How to Build an Outdoor Classroom

How to Design and Build an Outdoor Classroom

The Augustana University Outdoor Classroom, designed by my Environmental Philosophy students.

Recently, people have been asking me how they can help their students get outside in a healthy, creative, and life-affirming way. We’ve all had enough of being cooped up inside.

Specifically, lots of them want to know how I designed and built an outdoor classroom at my school. Some have seen my classroom on social media, some have heard about it through CNN’s story last summer.

I spend a good deal of time consulting with local schools about how to do this, so I decided to write down what I tell everyone. Hopefully these broad strokes will help you to get started.

Why I love outdoor classrooms

By way of introduction, here’s a little background. I teach Philosophy, Sustainability, and Environmental Studies at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Even though I’m a professor, I’ve always been a little bored in classrooms, and I much prefer teaching and learning outside.

Born in the Catskill Mountains of New York, I grew up surrounded by good stone. The woods around my home were full of stone walls and piles of debris from bluestone quarries. The best stone was sent down the Hudson to New York City for construction. What was left behind was excellent material for playing with, so I started building walls and gardens. Mine were fairly simple constructions, with walled flower beds, walkways, and staircases. My work wasn’t anything like Opus 40, but that was my neighborhood, and growing up around amazing stonework like that was an inspiration. As you design your own classroom, keep that in mind: what you build might be more than just a place to learn outdoors. The classroom itself could inspire new art, new dreams, new ideas in your kids.

Over the years, through working as a stonemason and through studying the timeless stoneworks of ancient cultures around the world, I have come to love working with stone. Think about it like this: stone is what lasts through thousands of years of all kinds of weather. It’s not always easy to work with, but it tends to last if we use it well.

So it’s no surprise that I wound up building my classroom out of local stone. Ours is a three-tiered, semicircular classroom, and each tier has stone from a different part of South Dakota.

Top tier: Black Hills slate on top of Black Hills limestone. Middle tier: Dakota Mahogany Granite. Bottom tier: Sioux Quartzite. The orchestra in the foreground is also Black Hills slate. Some of the stone is recycled paving stone, and some was deemed imperfect by the quarries.

The bottom layer is the local Sioux quartzite, from the eastern part of the state. The middle layer is granite from north and west of our city, and the top layer is made of stone from the western Black Hills. When you stand back and look at it you get a picture of the geology of our state from east to west, making the classroom itself a teaching tool.

It’s also a rough imitation of ancient Greek theaters, which also makes the classroom a teaching tool. The semicircle means that students all face the teacher, but they also face each other, making the space a little more inclusive. And it means the acoustics are great.

For me, one of the most important features of the classroom was making it inexpensive and easy to maintain. In an age when most of our buildings are designed to last for a few decades, I wanted something that could possibly last for millennia. When the students who helped me design it come back for their fiftieth reunion, I will be long gone, but I hope these stones will still be there, ready to welcome my students home.

Meanwhile, it will cost almost nothing to maintain throughout the years.

Of course, you don’t have to build out of stone. Use what you have available, and don’t be afraid to mess up.

Here are five points to help you decide what to build and how to build it:

1. Know your why. What problems are you hoping to solve? What do you want to accomplish? Making this explicit at the outset can make a big difference. I recommend that you keep it simple, and keep it focused on the kids who will use the classroom.

2. Know your who. Who are all the stakeholders you can engage? These are people who can help you to design, fund, and build the classroom. And remember this: the most important stakeholders are the children who will use the classroom. Include them in the work of designing it. This might slow things down, but it might also empower the kids to dream. Give them a chance to design their own classroom and you might find that they make a classroom they’re excited to use. Since my students designed our outdoor classroom, it has gotten constant use for everything from classes and study sessions to meetings and graduation photo shoots.

3. Know your what. What resources do you have? If you’ve got stone, great! If not, use what you have. I’ve seen good outdoor classrooms made out of logs and strawbales, and others that are just a circle of Adirondack chairs. What you make will depend a lot on where you are, and what you can afford. Don’t be afraid to start small, and to let the kids tell you what does and doesn’t work. Sometimes if the kids watch us adults try and fail and then try something new, that becomes an important lesson in itself. One tip: I suggest that you don’t use gravel if you can help it. Gravel gets spread around too easily, is too easy to throw, and it gathers dirt. It might look good at first, but before long it’s a weedbed. Much better is sand, or mulch, or grass.

4. Know your where. This seems simple enough, but when you choose your site, pay attention to all your senses. Better still: bring the kids to different sites and ask them to pay attention to their senses and to tell you what they feel. How does this place feel on your skin? Is it damp? Are there trees that make it sticky with their sap? What’s the wind like? How does it smell? Is the sunlight too hot or too bright? Will it need shade trees? Does it get enough sun and air to dry the place out after it rains? And perhaps most important: how does it sound? Is there too much road noise? Are you near air conditioners that will be running when it’s hot outside? Visit the site at different times of day and times of year to get a feel for it. And try to imagine kids of different abilities in your classroom. Will it be accessible for wheelchairs?

5. Know your how. Get the stakeholders engaged. One local school that I consulted with sold paving bricks for the center of the classroom. People buy a brick and get it engraved with their name. Each brick is sold for more than it costs to buy and engrave the brick. A few hundred bricks later and much of the classroom is paid for. A good outdoor classroom doesn’t need to be expensive. I’ve seen some good ones made out of logs or straw bales.

I hope that helps you get started. Most of my favorite classrooms are outdoors. I hope one of yours is outdoors soon, too.

Professor of Philosophy, Classics, Religion, and Environmental Studies. Author of several books. Saunterer.