Reconnecting with our outdoor environments means a social, mental, and physical boost for students and community members
In the nineteenth century, English urban planner Ebenezer Howard noted an important feature missing from urban life: gardens, or more generally, nature. Industrialization and the drive toward larger, more efficient cities had taken a toll on public outdoor spaces.
Today, many cities and villages continue to suffer from a shortage of such spaces. Fortunately, however, communities have begun to rediscover the many benefits of outdoor areas. Perhaps no public space has more potential to exemplify the social, mental, and physical benefits of connecting to nature than the school.
“The accumulation of stress from a modern, urbanized, fast-paced world erodes the connectedness between people,” said d. studio founder and design director Dina Sorensen. “The nature-focused school presents an opportunity to bridge that gap by becoming an ecological model that welcomes the community and places the child at the center.”
According to Legat Architects’ Kelsey Jordan, the benefits of the interconnectedness between indoors and outdoors, specifically the value of daylight and views, is something that school designers have understood since the nineteenth century.
Sorensen cites Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois as an early example of landscape architect Jens Jensen’s concept for a school in the park informed by the “humanizing power of parks” and the “commitment to working closely with indigenous plants and processes of the region’s prairie landscape” (tclf.org). The modern school for progressive education was the vision of Winnetka superintendent of schools Carleton Washburne, who believed in a whole child approach to teaching and learning.
Designed by the famous Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero (with Perkins, Wheeler & Will as local associates), Crow Island School opened in 1940 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The school’s child-centric design, outdoor classroom courtyards, play terraces, and the Crow Island Woods offer children and the community a variety of places to enjoy and discover together — and it’s been doing so for more than 80 years.
The integration of nature into educational settings benefits students of all ages. “When we survey school library staff,” said Legat’s Robin Randall, “we repeatedly hear that users, whether they’re early learners or grad students, gravitate toward the window seats. It’s that inherent desire to connect with the outdoors.”
The CCSD59 Early Learning Center was designed around outdoor spaces. A main courtyard at the core of the school encourages physical activity and cooperative play. Three thematic learning gardens enhance the curriculum by supporting cross-curricular lessons in science, art, and more. A post-occupancy study completed three years after the facility opened revealed the impact of the outdoor spaces.
Oakton College’s student center exemplifies a more mature illustration of interiors blending with exteriors. Not only do large glass panels exhibit the campus and a large lake, but the vibrant colors and patterns bring the outdoors inside. A prairie grass graphic decorates some of the interior glass walls, and a shadow-like pattern makes the carpet look as if trees soar above it.
When budgets are tight and vegetation is scarce, communities can still create outdoor play options for children. Metropolitan Family Services and Legat created Playful Learning installations in underserved Chicago-area neighborhoods. The research-based installations, inspired by community workshops and discussions with behavioral scientists, were painted on sidewalks and parking lots to encourage children to learn through play.
Case Study: One Facility’s Impact on Community and Student Well-Being
Dr. Traci Rose Rider, assistant professor in the School of Architecture at North Carolina State University, turned a researcher’s eye on the connection between outdoor access and levels of health. She and her team studied the impact of Southeast Raleigh Elementary School, a hybrid preK-5 school and YMCA in an under-resourced Raleigh community.
The facility, built in an area with high levels of poverty and low levels of education, features an outdoor pool, a rooftop garden, an expansive courtyard, and strong indoor/outdoor connections.
“We looked at not just how the building could support students but also how it could support families and the community at large,” said Rider.
Rider and her team surveyed teachers at South Raleigh Elementary (“case school”) and at a “match school” three miles away with closed- and open-ended questions ranging from how the facilities support community engagement and belonging to how they affect health.
The responses revealed eye-opening data. Seventy percent of case school respondents agreed that it promotes a sense of belonging, whereas only 42% said so for the matched school. Nearly double the number of the case school respondents (62% vs. 32%) agreed their school actively engages the community and makes them feel connected to the community. The Likert scale question “I believe the community feels connected to my school” resulted in the largest response gap: 62% agreement for the case school versus only 21% for the matched school.
When it came to perceived student well-being, the case school emerged as the clear victor. “The survey shows the case school is better in terms of promoting student physical health but especially mental health and social-emotional health,” said Rider.
Rider attributes these vast differences to a variety of factors such as the YMCA, a library that opens to the community, outdoor porches, a community kitchen, and gardens.
The data also reveal that access to the outdoors plays a key role in perceived community and student well-being among case school respondents. For instance, 79% of case school respondents (versus 43% of match school respondents) agreed the facility offers access to natural elements. One hundred percent of surveyed case school teachers believed it had access to natural light, compared to only 71% of matched school teachers.
“The accumulation of stress from a modern, urbanized, fast-paced world erodes the connectedness between people. The nature-focused school presents an opportunity to bridge that gap by becoming an ecological model that welcomes the community and places the child at the center.”Dina Sorensen,
Founder and Design Director, d. studio
The Power to Leap
Dina Sorensen expresses concern about the lack of walkability in many U.S. cities and its negative impact on the home-to-school commute.
“The distance kids have to travel causes them to miss out on a lot,” she said. “Imagine all the energy that could go into learning about the world that is instead going into sitting and watching the world go by. Then there are the missed physical and cognitive benefits that come with walking to school.”
This is yet another offshoot of the human/nature disconnect that Ebenezer Howard noted more than a century ago. Schools and architects now face the challenge of combating that disconnect by creating more outdoor spaces and stronger links between indoors and outdoors.
If one is to agree with developmental psychologist Edith Ackerman’s statement that “…the places in which we live-and-learn are the … springboards from where we leap,” then outdoor connections are the force that powers that leap.
The outdoors are all around us — now we just have to use them.