Outdoor Learning Environments

This program contributed to the enhancement of Iowa’s outdoor classrooms and outdoor learning environments programming through generous grant funding from Iowa’s Living Roadway Trust Fund and the REAP Conservation Education Program.

The project reviewed the current state of outdoor classrooms and learning environments in Iowa, sought out best practices for outdoor learning environments nationwide, and helps funders better support educators in creating their own outdoor learning environments. Click here to read the full 2015 report.

 Results of a year-long assessment of outdoor classrooms, or outdoor learning environments, as supported by funders such as the Iowa Living Roadway Trust Fund (LRTF). Additionally, research was conducted into best practices in the implementation ofoutdoor learning environments as described by academic and professional literature and sites across the country. Finally, a series of recommended “next steps” are provided to take the lessons learned from the research and prepare for reinvigorated outdoor learning environments funding programs in Iowa.

An outdoor learning environment can be defined as a deliberately selected or designed outdoor setting, used and supported by many in the community, that provides an intentional space for exploration, inquiry, and learning to empower environmental literacy and education in any discipline. An outdoor classroom can be located at a school, at a community location like a library, in a park, as a thoughtfully-planned space adjacent to a natural area, or in other places where the outdoor setting can enhance educational opportunities for learners of any age.

Research into outdoor classrooms in Iowa was based on two approaches, a written survey and site visits. Two groups of outdoor classroom sites were surveyed: 33 sites previously funded by the Iowa Living Roadway Trust Fund and 220 sites known to have been active. As the lists of outdoor classrooms were somewhat dated, response rates for both surveys were relatively low (24% for the LRTF sites and 12% for the other sites). Most sites in both surveys were based at K-12 schools, though some were housed at college settings, county parks, or other locations.

Results from the LRTF survey indicated that most outdoor classroom projects had become inactive, often because of staff turnover or lack of interest and support. Results from the wider survey were more varied, with the majority of outdoor classroom sites reported as still active. However, more than half reported that even when active, their sites were used only a few times a year or less. A series of successes and challenges were reported, including excitement at the potential of the projects, disappointment when community members or administrators do not value the hard work, and some confusion over why projects had not succeeded. Again, turnover and lack of support were indicated as major challenges.

Survey research was followed by in-person site visits to known outdoor classrooms funded by LRTF. In June and July 2014, 33 sites were visited, and most demonstrated, despite survey responses, some portion of the outdoor classroom area still present, if unused. Many of these outdoor classrooms tend to be prairie plantings of varying sizes, with some serving more of an apparent landscaping role and others used more for educational purposes. A wide range of outdoor learning environments, with areas for different types of uses, was not typically found.

Findings from this survey and site visit research indicate that successful outdoor learning environments in Iowa tend to have committed leaders striving to keep sites strong. However, when these leaders depart, the outdoor learning environments tend to struggle. Personnel and community support, money, and maintenance are seen as major challenges.

Next, a review of literature and best practices is provided, with several case studies interspersed. The literature indicates a broad consensus on what makes up an outdoor learning environment, with definitions ranging from the entire outdoor world to more specific types of learning areas. For example, Nature Explore, an organization that supports the development of outdoor learning environments, describes several key features that should be present. Successful outdoor learning environments, as described by the literature, tend to feature intentional spaces, intentional learning, and intentional community support. Unlike the surveyed locations in Iowa, outdoor learning environments can be located at a range of places, including parks, community locations, higher educational sites, and early childhood education and childcare centers.

Research on the development of outdoor learning environments puts a significant focus on preparation. Indeed, the literature suggests that outdoor learning environment projects should not proceed unless they can demonstrate the likelihood of strong support and well-developed learning integration. Especially for schools, integration with curricula and educational standards is necessary for long-term use and support. Rather than focusing solely on securing funds or donations of materials to create a site, implementers are advised to focus effort on ensuring sites will be well-maintained over time. User involvement throughout the design, implementation, and maintenance periods is important, as is building a strong community of supporters. Based on survey responses and site visits, these efforts could be stronger in Iowa. The strongest outdoor learning environments are part of communities, both those
centered around the site itself and those centered around environmental education more broadly.

The strongest outdoor classrooms have the support of administrators, local businesses, parents or volunteers, and users. Several examples of regional, statewide, or national networks provide some examples for potential ways that the network of outdoor learning environment implementers could be supported in Iowa.
Finally, a series of recommendations are made for potential next steps and considerations in the future development of Iowa outdoor learning environment programming. Addressed mainly to organizations funding outdoor learning environment creation and implementation, these suggestions included:

• Determining the types of learning environments and activities to support
• Considering how to define a successful outdoor learning environment
• Providing more consistent contact with and oversight of funded sites
• Funding, through different mechanisms, the different phases of a project’s lifespan, from planning, to implementation, to maintenance and enhancement
• Preparing to work with outdoor learning environment sites of different types through appropriate strategies
• Supporting networks of outdoor learning environments by being a convener and technical assistance provider.

Funding for this project was provided by: