Boston Public Schools' Outdoor Classrooms Provide Fresh Learning Space & Physical Activity

Boston Public Schools in 2013 completed a decades-long effort to transform its drab, asphalt-covered playgrounds into vibrant learning and activity spaces.

The impact was profound. Between 1995 and 2013, a public/private partnership revitalized 88 playgrounds, reaching 30,000 school children and reclaiming 130 acres of asphalt.

The Boston Schoolyard Initiative, along with the City of Boston, led the $20 million project. It's objective? "To support teaching and learning and provide a dose of nature just outside the school door."

Outdoor classrooms are becoming more commonplace in schools, but the scope and planning of the Boston Schoolyard Initiative was ahead of its time.

"They executed a vision for promoting student health and wellness, preventing childhood obesity, engaging students in outdoor learning, and advancing green schools and STEM education - long before they became the front-page issues that they are today," said Kathy McHugh, Chair of the Boston Schoolyard Funders Collaborative and Executive Director of the Cabot Family Trust, in a news release announcing the project's completion.

Outdoor Classroom Design Principles

The project included elementary and K-8 schools, and incorporated 32 Outdoor Classrooms. Greenery replaced much of the pavement, including 100 new garden beds and 200 new trees. Other features included play structures, painted graphics, outdoor furniture and public art.

The schools also developed specific curriculum around the outdoor classrooms, "Science in the Schoolyard" and "Outdoor Writers Workshop."

As you would expect, detailed planning came before and during the 18-year project. Among design considerations were:

  • The impact on neighbors and nearby classrooms (noise), site circulation (deliveries, buses, parking, fire lanes), safety (visibility and sight lines) and year-round temperature fluctuations (sun exposure).
  • The number, age, and ability of users: both students and neighborhood children.
  • Include equipment that allows for a range of activities such as sliding, climbing, jumping, crawling, rolling, twirling, twisting, balancing, and falling.
  • Select components that will sustain interest and curiosity over time.
  • Consider equipment that has potential to support teaching (use a slide to teach physics, a geodesic dome to teach geometry, etc.)

Those considerations resulted in elements including:

  • Seating and game tables near play equipment
  • Places for shared play and make-believe
  • Talking tubes
  • Low climbing walls
  • Separate play structures for younger and older students
  • Exercise station for older students
  • Rubber surfaces
  • Synthetic Turf Fields
  • Running tracks
  • World map painted on the ground by volunteers

Outdoor Classroom Benefits

Educational outcomes of the Boston Schoolyard Initiative were examined by two Boston University professors and one from Tufts University. Preliminary results lead researchers to expect a 25% greater pass rate from fourth graders on the math portion of their statewide standardized tests.

An additional research model forecast an approximate 50% drop in the suspension rate, and an increased student and teacher attendance, after controlling for school demographics.

Boston Schoolyard Initiative Overview. 2017. Web.

"Schoolyard Design Guide." Boston Schoolyard Initiative. 2013. Web.

Lopez, Russ. Campbell, Richard. Jennings, James. "Schoolyard Improvements and Standardized Test Scores: An Ecological Analysis." January 2008. Web.

Lopez, Russ. Daly, Tamara. "Boston School Yard Initiatives and School Performance: An Assessment" 2009. Web.

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