Outdoor learning has been shown to enhance interpersonal communication skills between children, as well as supporting their mental health. It provides a heightened awareness of, and appreciation for the environment, and allows children to assert control over their selfhood and become sensitised to their own well-being levels. That’s all on top of the physical benefits outdoor education brings.
But what about the British climate? No, we don’t get clement, sunny days 90% of the time, but our forecast usually fails to hit extremes of hot or cold. Rain easily ‘stops play’ in our country; in the Scandinavian countries a famous motto is “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing”. Forest school adopts this motto too, suggesting that as long as children are protected, the outdoor environment is welcoming come rain or shine.
There are ways to keep children protected, though – through their clothing, and through their learning environment. It’s important to remember that there can be economic obstacles to participation if you rely on parents providing the ‘right’ clothing for their children, as such items aren’t always cheap, so it’s extra important to ensure the environment itself fits the bill.
We’ll take a look at how to build outdoor classrooms to fit all weather conditions in the blog below.
Why learn outside?
Why spend so much time outdoors? Why not retreat inside at the first sign of clouds? Well, research has proven the many benefits of outdoor learning on children, both psychologically and physically.
Being outside can enable children to connect with nature (which is increasingly important as we move towards a state of climate emergency). It encourages physical activity, as it’s usually a dynamic environment, and it can provide a multi-sensory learning experience. Learning can flow between structured and unstructured with ease, supporting children with different educational needs too.
Creating a weather-safe learning environment
The unpredictable British weather means that teachers aren’t easily able to plan lessons outdoors if they don’t have access to outdoor learning spaces, as a quick retreat indoors can be disruptive. An all-weather space protects against this eventuality, as well as providing a year-round learning environment.
Things to consider:
Grass is absolutely fine as the surface for your outdoor area, as long as it doesn’t act as an obstacle to usage. Remember that grass will get wet and muddy come winter (and every other UK season!), so children will need to be kitted out accordingly, and if you’re learning both indoors and out they’ll need a route back indoors in which they can strip off muddy kit before traipsing dirt.
Astroturf, saferturf or wet pour are also surface options, but remember the impact they will have on the natural environment and your classroom’s setting.
It’s important to remember that being outdoors in inclement weather might be a very foreign and initially uncomfortable experience for children. It’s important to consider their cultural, regional and social backgrounds on this, as well as setting the tone to help children (and their adults) set their expectations for outdoor learning. There may be many different thresholds of comfort in one class, and family backgrounds may often play their part here too, so it’s important to focus on parental engagement, education and communication too. The physical sensations of being a little bit cold, hot, or wet are part of the ‘adventure’ and learning experience; but it’s important that children are made as comfortable with this as can be, emphasising the fun of it to help manage their ability to withstand very slight discomforts.
Every child nevertheless needs weather-appropriate, durable clothing for all of these conditions, and it’s advisable to consider these as ‘class pieces’ rather than relying on parental provision, as this avoids the problematics of social inequity. Not all families can afford rainy day gear, so it’s great if this can be considered a part of the infrastructure budget when setting up your outdoor classroom.
This is all part of design. The type of cover necessary for your learning environment will depend on your exposure – on a hill top where wind whistles through, you’re likely to be hit by chill winds and rain at all angles, whereas a corner of an urban school environment is more likely to only need overhead cover. Make sure you consider your location’s needs before embarking on your chosen design for your outdoor teaching project.
Making an outdoor classroom fit for: rain
As mentioned above, the ‘right’ clothing can be an equity issue, hence our suggestion that this is worked into the school’s outdoor classroom infrastructure budget. However this is handled, all children need appropriate clothing for rain and mud (waterproof coveralls with hoods and wellington boots being the necessaries). For older students, a light rain jacket, rain boots, and waterproof overtrousers can be key.
To rainproof the environment, invest in umbrellas for journeys between the classroom and bathroom (or internal learning spaces), and tarps to protect weather-sensitive projects or settings such as hay bale seating or art walls can be very useful.
Waterproof storage in the learning environment is also crucial. This saves any necessity to cart all learning tools outdoors every time the outdoor classroom is in use, enabling teachers to make the most of the environment without the effort. That means space for papers, stationery, board markers and any learning tools, as well as storage space for children’s belongings such as racks for backpacks. Larger storage space is also necessary for stowing away items like tarps and seating when it’s not in use.
Learning in the rain opens up the conversation to water-centred dialogue. This is the perfect opportunity to discuss water waste and conservation, and put in place water conservation processes in the outdoor classroom – for example, erecting guttering to a waterbutt which is used to water plants around the school on sunnier days.
