Spruce-Up Your Outdoor Classroom
Kara Ficke, Nature Explore Resource Development Manager, CPSI Kelsey Moline, Nature Explore Classroom Designer
For many, it has been a busy school year and outdoor classrooms have been loved dearly by children, educators and families throughout the fall, winter and spring months. Summer is a great time to replenish your classroom for the upcoming school year, so let’s roll up our sleeves and check some maintenance to-do’s off the list!
Before you get started, quickly assess your outdoor classroom and jot down the areas that will need attention. This will help as you plan work days. We recommend partnering with local civic and youth groups, as well as families – getting community involved to support children’s connection with nature is simply awesome.
Nourishing and Encouraging Plant Growth
- Watering – If your school is not in session over the summer months, be sure to work with your families, staff, or your community to come up with a watering schedule to maintain your plantings.
- Weeding – Sometimes weeding seems endless, but a little here and there will make a big difference. Be sure to maintain a 2” mulch depth around plantings to detour those pesky weeds.
- Mulching – Mulching has many benefits and a 2” depth around plants can support the health of your vegetation.
- Planting and Replanting – Throughout the year, some plantings may not have survived and replanting may be necessary. Welcome the new school year by adding child-sized bushes, tall-growing grasses and plant clusters to the outdoor classroom. This will not only beautify the space, but will help define play areas, create areas for children to “hide” (but of course still be visible), attract butterfly and interesting insects, and add a tremendous amount of color, texture and smell to space.
Care of Wooden Furnishings
- Inspection – Make sure all bolts are tight and that natural cracking is not resulting in splintering. If splintering is present, sand the item smooth.
- Sanding and Sealing – At least once a year, all wooden furnishings like tables, planter boxes, storage units and art panels need to be sanded and sealed with a wood protector or water sealant that is appropriate for your particular climate.
- Replacement – Consistent care of wood items will extend their life; however, over time, natural wood products will eventually need to be replaced. If the item appears unrepairable, it may be time to recycle and replace.
- Level Furnishings – The ground often settles throughout the year and your Creativity Tables, Discovery Tables, etc. may be a little off balance. Make sure all tables are standing on a flat and level surface
- Safety Surfacing – Check that the depth of safety surfacing around any climbing features is adequate and meets fall zone safety recommendations. *Refer to S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and ASTM International F1292 guidelines for safety standards and recommendations
- Concrete Footings – Over time, concrete footings may become exposed. Cover the exposed footings with soil, mulch or Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF).
- Hardware – Inspect outdoor furnishings to make sure all hardware is tight and secure. Screws and bolts should be countersunk, or installed so they don’t expose more than two threads beyond the end of the nut.
Pathways and Flooring
- Resurfacing – Any “loose fill” surfacing such as mulch, EWF, or crushed stone may need to be raked or replenished, as materials compact.
- Inventory – take inventory of the natural play items and loose parts used in each area of the outdoor classroom. Over the course of the school year, some items may have disappeared or others may now appear to be “well-loved”. Make a list of items that need to be replaced.
- Replenishment – Replenishment of loose parts may be necessary. Assess your inventory list and order items in time for the school year. For a variety of field-tested loose parts, visit our Natural Products page . Your local forester, arborist, Tree City USA or Keep America Beautiful (KAB) affiliate may be able to help replenish natural materials such as pinecones, wood chips, or logs at a low cost.
If you have not yet added Keeping it Growing: Sustaining Your Outdoor Classroom to your references, we would highly recommend it. The sustainability indicators outlined in this book will keep your outdoor classroom thriving and your hard work supported. How has your site worked with families and community members to help maintain your outdoor classroom? Comment below to share with our growing network!