certain areas of the tables and benches for where students should sit by using a colorful tape to indicate boundaries. Maintaining the appropriate distance between tables depends on the surface they are placed. Tape or chalk would be excellent options for outdoor classrooms that are placed on asphalt or concrete surfaces, while spray paint or lawn stakes would be helpful for indicating where the outdoor classroom furniture should be placed on grassy surfaces.
Step 4 - Getting the most exposure for your outdoor classroom
Once the outdoor classroom is established and furnished, it is necessary to create a scheduling system to prevent class overlap. An outdoor classroom should be used as much as possible to limit the spread of airborne illnesses. Setting up a time slot protocol will ensure that the outdoor space is utilized at all times in the safest, orderly way possible. Additional staff can also be given a window between classes to sterilize the area while students are not present.
Outdoor Classrooms Long Term
Besides being an innovative solution for schools during this year’s challenge, Outdoor Classrooms are an asset that can be utilized for many future classes. It may seem that moving to an outdoor classroom would be a net negative, however, studies have actually shown that up to 88% of teachers feel their students are more engaged in an outdoor learning environment compared to the traditional indoor setting (link).
As we continue to grapple with this pandemic, schools across the nation are beginning to adapt and implement outdoor classroom ideas. This process may seem straightforward on the surface, but there are a surprising number of factors to consider when beginning an outdoor classroom project. We created this guide to assist in these efforts and hope you found it useful. If you have any questions about acquiring the items necessary to create an outdoor classroom environment, give our friendly and professional support staff a call at 1-800-213-2401.