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Two young students participating in outdoor learning near modern structure with floor-to-ceiling windows, lush landscaping and a reflecting pond
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Outdoor Learning: Enhancing Student and Educator Well-Being

Todd Ferking

Student and staff well-being is deeply rooted in how we design learning environments. As educators seek to engage students in new ways, learning outdoors provides many benefits and opportunities for powerful learning experiences.

Along with a change of pace for students, outdoor learning environments spark curiosity, encourage exploration, and authentically engage students – all elements we emphasize in our designs.

We elevate the educator and student experience by taking these principles and instilling them into our practice. We can point to several projects that exemplify this sentiment, five of which I’ve highlighted below:

A white room, with the wall opened facing orange stairs, has portable bleachers and equipment

Canyon View High School, Waddell, AZ. Image © Tom Reich.

Canyon View High School – Waddell, Arizona

Canyon View High School features a uniquely sustainable – and teachable – design strategy. Recognized as the 2019 honoree of the A4LE James D. MacConnell Award, Canyon View High School is a 237,000-SF campus positioned to utilize all spaces as teachable spaces.

Our team used local climatic responses to design passive cooling and extend the comfort zone of outdoor spaces to increase programmable learning spaces. Sun angles, ambient temperature, radiant energy, air movement, and humidification from landscape are accounted for in creating usable outdoor learning spaces and 100% naturally lit, non-glare interior learning environments.

Our team used local climatic responses to design passive cooling and extend the comfort zone of outdoor spaces to increase programmable learning spaces. Sun angles, ambient temperature, radiant energy, air movement, and humidification from landscape are accounted for in creating usable outdoor learning spaces and 100% naturally lit, non-glare interior learning environments.

The adaptive comfort standard in the outdoor marketplace dubbed the Agora never exceeds 85 degrees operating temperature, even during extreme summer months in the Arizona desert. Outdoor education spaces are passively cooled, extending the anticipated number of days the building can function without utility power to over 180 days.

At the front of a walkway between buildings is a large orange partially covered staircase

Canyon View High School, Waddell, AZ. Image © Tom Reich.

James L. Capps Middle School – Warr Acres, Oklahoma

Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s words, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees,” James L. Capps Middle School re-envisions a neighborhood park into a new, future-ready middle school.

An existing park with a creek that bisects the site offers outdoor learning opportunities. In the words of a 7th grade science teacher at James L. Capps Middle School, “We can’t build a better science classroom than the creek.”

According to educators, most learning that occurs beyond the learning neighborhoods happens in these outdoor spaces. To preserve as much of the natural environment as possible, the building is sited in portions of the park with the least amount of existing foliage, and at a point in the creek where a limited number of trees are impacted.

Outdoor learning at James L. Capps Middle School – Warr Acres, Oklahoma

James L. Capps Middle School, Warr Acres, OK. Image © Michael Robinson

Culver City Amazon Playground – Culver City, California

Culver City Unified School District is changing the way its students experience outdoor play by creating a Play Hub; an outdoor learning space to support the Reggio Emilia inspired preschool program that provides children with multiple means of engagement with each other in nature, meeting their sensory needs. It is a pilot project for the outdoor learning revolution for equity in early childhood learning in Culver City. Our design for the 4,200-SF Play Hub supports equity by empowering early learners to explore the world around them through sensory experiences.

The project includes seven zoning areas for students to interact in, with the sensory portal serving as the main entrance to the Play Hub. The other six zones in the main play space focus on art, reading, STEM/tinkering, dirt digging, water and mud play, and gross motor skills.

Children on a playground specially designed to accomodate children with sensory issues

Culver City Amazon Playground, Culver City, CA. Image © Alex Nye.

West Park High School – Roseville, California

West Park High School features specialty classrooms with glass walls and operable garage doors that extend the learning environment to the outdoors, creating additional teaching opportunities.

Included as an outdoor learning space is a natural wetland that existed on the property prior to construction. Integral to our design, the wetland is connected by a walkway from the school to enhance science and outdoor learning activities.

Outdoor elements are woven into the design, including the names of the buildings, which pay homage to notable natural features of northern California.

View of stone buildings with large windows shaded by grey wrapped canopy and West Park High School sign from across field

West Park High School, Roseville, CA. Image © Chip Allen.

John Rogers Elementary School – Seattle, Washington

John Rogers Elementary School is a new, multi-story school of approximately 82,000 SF to house 500 students in grades PreK-5. The design is being guided by the district’s strategic plan, which prioritizes educational and racial equity. It also upholds the school’s comprehensive school improvement plan, district’s climate change, sustainability, and clean energy resolutions, policies, and vision.

To support these objectives, the new school will be the first net zero school for Seattle Public Schools. In addition to complying with education specifications, focus on safety and security, and contextual appropriateness of the surrounding neighborhood are driving the design process.

Design concept of three-story modern learning facility, constructed of steel, brick and glass.

John Rogers Elementary School, Seattle, WA. Rendering © DLR Group.

In the future, we’ll see more sophisticated approaches to outdoor learning environments, more variety, and more consideration for using it as a teaching tool. At DLR Group, we will continue to leverage every square inch to improve the learning experience and ultimately the well-being of the students and educators we serve. It’s our goal to further empower these individuals to tailor and differentiate their educational experience through our designs.

Children enjoying outdoor learning at Culver City Amazon Playground with custom sandbox, a bridge and surrounded by sunny skies

Culver City Amazon Playground, Culver City, CA. Image © Alex Nye.

Explore more of the future of learning.

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DLR Group Principal and National K-12 Education Design Leader Todd Ferking, AIA
Connect with me to start a conversation ➔ Todd Ferking, National K-12 Education Design Leader

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