COUNCIL of OUTDOOR LEARNING CoOL Toolkit: SUSTAIN 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.
SUSTAIN Outdoor Learning
Plan First, to Make Your Outdoor Classroom Last
A study of outdoor learning areas in Georgia revealed that many continued to thrive for years despite changes in teachers, administrators and volunteers, though others were abandoned, unused or in poor repair. What made the difference? Long-lasting outdoor learning spaces were fully-incorporated into the school culture and provided a context for real world investigations related to the standards being taught. These spaces were used less for extra-curricular and after school activities than for labs and investigations: essentially substituting hands-on outdoor learning experiences for lessons that otherwise would have been taught indoors. As one teacher said, "We've discovered that you can teach any subject outdoors!" Schools with a culture of outdoor learning tended to see their program as evolving and open to all who wanted to participate. For more insights into research on the sustainability of outdoor learning, check out the following report, and the tips and resources posted below it.
Involve Community Partners Engaging the community in creation of outdoor learning areas not only makes light work of the effort, but also gives partners a chance to invest in and value the improvements. This can, in turn, reduce vandalism and theft while building an authentic audience for student-designed field investigations and projects.
In order to effectively engage volunteers, it is important to provide training, recognition, support, and food. The only thing worse that having a job too large for volunteers, is not having enough meaningful work for volunteers to do. Work days can be organized by breaking the entire scope of work into bite-sized projects for small crews; providing proper tools, materials, and safety gear; working on a Master Plan; celebrating successes; and recognizing volunteers in the local press.
Build Capacity Before Infrastructure Investing in teachers is more important than investing in facilities and infrastructure for outdoor learning. When teachers are comfortable being outside; confident about managing class behaviors and productivity; and accomplished at engaging students in science and engineering practices, outdoor learning will be successful regardless of whether any fancy facilities are available. Project WET, Project Wild and Project Learning Tree are a few of the many courses that build teacher skills and provide curriculum materials for outdoor learning, organized by topic and by grade level.
Keep Outdoor Learning Fresh and Relevant Periodic surveys and asset-based site inventories can be used to update a Schoolyard Master Plan and provide needed resources. Relating proposed improvements to the Master Plan can also ensure that outdoor learning goals are aligned with state standards.
Design Sustainable Learning Spaces When assessing school grounds to take note of areas that could work for outdoor learning, some factors to take into consideration are:
Attend to Access and Inclusivity The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require that an entire school campus be accessible, but it does ensure that disabled students have access to the same opportunities as other children. The absence of a disabled child at the moment does not relieve that responsibility. The route to an outdoor learning area, the ground surfaces, and work surface or activity spaces must be accessible. Bark mulch, pea gravel, and crush run are not wheelchair-friendly (these surfaces also present problems for strollers, cargo wagons, and lawn mowers). Stabilized slate chips offer a permeable surface that packs flat and supports wheels. Trails may be natural, but edging should not constrict the width of a trail so that wheelchairs (or riding lawn mowers) are excluded.
Use Durable, Eco-Friendly, Cost-Effective Materials Salvaged, reclaimed, and recycled or reused building materials, or renewables such as bamboo and hay bales, can often provide inexpensive and eco-friendly options for improvements in outdoor learning spaces. Sturdiness and durability are key in a school setting where inappropriate uses must be anticipated (e.g., overloading structures, climbing trellises, sitting on tables). Kits for benches, bridges, and other improvements have two major advantages: 1) they make work easier and 2) assembly of a pre-fabricated kit that was designed and engineered for public use carries less liability than the constructing an original or custom design. The latte should always be approved by the district's facilities staff and may require an engineering seal.
Design to Deter Vandalism and Theft If the area is prone to vandalism or theft, consider strategies that may reduce such incidences, including:
Student involvement in assembly, construction, or installation of improvements
Design that resists vandalism, such as horizontal rather than vertical balusters; use of textured paint that resists graffiti and eases clean-up; extra-sturdy construction
Quick clean-up, when needed, to avoid attracting more vandalism
Locked tool storage; cable-locked tables and trail cameras; quickrete footings; etc.
Engagement of community in use and "ownership" of the area after school hours
Signage that credits local community members who helped create improvements
Adopt-a-Spot programs for community-involved maintenance and monitoring
Make a Maintenance Plan Outdoor learning areas require attention to assure they are safe and in good repair. Keep things simple and low maintenance. Volunteers can help through an "Adopt-a-Spot" program. It's valuable to cultivate a good relationship with the grounds crews that bear the brunt of maintenance responsibilities. Identify and clarify the procedure for reporting hazards and requesting repairs. Create records that help school administrators or volunteers manage, maintain, and replace improvements, as needed, such as an annual maintenance plan for outdoor areas. Consider staging an annual outdoor learning event for students' families. An event such as Ford Elementary's Evening in the Gardens (see video at right) not only builds support for outdoor learning, but also provides a yearly incentive to repair
Strategize for Summer Break Upon returning to school after the long summer break, the sight of overgrown school gardens and derelict outdoor learning stations can discourage even the most enthusiastic teacher or parent volunteer. Outdoor learning spaces that appear abandoned are also vulnerable to being dismantled by maintenance crews tasked with cleaning up school grounds before students return. Strategies for summer management of outdoor learning spaces include:
Organizing volunteers or coordinating with master gardeners to grow veggie gardens on school grounds for local families
Converting raised beds to community gardens for the season
Recruiting school families to "adopt-a-spot" through summer
Sowing cover crops that restore soil and require no maintenance
Create a Record for the Future Most schools experience some staff turnover every year. Before long, the history of an outdoor learning area can easily be lost. Documenting improvements, uses, and contact information can provide future faculty and families with access to missing information so they can continue to use or revitalize outdoor learning spaces. One effective strategy is to post photos, stories, and the rationale for outdoor learning on the school website. It is even more secure to create a profile at eeingeorgia.org, where photos, documents, maps, articles, maintenance guides, parts lists, and other information can be displayed or stored indefinitely. Here is an example from Ford Elementary School and a link to create a profile for your school.
Make it Easy for Volunteers to Help: Create an Adopt a Spot Program If you have never heard the anguished wailing of students who just discovered that another class pulled out their dormant perennials and replaced them with annuals, consider yourself lucky. It takes coordination, communication, and a lot of grace to share outdoor learning spaces with others — especially if those spaces are in short supply. A shared calendar can be useful for reserving limited spaces. So can a map and field guide that show locations of class projects and identifies native or landscaped plants vs. non-native species that may crowd out indigenous plants and fail to support local pollinators and wildlife. Scroll down to see an example of a document that informs interested people of the natural assets and improvements on a school campus.