The popularity of outdoor classrooms is growing among educators around the world, as research continues to support the positive effects of outdoor learning on students’ physical health, cognitive development, and socialization.

Principals have a unique role in paving the way for an outdoor learning program in their schools. School leaders who want an outdoor classroom often encounter a number of challenges along the way, such as the lack of outdoor space, low community interest, or few financial resources. Don’t let these challenges deter you! If you want to see an outdoor classroom at your school, follow these simple steps to help bring to life a vision of outdoor learning for your school. 

#1. Make a Plan

What kind of outdoor learning space do you envision? There are many different models of outdoor classrooms. In order to think through the vision of your outdoor classroom, consider two questions: Where could you place the outdoor classroom, and what will the features of this learning space be? 

Because outdoor classrooms are developed in light of the available environmental resources, some could be created using a simple arrangement of wooden benches around a podium and chalkboard, while others might include a dynamic learning environment using a treehouse, a greenhouse, or a tent. Some outdoor classrooms are designed to fit in a nearby courtyard, while others may take up designated acres of a local park. Some outdoor classrooms even appear on boats, on a dock, in caves, or near waterfalls. Outdoor classrooms can be in gardens, arboretums, and animal sanctuaries as well. Think about the options for the location of the outdoor classroom, and assess the feasibility of creating this type of learning space there. 

Once you have identified the possible site for your outdoor learning space, make a list of features you’d like to see in the classroom. These features could include nature trails with native vegetation and wildlife, flower and vegetable gardens, butterfly boxes, cartons of local plants, sandboxes, birdhouses, and water tables. The outdoor classroom may also have stations where students can use magnifying glasses, microscopes, binoculars, and telescopes to observe their natural world. Some outdoor classrooms even feature weather stations, amphitheaters, astronomy and biology labs, and spaces for composting and recycling. After you have identified a good location and made a list of the features you envision for the classroom, communicate your vision to others.

#2. Cast the Vision

How can you get other people on board to create an outdoor classroom? You’ve spent time imagining the kind of outdoor classroom you want to see and where you would like to see it; now it’s time to cast the vision. Generate conversation by asking others to offer ideas for the space. Get their feedback and begin developing a proposal with the combined ideas of school administrators, teachers, and students. Your proposal should detail the vision for the outdoor classroom, a location, an estimated budget, and a projected timeline. The proposal should include everything that is needed to begin designing and building the outdoor classroom. 

In light of the budget constraints many schools face, think creatively about finding people who believe in your vision, and then see if they would like to provide financial support. Check with local businesses to see what they can donate. Consider offering incentives to supporters, such as holding a special dinner to acknowledge donors, or placing dedicated plaques in the outdoor classroom to recognize people involved with the project. Be sure to articulate a clear vision for the outdoor learning space and describe a path forward—these ideas can generate enthusiasm and garner the support needed to make the dream of an outdoor classroom a reality.

#3. Build and Maintain

After you carefully plan, communicate the vision to others and gain support, it’s time to build. Keep the design simple, and use durable materials. Your classroom will be exposed to natural elements all year long, so it’s best to consult an experienced builder throughout the process.  

You will want to ensure that your outdoor classroom is kept safe and is well-maintained. Develop a monthly maintenance schedule to address every feature of the outdoor classroom, and assign duties to ensure upkeep. For example, designate somebody to routinely clean bird feeders, water flowers, or tend to the garden. Nature trails must be maintained by adding new wood chips or gravel. While the maintenance issues will be different for each type of outdoor classroom, you need to develop a team of people who will care for this part of the school.

Outdoor classrooms promote student learning and growth, and members of your school community will love the new addition of a well-planned outdoor learning space. As a school leader, you can take the initiative to envision and communicate the need for a dynamic and effective outdoor classroom. Once the outdoor classroom has been developed, ensure its longevity with a plan for consistent upkeep and care.

Travis R. Dunlap, MA, is a research associate at The George Washington University and the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Facilities Clearinghouse in Washington, D.C.