NCEF Resource List: Outdoor Learning Environments
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Information on design, construction, and maintenance of school grounds for outdoor learning, compiled by the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.

References to Books and Other Media

A Practical Guide to Planning, Constructing, and Using School Courtyards
(Maryland State Department of Education School Facilities Branch , Jul 24, 2012)
The Maryland Department of Education guideline for courtyard design is for use by local planning committees and architects in designing new schools and developing major renovation/addition projects. This guide also will be useful to school systems, school-based staff, and parent/community groups seeking to revitalize and make better use of existing courtyards. It includes recommendations for building and plant materials; safety and security; size, volume, and orientation; construction, accessibility, maintenance, and code compliance. The guide is illustrated with numerous color photographs, diagrams, and examples from Maryland and around the world. It documents the benefits of school courtyards, including: letting natural light and ventilation into classrooms; providing a safe, contained, outdoor area for instruction; supporting environmental education programs; and offering opportunities for creative, hands-on educational activities. p103

The Outdoor Environment: How Can Our Children Learn to Care About their Futures? Adobe PDF
(The Learning Escape, United Kingdom, Jun 2012)
Addresses the long-term benefits for the environment of learning within natural, outdoor space. Illustrate the importance that the natural environment plays in the concept of environmental citizenship and learning as a whole. Includes the results of a survey on what schools think about outdoor learning and environmental citizenship. 21p

The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing with Nature in Mind Makes Financial Sense Adobe PDF
(Terrapin Bright Green, May 2012)
Recent research in neuroscience and endocrinology clearly demonstrates that experiencing nature has significant benefits, both psychological and physiological. Bringing nature and references to nature into the built environment is the purpose of biophilic design. This white paper compiles an economic argument for biophilic design in the built environment. Includes a chapter on school environments, discussing daylighting and outdoor learning opportunities as a means to improve test scores and positively impact the stress levels of society’s youngest members. 39p

Greening the Schoolyard. Creating a Ten Year Green Schoolyard Plan for R.F. Downey Public School. Adobe PDF
Kristin Boyd and Julie Gardner
(Trent University, Ontario, Canada, Apr 2012)
The schoolyard plays an important role in the healthy development of students and is a space that can be used not only for academic learning, but also for fostering a sense of community. ‘Greening’ or building natural environments in schoolyards can enhance the overall educational experience of the child, and may even have an impact later on in their adult life. R.F. Downey Public School is dedicated to providing its students with learning opportunities outside of the classroom that incorporate the environment and, specifically, the schoolyard. Examining the current conditions of the schoolyard and making a Ten Year Green Schoolyard Plan will help to continue this process of development in a structured and organized way. Using research and input from parents, staff, students and community members, the Plan outlines what additions to the schoolyard R.F. Downey Public School will benefit from most. [Authors' abstract] 102p

Inspired to Learn; Nurturing the Naturalistic Learner. The Importance of Outdoor Learning Environments Adobe PDF
Randall, Robin
(Ball State University Greening of the Campus Conference, Mar 18, 2012)
Paper distinguishes the characteristics of the naturalistic learner; discovers what qualities in the built environment inspire this learning strategy; defines the characteristics of the “outdoor classroom”; and discusses future implications to curriculum delivery and environmental responsibility. 8p

Natural Play. An Evaluation of GfL’s Project Work with 8 Primary Schools in Central Scotland. Adobe PDF
(Grounds for Learning, United Kingdom, Jan 27, 2012)
A growing body of evidence suggests that play has a significant impact on almost every area of children’s lives. It also suggests that children have significantly fewer opportunities for non-prescriptive ‘free play’ than previous generations have enjoyed. Most children spend at least 2000 hours of their life in a school playground, probably more than in any other outdoor play setting. Despite this, many UK schools do little to create the kind of rich play environments and experiences that are important for children. In other parts of Europe, play is viewed as a crucial aspect of school life – and their playgrounds and play practice are radically different from the UK. The authors embarked on a 2-year project with 8 Scottish primary schools to explore whether some of these more ambitious European-style ideas could be adapted to a UK context and to assess what the benefits of this approach might be for children. This report summarizes the approach they took, the lessons they learned and the impact of these projects on children and schools. [Authors' abstract] 17p

