COUNCIL of OUTDOOR LEARNING CoOL Toolkit: SPACES for Outdoor Learning
What is CoOL? The Council of Outdoor Learning (CoOL) is an initiative of the Environmental Education Alliance (EEA) that focuses on the design, development, use, and sustainability of outdoor learning environments on school campuses. CoOL provides tips and techniques for those who want to create outdoor classrooms or learning stations, hosts an annual symposium to share resources and strategies for teaching outdoors, curates a collection of outdoor learning activities that are integrated with state standards, and provides professional learning workshops, resources and webinars for teachers and non-formal educators
SPACES for Outdoor Learning Any outdoor space used for student exploration, inquiry, and learning is an "outdoor classroom." Some schools grow gardens as the focal point of outdoor learning. Others build weather centers, install recycling and compost stations, or create access to creeks. Natural areas with trees or fields can be great settings for journal writing, data collection, science investigations, or geography projects. If only all schools were lucky enough to have such assets! But, with a little creativity, even concrete and asphalt schoolyards can be transformed into effective outdoor learning spaces. It is not necessary — and may not even be desirable — to have an amphitheater, pavilion, or permanent shelter. Your students can be learning outside tomorrow, with the ideas and resources in this CoOL Toolkit. Let's get started!
Bucket Seats Make Portable Outdoor Classrooms
Used 5-gallon buckets - available for free from school cafeterias, sandwich shops, paint stores or construction contractors - are the perfect size to hold clipboards and paper, tape measures, small electronic scales, paper "foldscopes" or magnifiers, and other tools for outdoor investigations. With clipboards serving as writing surfaces or lap tables, students can engage in a number of field in, Students can convert bucket lids into comfy seats with recycled carpet padding covered by bandannas or 18" x 18" squares cut from vinyl tablecloths or printed shower curtain liners. A hidden gasket under the top of the lid can be used to secure these bucket lid seat toppers. Approximate cost: $4 per student for lid, pad and covering. This style of outdoor classroom offers the height in flexibility.
Natural Materials Lend Themselves to Rustic Outdoor Learning Areas
North of the Gnat Line, many Georgia schoolyards are likely to contain boulders unearthed during the site preparation process. Artful arrangement of these rocks at the time they are uncovered can result in an outdoor learning area. No boulders at your disposal? Straw bales are a lot easier to move and arrange! Cover them with table cloths for seating comfort. Tree stumps offer another option for a rustic outdoor classroom.
Shade Structures offer the Basics
From pergolas to tents and shade sails, sometimes a little shelter is all it takes for outdoor learning to take place. What do party stores and funeral homes have in common? Neither are renting large tents for big events during the pandemic. It might be possible to arrange a loaner in return for recognizing the generous business that partners with your school.
Gardens Grow Interest in Outdoor Learning
As one teacher said after Whether your school campus has acres of space or no place to go but up, there are endless options for containers, raised beds, in-ground, hugelkultr and other types of gardens. Vegetables may be the most popular plants to grow, but students also plant native flowers to restore pollinator habitat; engineer bioswales and rain gardens to manage and filter runoff water; plant food forests and fruit fences; grow trees to clean the air and sequester carbon; plant sunflower mazes to remove heavy metals from the soil; model Native American gardens to investigate and compare indigenous ways of knowing; and conduct all manner of STEM investigations on topics such as soil conservation, pest management, hydroponics, season extenders, and aquaponics.
Prioritize Work Surfaces over Seating
When you close your eyes and think of an outdoor learning space, do you envision rows of benches with a podium in front? It's a common image, popularized by Scout and community groups eager to help schools set up "outdoor classrooms." But the beauty of engaging students in learning outdoors is that they can observe phenomena in nature, conduct investigations, make models, collect data, identify problems, engineer solutions, construct explanations - all without sitting down to listen to a lecture. Work surfaces are more functional than seating. If funds are short, start by providing table tops and work surfaces. Cable spools can often be donated by utilities such as power and telephone companies. With a little sanding and paint, they make great places to conduct experiments and investigations, build models, or write in journals. An adjustable beach umbrella (<$15 at Costco) inserted in the center hole can provide shade on sunny days. Flip top benches (pictured in both bottom photos) offer flexibility of sitting or standing to work.
Assemble Kits instead of Building Custom
Assembling and installing prefabricated kits is less expensive than building custom work surfaces and seating. In addition, a school district has a less liability with volunteer assembly of kits, as long as they are built according to manufacturers' instructions. Original designs for structural elements should be approved by an engineer.