Are Outdoor Learning Environments the Next Collaborative Commons Spaces?

The education landscape is changing—quickly, dramatically, and quite possibly forever. Enrollment, funding sources, physical infrastructure, and classroom design are all in flux, making it difficult to plan for the short- and long-term.

In response to global and local dynamics, educators are reimagining traditional and modern learning environments to be more conducive to evolving programs, user needs, and instructional delivery methods.

The use of collaborative commons spaces in education facilities is not a new concept; however, these collaborative spaces traditionally mostly existed within the built environment (inside).

Southeast Raleigh YMCA / Elementary School, Raleigh, North Carolina

Where it Started

Historically, access to the outdoors has been strictly regimented to periods of time in the school day dedicated to physical activity. Traditional school spaces found outside were playgrounds, lawn area and a few possible paved play areas with tetherball, hopscotch, 4-square, etc… Recess was the reward of the day – the opportunity to go outside, enjoy sunlight, touch grass, run, socialize, raise voices – all the freedoms enjoyed in youth and a welcome release from the regimented school day.

Fuquay-Varina High School, Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina
Willow Spring High School, Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina

From Underused to Prioritized

While outdoor learning spaces have always been beneficial—unfortunately, they are often eliminated from project plans due to limited resources. More recently, a prioritization for outdoor learning environments has been accelerated by the pandemic and is predicted to remain highly desired post.

Isabella Bird Community School, Denver, Colorado

Despite Positive Impact on Students and Staff

Trends in recreation tell us that children have an innate desire to connect with nature and receive multiple physical and mental benefits when challenged through discovery play.

The ability to choose how they want to respond to their environment can powerfully impact young people, promoting more active engagement into later years. We also understand the benefits of providing the same connections to the natural environment in educational settings.

Benefits of Outdoor Learning Environments

Outdoor learning environments provide numerous advantages that can increase physical health, performance and productivity for students and staff alike.

  • The design of outdoor spaces extends the footprint of the learning environment while supporting multiple learning modalities for a lower cost than indoor classrooms.
  • Outdoor learning spaces can provide the flexibility and social distancing needed for the education system during a pandemic and for future events.
  • These spaces promote awareness of the environment, in addition to providing mental stimulation.
  • Their location in nature provides for the natural elements that are often attempted to be mimicked inside a building, at a premium cost (natural ventilation, access to daylight).
  • Being outdoors facilitates opportunities for more hands-on curriculum that can accommodate multiple learning modalities.
  • Outdoor learning could provide equitable, high quality learning experiences for all students, to help overcome inequalities that might exist within the school system.
Mulberry Fields Park, Zionsville, IN

Design Principals to Consider

There are several factors that need to be considered when identifying and designing outdoor spaces to serve as learning environments.

Southeast Raleigh YMCA & Elementary School, Raleigh, NC


The climate of each system’s region will profoundly impact the duration of practical outdoor learning and what kind of infrastructure is needed for human comfort. The design decisions should reflect the microclimate of each school site and each space identified on that site relative to how to best plan for solar exposure, wind, rain, snow, and heat. This could include utilizing existing site features such as seating for student capacity or existing trees for shade.

St. Timothy’s Multipurpose Field & Play Space, Raleigh, NC


Determining the potential for distractions and providing strategic solutions to overcome them is needed for efficient outdoor learning. Both the acoustic quality of the space and undesirable views or smells should be identified as opportunities to provide buffering elements such as fencing, walls, plantings, white noise systems, or other features to improve the space’s quality and reduce distractions interruptions.

Southeast Raleigh YMCA & Elementary School, Raleigh, NC


These spaces also need to be universally accessible and designed to meet the needs of all people. Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment to be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of age, size, ability, or disability. There are several factors that need to be considered when identifying and designing outdoor spaces to serve as learning environments.

Felton Grove High School, Apex, NC


The topography of a site should also be considered when finding ways to integrate outdoor learning environments. In this high school, to negotiate some steep grade change across the site, the classroom tower is set into the grade, with the main dining and commons area located on the middle floor. This area opens onto a dining plaza that steps down the site in a series of tiered seating and ramps to a grassy courtyard below. Tiered seating accommodates different groups, trees offer shade and connect with nature, while flanking classroom towers buffer surroundings and integrate classrooms with the landscape.

Southeast Raleigh YMCA & Elementary School, Raleigh, NC


Security is of utmost concern on a school campus. The need to provide a safe space with limited general access needs to be balanced with a desire to have open views and allow for movement within the space and connectivity to the surrounding campus.


Covid Considerations

The National Council on School Facilities and Cooperative Strategies LLC estimate that schools across the country will only be able to fit approx. 60% of their enrolled students within indoor classrooms with required social distancing measures in place.

Can pre-pandemic ventilation systems support filtering current and future viruses? A solution to both of these issues would be capitalizing on the use of outdoor spaces on existing school sites to reduce the burden of both physical space and air quality on indoor environments.

Opportunities Amidst Crisis

Schools can enhance, acquire, or better utilize outdoor space to create both unique learning environments and provide the flexibility needed to respond to crises such as these. Schools can both preserve and activate previously underutilized space with new opportunities for classrooms, gardens and natural play experiences. By thoughtful planning targeted to take advantage of the outdoor environments on existing school sites, protocols for physical distancing and air quality could be met to safely accommodate a larger student capacity to reduce the dependence on virtual learning.

Natural Progression

As schools look to support learning and education in nonconventional ways, the benefits of outdoor learning environments provide a natural progression of the collaborative commons space.

Southeast Raleigh YMCA / Elementary School, Raleigh, North Carolina

Need Help Reimagining your Learning Environments for the Future?

Our K12 practice is at the forefront of trends in education design. From outdoor learning to flexible uses, we shape contemporary spaces that enhance learning. Our design approach pairs functionality and creativity, to deliver highly sustainable architecture for clients, nationwide.

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