In designing children’s outdoor environments the goal is to use the landscape and nature as much as possible. It is desirable to integrate the outdoor and indoor classroom with one sense of place and identity so the transition is seamless.

A design that allows children to go back and forth encourages children to experiment with autonomy from adults, both physically and symbolically. The outdoor space becomes part of the classroom, rather than a retreat from the classroom. Many teachers are choosing to run indoor/outdoor programs and free snack times to enable and enhance the long stretches of uninterrupted play times.

The outdoor classroom should be made of natural materials such as logs, stumps and boulders and the landscape created in natural ways with berms and mounds. The simplest way to include natural play elements in the outdoor classroom is by adding natural parts like stones, logs, sand, trees and water or an organic garden. It will encourage self directed exploration and discovery.

You can build a trench in the sand and dirt or a rock dam over a stream, but there’s not much you can do to a jungle gym except climb, hang, or fall off. Natural elements provide for open-ended play that emphasizes unstructured creative exploration with diverse materials. The complexity and variety nature offers invites longer and more complex play. Because of their interactive properties, plants stimulate discovery, dramatic pretend play, and imagination.

Teacher training and many other resources are available for you to get started on your outdoor classroom and lots of great books to help too.

Components of an Outdoor Classroom:

Sand and water play area – A sand pit offers the wild play opportunities of the beach. If you must cover it think about using light fabric that lets air and water through and is easy to cover and recover. Sand is best if it can be mixed with water.

Water is one of the greatest play and experimentation elements for young children. Create opportunities for water play and discovery. Introduce water to the sand area. It can be as simple as adding a hose line to the sand area. Simple drainage underneath the sand will keep water from pooling up. Use hoses, water tables, tubs, sprinklers, gutters, spray bottles, and ice!

Vegetation – Include trees, bushes, flowers, grasses and vines. Start an organic garden. Well-arranged plants for children can become playhouses, hideouts, castles, and far-off places. Group your plantings to form small rooms, hidey nooks, hollows, and secret spaces. Plantings become wildlife habitats and say “welcome” to birds, chipmunks, butterflies and fuzzy caterpillars. Herb gardens are a good first step. Protect the trees! An existing mature tree, or a gentle hill can be the area’s best natural feature.

Structures – Create a lean-to, a playhouse, a grotto, a platform, a playhouse, a mini tree house, or a slide embedded in a grassy berm. Provide equipment and materials that can be changed. Add feeders, birdbaths and birdhouses. The birds will thank you and build nests, lay eggs and have babies. Create a mosaic or mural. Make a material wish list.

Sound exploration: add metal, wood and bamboo chimes. Hide tiny bells in bushes and trees that children interact with. Install PVC talk tubes so children can throw their voices to other parts of the play yard. Build giant “thunder drums” out of steel or plastic barrels. Give children sound exploration opportunities that ring and resonate deeply in the body and sound harmonious to the ear. Sound can be an enchanting creator of moods and melodies. Provide a thunder drum, kettledrum, rainmaker, chimes, and a quiet area.

Topography of a play area is important. Bumps, berms, and hills help to create spaces and plateaus to climb to, lookout from and roll down. Build decks on top. Beams, logs and stumps create places to jump from 24 to 36 inches high.

Textures create different moods and a different feel. Children use their bodies in different ways when traveling over different types of materials. Create a secret path from stepping stones, wood chips, bricks, cobble stones, flagstones, log sections, colored gravel, or concrete-molded pavers with fun items stuck into them. Make a “wobbly walk”. Tricycle tracks are extremely important for young children.

Miscellaneous materials for an outdoor classroom:  Storage bins, benches, cages, boxes, shelves, hooks, crates, sacks, tricycles, wagons, wheelbarrows, balls, bags, jump ropes, buckets, shovels, sifters, bicycle tires, tubes, tubs, easels, chalk, paint brushes, cartons, blocks, crates planks, sawhorses, rope, duct tape, poles with pulleys and clotheslines, magnifying glasses, compass, measuring tape, jars, rain gauges, food coloring, baking soda, paint, beanbags, balls, stones, blocks, parachutes, shovels, brooms, sand sifters, turkey basters, milk crates, PVC pipes, bells, traffic cones, hoops, cups, bowls, tubs, plastic vases, wood tools, washboards, butterfly nets. Use the Consumer Product Safety Commission Guidelines

  1. Site Analysis for the Garden Classroom

Read the landscape and develop a garden design that responds to the landscape.  An ecological design strives for a balance between the site’s natural history, it’s ecological setting, and human interaction with the area. The collective vision of what the sight can become will transform the school grounds from the ordinary to the extraordinary. 