Children's Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educators and Educational Settings Adobe PDF
(Children and Nature Network , 2012)
Compilation of articles and documents that synthesize the literature related to children’s contact with the outdoors and nature and, in many cases, highlight children’s contact as it relates to educational settings. Some articles investigate linkages between the design of children’s school environments, children’s outdoor and/or nature-related behavior, and their physical activity and weight. Some articles examine topics related to children’s outdoor spaces. 50p

Health Benefits to Children From Contact With the Outdoors and Nature Adobe PDF
(Children and Nature Network , 2012)
Synthesis of selected research and studies on positive health benefits of children’s play in nature. 46p

Portraiture of a Green Schoolyard: A Natural History of Children's Experiences
Keena, Kelly Elizabeth
(Dissertation, University of Colorado at Denver, 2012)
Children in the United States are losing access to nature, yet previous research suggests that time in nature provides benefits for children's healthy development. Youth withdrawal from the natural world comes at a time in history when understanding environmental issues demands a knowledge of the natural environment and human's relationship to it. Schools have an opportunity to provide access to nature, but traditionally do not. This portraiture study investigated children's experiences in a schoolyard habitat at a public, traditional school with the purpose of illuminating how the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students felt, knew about, and acted in the natural setting. The findings indicated five major benefits of a schoolyard habitat used as a classroom throughout the school day: (1) critical thinking and curiosity; (2) ownership and identity; (3) peace and calm; (4) respite and respect; and (5) adventure and imagination. Present in all of those distinct yet interrelated themes was intellect, movement, joy, trust and confidence, safety, comfort and familiarity, respect, and relationships between students and between students and teachers. The study concluded that children's physical, intellectual, and emotional selves were all actively benefiting from the time in the habitat, that a balance of free and promoted action naturally occurred for students and teachers, and that the habitat was a place of kindness and respect. The study has implications for research and practitioners in children's sense of place, schooling, environmental literacy, and portraiture as a methodology to research children's experiences of place. [Author's abstract] 312p

Therapeutic Schoolyard: Design for Children with Autism
King, Chelsey
(Kansas State University, Jan 2012)
Needs of children with autism vary from child to child, but they all can benefit from environments that are designed with awareness of challenges and characteristics associated with autism. Schoolyards commonly contain asphalt, turf, and traditional play structures that do not take into consideration the needs of children with mental or physical disabilities. However, schoolyards can be designed to provide therapeutic benefits on these children without segregating them from the larger school community. In order to understand how a schoolyard might be designed as a therapeutic environment for children with autism the challenges, needs, and common therapies for children with autism must be understood. The characteristics of therapeutic landscapes for children must be considered in addition. After examining both therapeutic landscapes and the many facets of autism, the researcher applied lessons learned to the design of a schoolyard master plan for Amanda Arnold Elementary School in Manhattan, Kansas. [Author's abstract] 142p

Developing Great Schoolyards - A Handbook for Elementary Schools. Adobe PDF
(The 21st Century School Fund, Washington, D.C. and the Prince Charitable Trusts, Oct 2011)
Handbook explores outdoor spaces such as small athletic fields, vegetable gardens, and playgrounds that provide opportunities for physical challenges, exercise, sensory and fantasy play, organized sports and upsupervised free play. Features the District of Columbia public elementary schoolyards. Explains the qualities communities and parents should look for in schoolyards. Includes an assessment tool to rate your elementary schoolyard, and advice on how to plan and develop a quality schoolyard. 31p

