All About Outdoor Learning Spaces

The pillars of 21st century learning can be thought of as "The Four Cs" - critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. As these fundamental skills become more important, educators are exploring new ways to facilitate them - turning to the spaces themselves. Libraries are becoming media centers, empty hallways are becoming common areas and computer labs are turning into makerspaces. Some schools are even taking the movement right outside.

As adults, likely the only time we spent outside at school was recess. This unstructured playtime was seen as little more than a free-for-all to work out pent-up energy after a morning of sitting still - certainly not a time for lessons. But as educational practices like group learning, project-based work and student-led lessons become more common, teachers and administrators are seeing the need for - and benefits of - non-traditional learning spaces.

The outdoors is an ideal place to foster 21st century learning principles, and it's starting as young as preschool. In Seattle alone, there are close to 20 outdoor preschools. Operating under rain-or-shine policies, sessions are loosely structured, allowing both teachers and students to see what nature will teach them that day. One of the guiding philosophies at Fiddleheads Forest School is to "notice" - to observe surrounding sights, smells and noises. This allows young students to develop an appreciation for nature as well as a knack for independent exploration.

But, outdoor classrooms can take many forms and extend well beyond preschool. At the Mountain View Alternative High School in Idaho, learning spaces spread across three acres and include "plants and trees to be marked for nature walks, a water collection device for irrigation, and many other 'green' technologies", giving students an interactive environment in which to learn and apply real-world skills.

Even in urban areas that lack easy access to abundant nature, schools are finding ways to get students outside. The Natural Classroom program is designed to expose students to the ecosystems of New York City. Kindergarteners through eighth-graders visit one of the city's many parks and are led in activities by an urban park ranger. And in Boston, The Boston Schoolyard Initiative "has turned 88 schoolyards into centers for play, learning, and community", each including "a sample woodland, urban meadow, or planting beds".

As 21st century learning evolves, learning spaces will change along with it. Uses for outdoor spaces will certainly be as diverse and unique as nature itself.

"Preschool Without Walls." The New York Times. 29 Dec. 2015. Web.

"Outdoor Classroom." Mountain View Alternative High School. Web.

School's Out(Side): The Outdoor Classroom. AMC. 23 Oct. 2015. Web.

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