Note existing features: measurements, drainage patterns, existing erosion, amount of sun the area receives (must have 6-8 hours of full sun ), location, distance and availability of water, and soil analysis.  Make sure there are no underground electricity, sewer, or water lines. Secure the site with fencing or block any views such as a dumpster or busy road. Does the garden need to be handicap accessible?

Put together a summary of the site conditions for the space, light, and soil available on the sight and find plants with matching requirements. If you are building raised beds then I suggest that you not make them more than 3-4 feet wide so that children can reach plants. 

  1. Purpose of the Garden

The outdoor classroom is an interactive opportunity for students and adults to learn how math, history, literature, art and music are influenced by nature and our natural resources. Who will the garden serve? What kind of garden or gardens do you want to build?


  • Herb Garden           
  • Butterfly Garden   
  • Tree Garden          
  • Salad Garden
  • Root Garden                    
  • Rain Garden                   
  • Flower Garden        
  • Rock Garden
  • Dye Garden                     
  • Art Garden                     
  • History Garden        
  • Zoo Garden
  • Sculpture Garden             
  • Ethnic Garden               
  • Clock garden          
  • Vegetable Garden 
  1. Safety of the children means considering access to water, shade for gathering, the enclosure of the garden, a design for optimal sensory experiences, maintenance of the garden and clear boundaries and pathways. Have the group come up with a set of ground rules. Crowding leads to conflict. Paths should be at least 2 feet wide or 5 feet for handicap accessibility. Children should be able to touch anything in the garden. Chose materials wisely and plan for all seasons. Signs should be consistent with the purpose of the garden and the outdoor classroom activities. You may want to include a place for children to eat such as a shaded picnic area.
  2. The Participatory Process means inviting anyone who might have an interest in the school grounds to give input and participate such as teachers, caretakers, parents, principal, administrators, neighbors and most important students.Reach out to the community and develop partners for materials and support. Student involvement in the initial design and future upkeep are essential to the success of the project. The collective vision of the group will determine the agenda and carry the agenda out. Create a physical plan, a to-do list, a time line and a list of needs.

Suggested Committees needed:

  1. Funding and resource development
  2. Youth activities and action projects
  3. Construction
  4. Public relations
  5. Connect to the Curriculum and the school grounds can provide a wealth of learning opportunities. Integrate the development, monitoring, and maintenance of the grounds with what happens in the classroom. The opportunities for engaging students are broad and cross the full range of subject areas. Design activity sites where children can investigate. Plant so that the cycle of life becomes transparent to students. Some schools have taken advantage of this by creating a full time school garden teaching position. A responsive and adaptable design, broad based participation and opportunities to connect to the curriculum and the broader community are the keys to a successful and sustainable school ground initiative.
  6. Recognize People’s Efforts and expressing appreciation for their support is very important. 

Elements of a Sustainable Landscape are:

  • Plants that have low water requirements
  • Native plants
  • Ground areas are not hard to mow
  • Healthy soil means healthy plants
  • Ground cover or mulch to manage erosion, soil temperature, evaporation, and weeds
  • Use of organic methods to prevent and reduce pest problems
  1. Some Components of an Outdoor Classroom:

 Weather Station      Compost Bin        Worm Bin          Labyrinth

Sundial      Shaded gathering area        Rain Barrel      Recycle Bin

Weaving Loom      Trails     Tool Shed      Bamboo teepee for beans

Willow Hut       Activity Centers      Fire Pit       Outdoor kitchen facilities.

Fossil mound     Cereal Maze       Arbors      Solar Fountain

Bird Baths        Bird Feeders     Sculpture Wall

Please visit Life lab on the web to see a great program at work and also for support the Cornell University site “Garden Mosaics” and the Brooklyn Children’s Garden are great programs and garden references.

Suggestions for a Zoo Garden:

butterfly bush    Catnip     butterfly tree    Chameleon plant     turtlehead          Hens and chicks      Elephant Ears     Bear’s Breach     Kangaroo Paw            Leopard Flower    Tiger Lily    Lion’s Tail    Ostrich Fern    Snakeshead          Snapdragon      Stickey Monkey     Lambs ear    Unicorn grass   Cattails       Horsetail       Duckweed    Snake plant    Spider Lily   Shrimp plant