Creating Quality School-Age Child Care Space. Adobe PDF
Winter, Katie
(Local Initiatives Support Corporation/Community Investment Collaborative for Kids, Sep 2011)
Provides strategies for planning, designing, and equipping after-school physical environments for school-age children from kindergarten through eighth grade. After-school spaces offer an opportunity to create special crossover environments where children can learn in a low-stress setting, explore new interests, and develop meaningful relationships with friends and mentors. Covers the following topics: getting started, adjacencies; accessibility; greening your space; tips for maximizing shared space; entry/gathering area; program activities; indoor and outdoor active play; dramatic play, quiet games, and construction-based play; science; music and arts; academic support; computer/technology spaces; adult spaces; children's bathrooms; storage; maintenance; ambiance and aesthetics; equipment and furnishings; 40p

Natural Environment Elevates the Learning Experience.
French, Jim; Contag, David; Sundharam, Premnath
(LandscapeOnline, Jun 2011)
DLR Group discusses ways that innovative and flexible outdoor spaces enhance the educational and social experience. Provides examples of patios, plazas, courtyards, amphitheaters, pathways, creative water and turf play environments, outdoor learning spaces, and outdoor dining. Includes case studies and photographs.

Children Learning Outside the Classroom: From Birth to Eleven
Waite, Sue
(Sage Publications Ltd, Mar 2011)
This book explores why learning beyond the classroom is important for children, and offers practical examples of how to improve outdoor learning experiences for all children. Each chapter has case studies, thoughts on theory, points for practice and summaries to help readers digest the most important information. 264p.

Design Workbook.
(Boston Schoolyard Initiative, 2011)
Provides ideas, guidance and tools for making decisions on potential elements in schoolyards and outdoor classrooms. The workbook has been created with consideration for safety, budget, sustainability, maintenance, sense of place, functionality and inclusion of natural and man-made materials. Includes a recommended plant list, illustrations of best practices, and numerous checklists.

Planning Workbook.
(Boston Schoolyard Initiative, 2011)
Designed for use during the Boston Schoolyard Initiative schoolyard and outdoor classroom planning phase, and contains information, worksheets and templates to support the work of the schoolyard committee, including meeting agendas, flyer templates and more. The workbook is a resource for engaging the schoolyard community in the schoolyard planning process.

Moving the Classroom Outdoors. Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning in Action.
Broda, Herbert W.
(Stenhouse Publishers, 2011)
Designed to provide teachers and administrators with a range of practical suggestions for making the schoolyard a varied and viable learning resource, this presents examples of how urban, suburban, and rural schools have enhanced the school site as a teaching tool. Includes ideas for seating, signage, planting considerations, teaching/meeting areas, outdoor classroom management, pathways, equipment storage, raised gardens, and more. The book also provides an outdoor activity sampler, information on incorporating technology into the outdoor learning experience, and a chapter on the unique concerns of urban schools.

References to Journal Articles

A Genius Idea
EDC Magazine; May 24, 2012
Description and photos of the outdoor play and learn area at All Saints School in Norwalk, Connecticut that promotes play and an understanding of the physical sciences and energy conservation. The environmental activities within the playground are dovetailing with a school STEM curriculum being taught in the classroom.

School Design and Students’ Relationships with the Natural World
Indira Dutt
Children, Youth and Environments; v22 n1 , p198-226 ; Spring 2012
This qualitative study is an exploration of intermediate students’ experience of the natural world as mediated by indoor/outdoor elements. The fieldwork for this project was conducted in the spring of 2009 at Bowen Island Community School in British Columbia. The research includes data collected from two focus groups, semi- structured interviews, photographs and fieldnotes. Using thematic analysis, the research found that indoor/outdoor interfaces and the presence of both gardens and forest as play environments provided students with a sense of freedom, joy, social cohesiveness and aesthetic pleasure in relation to their physical learning environment. Results are discussed in terms of future school design and other relevant student impacts. [Author's abstract]

