Early educators encourage children to build upon their imaginations and problem-solve to learn. Based upon research, this collaboration between an early childhood educator and an architect discuss the importance of indoor and outdoor learning spaces, using concepts from traditional early childhood classroom design.
Modern school design for elementary, middle, and high schools uses concepts proven in early childhood classrooms (Arndt, 2012; Kanakri, Shepley, Tasinary, Varni, Fawaz, 2017; Keeling & Postel, 2017). Spaces are being designed for whole group collaborations; small group collaborations; and individual, or calming areas (Keeling & Postel, 2017). Interior design is also being considered, with the use of neutral, natural colors; natural lighting, and window placement to allow wide views of the outside (Arndt, 2012). Another consideration is designs to help control noise levels, such as area rugs, padded seats, acoustic tiles on the walls, and designated quiet areas. Lastly, schools are copying the early childhood concept of learning centers, such as designated areas for music, art, math, science, and literature.
Intentionally designed learning spaces have multiple benefits for children. Today’s students are often overwhelmed by noise, lights, and academic pressures. Quiet spaces provide temporary relief from overstimulation, which benefits all children, including those with hypersensory issues (Arndt, 2012; Kanakri et als, 2017). Such areas can decrease stress, which in turn makes the brain more receptive to learning by increasing focus (Kanakri et als, 2017). Small group areas promote team work, decision making, reflection, and collaboration – skills necessary for success in the workforce arena. Lastly, whole group areas provide learning opportunities, such as teacher-led instruction or lectures, preparing children for advanced learning in colleges (Randeree, 2006).
Bringing these indoor designs to the outside creates intentionally planned learning spaces which can blend into the natural landscape, seamlessly continuing the day’s learning experiences. By having the same learning opportunities both inside and outside, students experience a continuum of space, providing a sense of security, which further promotes learning (Arndt, 2012). Incorporating outdoor learning areas has become of global interest to educators due to the rising numbers of childhood obesity and lack of ecological stewardship and responsibility (Sisson & Lath, 2017). Providing opportunities of outdoor exploration, play, and learning promotes physical movement and gross motor development. Benefits even extend to reduced absences due to sick days (Dowdell, Gray, Malone, 2011). Having children help design their outdoor learning areas and be active in maintaining them also promotes physical activity as well as a sense of ownership, which fosters a sense of responsibility for their environment, modeling life-long care for nature.
The cognitive benefits of outdoor learning opportunities are multidisciplinary in nature and long-lasting. Research has shown that the extension of indoor learning to hands-on outdoor learning showed marked improvements in critical thinking skills, problem-solving, and improvements in creative and descriptive writing ( Scott & Boyd, 2014). Science is not the only subject to benefit from outdoor learning. Teachers are also incorporating social studies, math, art, and literature learning opportunities in the outdoor environment, encouraging observation, inquiry, individual-and-group work, and increased interest and motivation in extended learning.
Social skills are also strengthened by outdoor learning opportunities. Problem solving skills involving teamwork, risk taking, self-regulation, and self-confidence are facilitated by teachers as students progress through self-directed outdoor activities. Students build communication skills through group work and inquiry with peers and teachers. Being able to communicate their observations and excitement also improves communication through writing and art.
Preschool teachers have long understood the importance of outdoor play and learning, as well as incorporating learning areas both indoors and out. More recent research and school designs are incorporating these ideas in elementary and middle schools, creating outdoor learning opportunities (Scott & Boyd, 2014). Such opportunities require planning and, often, teacher professional development to fully incorporate the outdoor environment in learning. Some teachers are uncomfortable with the student-directed learning process as well as extended amounts of time spent in outdoor learning activities. For these reasons and more, fully using the outdoors as a learning environment requires the commitment of the entire school, the families, and the community (Eick, Tatarchuk, Anderson, 2013; Plouts & Schultz, 2003). Therefore, the schools incorporating outdoor learning areas have higher family involvement and community support which, in turn, benefits the students (Plouts & Schultz, 2003).
Building learning areas outside extend learning started inside. The benefits to students strengthen cognitive and social learning and increase self-confidence through student-directed learning and the support of families and the community. The whole child benefits through this multidisciplinary learning approach.
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Eick, C., Tarachuk, S., Anderson, A. (2013). Vision + community = outdoor learning stations. Science and Children, March (2013). 61-67.
Kanakri, S., Shepley, M., Tassinary, L., Varni, J., Fawaz, H. (2017). An observational study of classroom acoustical design and repetitive behaviors in children with autism. Environment and Behavior, 49(8). 847-873.
Keeling, A., Postel, D. (2017). Designing space for optimal learning. Focus on Learning, Summer/Winter. 11-13.
Plouts, D. & Schultz, R. (2003). The benefits of outdoor learning centers for young gifted learners: School-based outdoor learning centers. Gifted Child Today, 26(1). 56-63.
Randeree, E. (2006). Structural barriers: Redesigning schools to create learning organizations. International Journal of Education Management, 20(5). 397-404.
Scott, G. & Boyd, M. (2014) A potential value of familiarity and experience: can informal fieldwork have a lasting impact upon literacy? Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 42(5). 517-527.
Sisson, J. & Lash, M. (2017). Outdoor learning experiences connecting children to nature: Perspectives from Australia and United States. Young Children, September (2017). 8-15.