Whether it’s an outdoor learning center or using the school building as a teaching tool, educators are embracing sustainable design in their curriculum
Children are more plugged-in today than ever. The digital era and its 24-7 entertainment consumption options has brought us alarming statistics for average daily screen time for children: four hours a day. And our primary and secondary schools tout their access to tablets and technology—and coding classes.
But our instincts tell us that kids need a balance. With the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, child advocacy expert Richard Louv identified a problem, supported by research—a lack of nature in young peoples’ lives. There are numerous scientific research studies that connect exposure to nature and positive outcomes for the development and health of young people; for example, that it contributes directly to improvements in short-term memory. While there’s more to learn about this connection, experts say that spending time in nature enhances educational outcomes by improving children’s focus, behavior, love of learning, and academic performance. Even views of nature from a classroom can improve how well kids perform in these areas.
Northwest ISD’s Outdoor Learning Center in Northlake, Texas.
Louv’s book kickstarted a conversation that led to an embrace of outdoor time and nature as a setting for learning over the past decade by many educators and schools. Now, many educators are recognizing that a natural or outdoor setting provides a powerful hands-on learning in the sciences and more. And that students who spend time in nature benefit in terms of academic outcomes.
Coincident with this new awareness of nature in education are efforts by school districts to embrace sustainable buildings and operations in new construction and retrofitting. A school’s sustainability tools can be implemented and used in curriculum, making the building and its landscape an asset for teaching students about humankind’s relationship with the natural world.
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Spring Branch ISD’s Gloria Marshall Elementary School in Spring, Texas.
Outdoor learning centers
Outdoor learning centers (OLCs) are places where students can be brought to participate in a curriculum around nature and the outdoors. Outdoor learning centers have been a part of learning curriculum for some time, but school districts are now increasingly prioritizing them in light of the identification of nature deficit disorder. Exposure to nature isn’t just about planting tomatoes, it’s about taking kids outside and connecting them to the physical realm for the problem-solving opportunities that nature offers.
_q_tweetable:The challenge for designers is to make these places accessible, durable, and worthy of their role as settings for learning in nature._q_The challenge for designers is to make these places accessible, durable, and worthy of their role as settings for learning in nature.
Equity and access: Some school districts bus children long distances or arrange expensive overnight field trips to access shared OLCs and often can’t bring everyone to the site for the experience. Many of our clients want to explore opportunities to create and control their own outdoor learning centers where they can offer the experience to everyone at various grade levels within a manageable travel time. School districts have shifted funding to programs that get kids outside to learn.
Multiple natural zones for learning: We closely examine sites to see that they can provide multiple natural zones for learning. For example, at Elise Walker OLC for the Irving Independent School District, we found four distinct zones—prairie, wetland, woodlands, and shaded areas—that could support an outdoor curriculum and designed activity areas for each.
Connectivity, designed hands-on: Teachers bringing kids to the OLC must be able to efficiently and safely visit each activity area for learning. Students may be broken up into multiple groups circulating on the path. These pathways aren’t drawn on paper and superimposed, rather we create them with the client, walking through the site, putting ribbons on trees, envisioning the places where the students will gather. Hands-on design for hands-on learning.
Gathering places with a natural aesthetic: Our designs for OLCs feature buildings and decks that act as gathering places and laboratories at the trailhead and within the nature site. We favor natural materials in these structures—glulam engineered lumber structure and Texas limestone, for example—wherever possible and create features such as a butterfly roof design that collects stormwater that can be used as teaching tools.
Moreover, these buildings can serve multiple purposes—one of ours doubles as a storm shelter and another serves as a handsome gathering place for school district functions.
Minimal imposition on nature: Students learn at the OLC activity zones by making sketches and recording observations. Whenever possible, OLCs should highlight natural features available in these zones while making pathways easy to access. A boardwalk over marshland where stormwater accumulates becomes a place where kids can observe a marsh bog environment.
Value at any size: Outdoor learning centers are in demand in both densely populated districts and rural ones, and they range in size from 20 to 2,500 acres.
Northwest ISD’s Outdoor Learning Center in Northlake, Texas.
Sustainable schools as teaching tools
Teaching sustainability alongside sustainable buildings: When we’re designing sustainable features in a school, we can’t help but note that these features can very easily serve as active and engaging teaching tools for the students.
Green building rating systems like LEED are also encouraging us to think about integrating a building’s sustainable features into the school curriculum with a “School as a Teaching Tool” credit. Our philosophy of design and sustainability considers the educational possibilities of sustainable elements early in the design phase.
Versatile teaching tools: When we pitch a learning tool such as a human sundial (in which a student’s shadow can be used to tell the correct time) to a client, we note that it is a tool that can be incorporated in the school’s public landscape space and be a community resource usable by other schools and neighbors. A tool like a human sundial is hugely versatile and can be incorporated into curricula from elementary (shadows, climate, daylight) all the way up to architecture school.
Provide hands-on learning experiences: When we design rainwater collection for our schools, that water is most often used for irrigation. In almost all schools where we have rainwater cisterns, we have placed them in courtyards, teaching gardens, and roof gardens. Cisterns are designed with visible gauges (displaying the level of water inside the cistern) and with spigots that allow kids to use the water to maintain plants in the gardens. Frequently, we incorporate other teaching tools like the sundial and interactive solar and wind panels in the same garden/landscape courtyards as the cisterns.
The Elise Walker Outdoor Learning Center in Irving, Texas.
Make it interactive: Sustainable features such as a small windmill, solar panels, or rainwater-collection tools are always active and can be metered so that students can see in real-time how much electricity or water the system is harvesting via interactive digital monitoring dashboard systems.
These digital dashboards have been incorporated in many elementary schools that demonstrate energy efficiency features of the building along with the performance of active systems listed above. The new interactive dashboards have web interfaces that can be viewed from any device inside or outside of school, providing far greater opportunities for learning.
Make it visible: Many studies have shown that connection to the outside benefits all ages, and incorporating learning with the outdoor environment takes that connection one step further. Every building is a complex mix of many systems working together, and transparency in the operations and metering of these systems can be a huge learning tool for the students.
Examples of transparency incorporated in elementary and middle schools include using a transparent water-collection pipe from the roof and running it through the science lab to create a live interactive representation of the rainwater-collection system. Similarly, we have designed mechanical and electrical rooms with transparent walls and metering. Interactive digital displays are also a step toward transparency. The goal has been to make learning real-time and systems as transparent as possible so the learning stays with students a lot longer.
Make it affordable and long-lasting: Building these learning features into new schools is rarely a budget buster—and it’s the right thing to do to set our children on a path to the future. Learning tools should be made as flexible as possible, so they can have a long life in the curriculum.
It just feels right: Teaching our children about nature and natural systems is a centuries-old tradition. As our world is increasingly accessed through apps and gadgets and digital media, we must become more deliberate and intentional about connecting with nature in education.
About the authors
Architect Jonathan Aldis, based in Plano, Texas, has a passion for education design and thoughtful planning and has worked on projects ranging from minor renovations to high schools and master-planning entire bond issues for his clients.
Project architect Shivani Langer specializes in education facility design and leads Stantec’s Sustainability Research and Benchmarking program from our Austin, Texas, studio.