Boosting learning outcomes with outdoor spaces

In her book “Welcome to Your World,” American author and architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen finds that “the physical environment of a school can account for as much as 25% of a student's ability to learn”. This means that to ensure the best learning outcomes, all features of a school campus must be considered, not just the classrooms.

Recently, we attended the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in Minneapolis, where we gained crucial insights into the challenges faced by school administrators, developers, and landscape architects. Understanding these issues is vital for us to effectively support them in realizing their vision through furniture solutions.

In the presentation "Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities: How Green Schools Promote Wellness and Equity", key issues in school and campus development were discussed. The overarching aim for constructing schools and campuses, regardless of the age group they serve, must be to foster spaces that enhance health, encourage social interactions, and support learning. At Vestre, our core focus is on creating social meeting places that cater to diverse user needs.

Providing spaces to play—no matter where you live

In Scandinavian countries, “Allemannsretten” or “the right to roam” is enshrined in law. It means that everyone is entitled to make free use of the open countryside for recreational purposes, and can be extended to free use of public facilities such as parks, kindergartens, and schools.

In Norway, Denmark and Sweden, you will rarely find schoolyards locked after school hours. Rather, these spaces serve as social hubs where children and others can play and participate in activities, even on evenings and weekends.

This, of course, stands in contrast to many other countries, where campuses are gated and locked. A paradox when you take into consideration that in the US, 5 million children live closer to a school than to a park.

“If all schoolyards were transformed and opened to the community after hours, 80 million people would have access to a new park within a 10-minute walk of home.”

  • Andrew Wickham, Project Leader at LPA Design Studios.

As unstructured play contributes significantly to learning, access to parks or other play areas is crucial for facilitating learning, not just during school hours but also in children's spare time.

Access to nature nurtures childhood development

Establishing environments that cater to different needs is necessary to provide healthy schools. This means creating spaces where smaller or larger groups can gather, as well as areas for individual learning, tranquility, and quiet.

This is not just applicable to classrooms, but to the school as a whole. In the presentation, Danielle A. Cleveland, Project Leader at LPA Inc., talked about how interacting with nature can improve children’s developmental health and help develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Outdoor spaces are an important part of the learning environment, as access to greenery is known to improve engagement, focus, and learning abilities. Additionally, interaction with nature is known to reduce stress, anxiety, and physical health issues.

When Senior Facilities Development Manager in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Julia E. Hawkinson, presented her findings, she stressed the importance of making the green schoolyard essential for learning and implementing it in the curriculum. Her views were supported by Andrew Wickham, Landscape Architect at LPA Design studios:

“It's about how this space is going to be used and understanding the curriculum, the teachers, and how they teach so that we can design spaces that support that.”

According to Julia, this means incorporating curriculum-related trees, plants, and shrubs to make outdoor spaces integral to learning. At Vestre, we see this connection extend to furniture. By including seating for observation, writing, and discussion, we can further enrich the outdoor learning experience.

Optimizing learning environments for all ages

Consider your own working environment—do you have community tables where you can eat and socialize on your breaks? Do you have comfortable chairs where you can sit for longer periods of time and work? Do you have seating arrangements that facilitate discussion and teamwork?

Danielle A. Cleveland emphasizes the importance of planning campuses with various features for children and teenagers. They require private spaces for socializing, larger areas for group activities, and quiet spots for individual work and relaxation. However, the developmental stages of children of different ages also require different learning environments.

“A preschool learning environment is going to look very different than a high school learning environment. There are different things that are critical to their development.”

  • Danielle A. Cleveland, Project Leader at LPA Inc.

She emphasizes that different learners have different needs. That's why having a variety of spaces on campuses is crucial.

Schoolyards are one of the most important social meeting places Vestre contributes to. It's the meeting place that can make the biggest difference—not just for the children but also for the entire community.

Vestre’s contribution to boosting learning outcomes

When planning schools and campuses, creating optimal learning environments involves careful consideration both indoors and outdoors. Highlighting the role of furniture in these spaces is important for us. As landscape architects design areas tailored to diverse needs, we can contribute by offering the right furniture solutions to meet these needs.

Good dialogue with all stakeholders ensures our furniture solutions enhance activity, social interaction, and learning. Outdoor furniture is vital for students' learning environments and outcomes. Collaborating on optimal solutions contributes to healthy and productive learning spaces.

Furthermore, by opening these spaces to the community, every single user will benefit, whether they are students, teachers, or otherwise a part of the community. By having furniture like community tables and benches that facilitate communication in open spaces, we allow people to spend time together and build a stronger sense of “we”.