Green School Grounds: A Collaborative Development and Research Project in Malmö, Sweden
Märit Jansson and Fredrika Mårtensson
Children, Youth and Environments; v22 n1 , p260-269 ; Spring 2012
School ground greening projects may result in a multitude of benefits for pupils, schools and entire communities. This field report describes a project called “Green school grounds” in Malmö, Sweden and an interdisciplinary research project investigating vegetation establishment and management as well as the effects of the project for children. The project consulted researchers and involved teachers and children at the schools during the process of planning and construction. This field report presents the first results from a pretest evaluation of school ground activity at two schools, part of a larger intervention study. [Authors' abstract]

German Forest Kindergartens: Healthy Childcare under the Leafy Canopy
Silvia D. Schäffer and Thomas Kistemann
Children, Youth and Environments; v22 n1 , p270-279 ; Spring 2012
A forest kindergarten is a special form of daycare, with walks, free play and environmental education in the forest on the daily schedule. Attending a forest kindergarten can contribute to children’s healthy development and is associated with physical activity, concentration, mental health, linguistic development and the prevention of infections. Drawing from systematic observations of 12 German forest kindergartens, this report presents an insight into their daily routines, their surrounding landscape and other essential characteristics. [Authors' abstract]

Learning by Experience
Kollie, Ellen
School Planning and Management; , p60-63 ; Jan 2012
Experts describe what needs to be considered when designing outdoor learning spaces to ensure that they are useful: ownership, maintenance, community use, shade, storage and connection, and variety. Includes a discussion of the benefits of play for cognitive thinking.

Room to Grow.
Hough, Mark
Landscape Architecture; v101 n8 , p114-115,118,120,122 ; Aug 2011
Uses example of the botanic garden at University of Chicago to cite other examples of arboretums and gardens included in college and university campuses.

An Assessment of Schoolyard Renovation Strategies to Encourage Children's Physical Activity
Peter Anthamatten, Lois Brink, Sarah Lampe, Emily Greenwood, Beverly Kingston and Claudio Nigg
International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity; Apr 2011
Children in poor and minority neighborhoods often lack adequate environmental support for healthy physical development and community interventions designed to improve physical activity resources serve as an important approach to addressing obesity. In Denver, the Learning Landscapes (LL) program has constructed over 98 culturally-tailored schoolyard play spaces at elementary schools with the goal to encourage utilization of play spaces and physical activity. In spite of enthusiasm about such projects to improve urban environments, little work has evaluated their impact or success in achieving their stated objectives. This study evaluates the impacts of LL construction and recency of renovation on schoolyard utilization and the physical activity rates of children, both during and outside of school, using an observational study design.

Investigating Children’s Physical Activity and Play in Green School Grounds: Reflections on Methods and Initial Results from Pilot Work
Dyment, Janet E.; Reid, Alan D.
Children, Youth and Environments; v28 n1 ; Winter 2011
This paper discusses five data collection methods that have been used as part of a pilot study investigating the relationship between school ground design, physical activity, and quality of play. Five simple procedures were tested at a Canadian school with green school grounds. The paper describes the purpose and features of each method, presents illustrative material, reflects on contexts for and strengths and weaknesses of the data collection methods, and offers recommendations for future research.

How Does Your Garden Grow?
Nissel, Barbara
American School Board Journal; v198 n1 , p24-27 ; Jan 2011
Profiles the school garden of Pennsylvania's Great Valley School District. With the help of students and families, the large garden is planted in the Spring and tended over the Summer. Produce harvested in the Summer is frozen by food service staff to be used in the cafeterias. The educational benefits of learning about agriculture and healthy food are cited, as are savings on food expenditures.

Roofing: A Growth Opportunity.
Vorley, Wade
Maintenance Solutions; v19 n1 , p11,12,14 ; Jan 2011
Describes challenges and benefits of vegetative roofs and summarizes the challenges and considerations for installation and maintenance.



Due to lack of funding, the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities is currently available only as an archived site. As of September 1, 2012 no new content will be added or updates made. We regret the need to take such steps, but should funding become available, we look forward to reinvigorating NCEF and providing this valuable resource to the educational facilities community.

If you have questions or are an organization or company wishing to support the continued operation of this industry recognized resource please contact Institute President Henry Green (, 202-289-7800).