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raising the bar in outdoor learning environments

Meade Mitchell

As students and teachers return to classrooms amidst the continued uncertainty of COVID-19, a middle school in Houston is changing the way they view traditional learning.

According to Outdoor Classroom Day, 88% of teachers say that children are more engaged in learning when taking lessons outdoors. Outdoor learning environments can also promote increased physical activity, socioemotional health, engagement with learning and connectedness to nature so it’s no surprise when River Oaks Baptist School was looking to design a new building, they placed a heavy emphasis on these spaces and changing the way kids learn throughout middle school.

The building, designed by Jackson & Ryan Architects, features four dynamic roof decks, creating individual outdoor space for fifth, sixth, seventh an eighth grade levels. As schools navigated their ways through the COVID-19 pandemic, the River Oaks Baptist School administration observed the students had really enjoyed the switch to outdoor spaces and were energized by the outdoor environments. They decided to dial up the focus on these spaces even more by switching from a conventional lecture-based academic approach to classrooms that focused on more creative development. By making this shift, the indoor spaces are able to function as collaboration space with pin up walls that then spill out onto the outdoor makerspaces.

During the discovery process, members of the design team met with representatives from each grade level to talk through and understand each user group’s unique and individual needs. The engagement process involved students and student representatives that reported on what they would like to see in their outdoor spaces. Measure was also taken for how each grade interreacts with their environment and uses their social time.

Each roof deck environment is tailored to accommodate project-based learning while also creating a distinct identity to build pride and ownership of each grade level. Material and form selection – including garden spaces for science classes with specific plant palettes – were also based on each grade level’s specific curriculum and recognize the priorities of each age group. The fifth-grade level begins with a play environment and advances to become a socializing space on the eighth-grade level. The decks are also organized into flexible rooms to accommodate large numbers of students but also provide smaller introspective spaces for prayer and reflection. Additionally, the use of shade structures creates additional makerspace areas for students to work on projects and assignments.

The outdoor learning environment approach has been so successful that the school has increased enrollment significantly and is now in the process of creating a master plan for their lower-level school with the same attention to detail as it relates to Kindergarten through fourth grade. For the younger students, their spaces with focus on different types of play such as unstructured and nature play, quiet areas to serve as reading nooks as well as outdoor dining.