Making an outdoor classroom fit for: cold
Again, clothing is key here. This is a slightly more difficult one than rain, too, as warmth can be acquired through normal clothing in layers. Equally though, this makes it easier for all children to be warm, as most will have various layers at home, which can be finished with the school rain protection gear as a windcheater.
It’s important that the educator or adult in charge is dressed similarly to the children, too, so that they can be responsive to the children’s physical situations. Wear as many layers as the child dressed most sparsely, and you will be more sensitive to their physical comfort levels, realising when it’s time for a warming exercise or even to retreat indoors in extreme circumstances.
It’s important to plan for extreme weather emergencies, too – outdoor learning can take place in 99% of weather conditions, but it’s not something that should be fought through to the detriment of the children’s comfort or safety. A weather response plan should be put in place for extremes of cold, rain or heat, so that extra shelter can be utilised, appropriate ventilation provided, or an indoor space retreated to. Alternatively, there should be a plan that parents support for outdoor learning cancellation.
Making an outdoor classroom fit for: sun
When it’s sunny, hydration and protection are key. Children should be kept out of the direct sun for prolonged periods, and should come to school wearing sunscreen (again, this should be part of the classroom infrastructure budget where possible). Insect repellant might make a big difference to students’ comfort too, depending on your environment. Constant access to fresh water is crucial in hotter temperatures too, so individual refillable water bottles (preferably insulated to keep cool) should be brought in from home, or provided by school – this would be a great investment.
Consider the surroundings of the outdoor learning environment. If your setting is near to tarmacked floors and buildings, these will intensify and radiate heat, whereas an outdoor setting in woodland will give shaded relief. Urban environments can be 1-3 degrees hotter than their rural counterparts. Outdoor classrooms using ground surfaces and walls like asphalt, brick, stone, rubber, concrete, or artificial turf will therefore be significantly hotter learning spaces than those on natural surfaces like grass, wood chips or soil. Designing using any natural shade can be really helpful, for example making use of the shadowy North side of a building, or using the shade of a mature tree. You can also add shade with outdoor-appropriate structures like shade sails, teepees, or tarps. Understanding how your site encounters wind also helps, as breeze will be a significant factor in minimising overheating. Movable seating also lets your space respond to weather, following the shade the sun provides (or indeed making the most of sunlight during the darker winter months). If there is a direction of learning, for example if you’re using a white board, make sure that students won’t be gazing towards the sun.
Hydration is key, along with avoiding surfaces that intensify heat, finding shade and breezes, and being sure everyone has the right clothing and gear for the weather. Pale coloured shorts and short-sleeved tops made of breathable fabrics, as well as sunhats and sunglasses, can make all the difference. Again this could be considered part of the space’s budget. Time more physical activities for cooler hours in the day, avoiding the peak of temperatures around lunchtime.
Considerations for your outdoor classroom design
When planning your space, there are several factors it’s worth incorporating at the design stage.
Plan for regular hydration. How will the kids access potable water throughout the day? It’s not practical to have to walk far to an indoor water source if it’s possible to have a source outdoors. If not, can you provide all children with an insulated litre bottle container they can bring, filled, from home?
Use what you have. Undertaking a really solid mapping of your landscape before committing to the space is really useful. Work out which way the wind blows through and whether it’s protected or exposed (will wind chill be a significant factor in winter? Will overheating be a concern in summer?) and think about rain protection (whether it needs to be more 360 or just some overhead protection). Utilise shade where you can, whether from buildings or trees, but be cognisant of the radiating heat and wind blocks that buildings provide during hot weather. How does the sun move overhead? Where will shade be at what hour of the day, and season of the year? These are all factors to be aware of.
Inspect your environment. Making the most of nature is one of the most joyous parts of outdoor learning. Have an educated tree surgeon or arborist check out the health of your trees, making sure that any unsafe or dead branches are removed so that others can be used for jumping and exploring, and for securing protective options like tarps if necessary. Equally, you might find you have a beautiful patch of wild bluebells beneath one set of trees. Is it worth planning the footfall and main routes of your outdoor classroom to avoid this so it can be preserved?
Plant trees. Trees absorb rainwater, provide shade, clean the air and provide habitat for wildlife. Research has even suggested that simply being able to see a tree out of a classroom window can raise test scores! If you can’t afford trees, why not get children to plant seeds in the first season, concentrating on native species like Alders, Silver Birch, WIld Cherry and Crab Apple. In a few years these will be saplings ready to plant, and in a decade they’ll create an orchard. Imagine the legacy these trees provide to those that nurtured them.
If there is any budget, installing raised beds can be a really valuable way to get children invested in nature, food, ecology and the environment. Work out where would be best to site such beds in terms of sunlight and rainfall. Well on your way towards designing your outdoor learning environment? Check out our range of outdoor classrooms here, or get in touch for a personalised plan to help you provide a positive outdoor learning setting.