How To Develop Your School Grounds For Outdoor Learning ...Even With A Tiny Budget

If you’re like many of the schools around the country who’d like to take more learning outside the classroom, then this article is a must read and WILL help you make even better use of your outdoor spaces.
Yet we’d firstly like to share with you the universal barriers to outdoor learning that all schools face.
Where do I go?
To most busy teachers, walking outside the classroom can be a daunting place. Despite the fact that many schools we visit have extensive and beautiful grounds. To use them wisely to enrich curriculum learning often requires a teacher to step outside of the their comfort zone and do something less familiar.
Therefore the need for a ‘hub’, outdoor classroom or at least a ‘meeting and seating area’ is seen as ESSENTIAL in order to enable effective outdoor teaching and learning. 
What do I do?
A real concern amongst staff is that lots of time and effort will need to be spent creating new lesson plans and resourcing effective learning activities that they just do not have in the midst of a busy teaching schedule. 
How do I find the time? 
A genuine (but dare we say it, often misplaced view) is that outdoor learning sessions will need to take place in addition to classroom teaching, rather than as a complementary element to it.
Good quality outdoor learning will provide meaning and context to your existing classroom teaching. 

Build It And They Will Come
If you are serious about learning outside the classroom, then the single greatest first step that you can take is to select a site or for a “learning hub” in your grounds.
It should, ideally, be easily accessible, well drained and sheltered, suitable for all ages and offer the capacity for structured teaching by having seating and simple, natural visual aids such as blackboards.
Outdoor learning seating area
It Needn’t Cost
Your chosen space may require some clearance and preparation but this can be done at very low cost or even via a parent working party.
Our hearts sink when we visit schools that have spent significant sums of money installing rather sterile wooden gazebos in the corner of a playground. They can be inflexible and often don’t allow for and encourage outdoor teaching and learning.
So try this… at one end of the spectrum you can simply place wooden logs or rustic benches. If funding for such a facility is genuinely non-existent then simply get children to carry out chairs or gym benches to create the meeting and seating facility.
Outdoor learning log circle and fire pit
It’s very wise to start this way and then see how things develop in terms of teacher enthusiasm, optimum sites to use and the type of activities that might take place.  
Protection From The Elements 
If you are (or plan to be) teaching outdoors regularly you will not want to be constrained by rain and inclement weather. Having a canopy or shelter can be an attractive addition.
For quite low cost you can suspend and tension tarpaulins from trees or poles or even parachutes which can be purchased for a couple of hundred pounds. As it is conical in shape it could also be tensioned at its perimeter base using poles and guys to create greater rigidity. 
Canopy Classrooms
For more rugged and longer term installations you could also consider yurts or outdoor canopy classrooms.
Outdoor canopy classroom at Eagle House School
They provide a number of significant advantages over more permanent wooden structures as follows:

  • Planning permission generally not required
  • They cost half the price of an equivalent sized wooden structure
  • They can be raised and lowered for cleaning and maintenance
  • They provide a more rustic and natural looking feature that is more in-keeping with the natural environments in which they are generally placed
  • Lighting of fires (in specially constructed pits) is generally safer than in and around wooden structures
The finished canopies can create large, natural looking and highly versatile hubs that allow for most aspects of curricula and extra curricula teaching and learning to take place for all ages. The canopies can have a life span of up to 7 years, after which time they can simply be replaced at a fraction of the costs of the original installation. 
Where schools have greater budgets then obviously the thinking can shift to more permanent installations through wooden structures.
We believe that it’s important to get the aesthetic right to suit the location in which it will be installed. Outdoor classrooms installed close to the main school buildings may require a more polished look, whereas those in natural areas and woodland spaces benefit from a more rustic design and build.
We always propose that seating is kept portable and other useful items such as tables, visual aids etc. are also capable of being added, removed and layouts altered to suit the group size and teaching activity. Walls and protection can also be removable according to the weather and activity. 
Outdoor learning seating, table, vis aids and fire pit
Open fires are an amazing addition either brick built in the centre or in a portable fire pit. You could also consider installing a separate seating area and fire pit outside the wooden classroom at a safe distance from it.