Outdoor Learning Environments (OLE)

  • The Goal
    To build community value by creating vibrant, accessible outdoor learning spaces to promote environmental literacy and native Iowa habita
  • Definition
    We define an OLE 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 OLE can be located at a community location like a library, park, adjacent to a protected natural area, or other places where the outdoor setting can enhance educational opportunities for all community members.
  • Network
    OLE’s were created to works as a communication hub for project leaders to share progress and ideas.
  • Why So Important in Iowa?
    A wide body of research demonstrates the important role of outdoor classrooms and education in child development, skill mastery, and educational success. Regular time outdoors can help young people’s social and physical development, fitness and motor skills, and creativity. For people of all ages, outdoor learning environments can help reduce stress and violence, support lifelong learning, and build environmental literacy and empathy.

Assessing the Current State of Outdoor Learning Environments in Iowa and Building Capacity for the Future 

Prairie Rivers of Iowa contributes 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. This project reviews the current state of outdoor classrooms and learning environments in Iowa seeks out best practices for outdoor learning environments nationwide and helps funders better support educators in creating their own outdoor learning environments. If you’re interested in reading the 2015 report, please click here.

OLE Final Report

What Were the Major Parts of This Initiative?

First, we assembled an advisory group of experts in areas related to the creation of successful outdoor learning environments: educators, naturalists, facilities managers, and others. We surveyed past outdoor classroom creators to determine the state of projects in Iowa and to define some of the major successes and challenges they have faced. We conducted a wide-ranging review of best practices in outdoor learning environment creation nationwide (and beyond) and we developed guidance for funders and educators to help strengthen future projects in Iowa.

2018 Conference

Prairie Rivers of Iowa hosted educators, conservationists, community leaders, landscapers, and others that value outdoor education to learn how to make your outdoor space more intentional for STEM learning through design and creative lessons and programs.

Those new to outdoor learning spaces learned how to establish, maintain, and gain community support to sustain an OLE.

The purpose of the conference was to promote OLE development and create a support network for the community of educators and conservationists that provide these spaces for the public. The conference was composed of three tracks that tackle every aspect of establishing, using, and maintaining an OLE:

  1. Gaining Community Support
    Participants learned how to gain support for and secure the longevity of OLE’s. The track included sessions on how to gain vital buy-in as well as tactics for seeking funding.
  2. Creating Educational Programs for OLEs
    This track focused on building curriculum and educational programs for OLE’s. Some subjects included connecting students to their outdoor surroundings, intentional and organic play in nature, and incorporating STEM and NGSS.
  3. OLE Design, Implementation, and Maintenance
    This track emphasized ways to design a natural and intentional OLE. Sessions targeted the architectural design of the space as well as planting design and establishing and maintaining native plant communities.


This Initiative Was Funded by Support From:

Iowa’s Living Roadway Trust Fund. Recognizing the value of native plants in our roadsides, the Iowa Legislature established the Living Roadway Trust Fund (LRTF) program in 1988. This annual program provides funding for Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management activities to cities, counties, and applicants with statewide impact for the vegetation along Iowa’s roadsides to be preserved, planted, and maintained to be safe, visually interesting, ecologically integrated and useful for many purposes.

Resource Enhancement and Protection Conservation Education Program (REAP CEP). Resource Enhancement and Protection Program: Invest in Iowa, our outdoors, our heritage, our people. REAP is supported by the state of Iowa, providing funding to public and private partners for natural and cultural resource projects, including water quality, wildlife habitat, soil conservation, parks, trails, historic preservation, and more.

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