Nature Explore Classrooms: How Effective Are They… Really?

A team of researchers in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently set out to discover if outdoor classrooms—in particular those certified by Nature Explore and the Outdoor Classroom Project—are experiencing their intended positive learning, behavioral, health and development outcomes.

By conducting interviews and analyzing data from 11 research sites, the researchers compiled overarching themes shared by people affiliated with successful outdoor classrooms.

Being Outdoors in Natural Settings

The strongest theme that emerged centered on the importance of being outdoors in a natural setting, as opposed to being in an indoor classroom or on a traditional playground. Children in outdoor natural settings were more relaxed, happier, less impulsive, more focused, more creative, and better behaved during time spent outdoors.

Beyond behavioral benefits, nature-based classrooms allowed children to connect personally with natural cycles. They could closely observe the life cycles of plants and animals, notice the changing of seasons, and interact with natural materials as play props.

“Respondents mentioned the importance of seeing wood decay, leaves turn to humus, and seeds begin to grow. Children understood how the outdoor classroom changed from season to season and year to year.”

Finally, time in nature-based outdoor classrooms often sparked interest in learning that continued once children and their teacher(s) moved indoors. Plants and animals fascinate children, and teachers were able to capitalize on that interest to stimulate further inquiry.

Performance of Designed Spaces

As anyone who has spent time in a busy outdoor classroom might expect, the most popular areas cited were sand play, climb and crawl, messy materials and water play areas. The more materials available and the more variety of small, child-scaled settings available, the more the interviewees perceived their outdoor classroom to be successful. Noted the authors:

“A common thread running through the interviews was that outdoor classrooms provided more interest than traditional play spaces simply because they were embedded in natural settings. Nature provided far more play props and open-ended play opportunities than sites with fixed equipment set in large areas of safety surfacing.”

Maintenance and Sustainability

One of the most frequent questions asked during Nature Explore’s outdoor classroom design process is, “Is this sustainable?” Indeed, the researchers found that study participants frequently linked maintenance challenges with the sustainability of their outdoor classrooms.

Ironically, those activities and props that tend to be most popular—sticks, pinecones, branches, tree cookies and other “loose parts”—also require the most attention and replenishment. Natural structures age more quickly than artificial play structures. Plants must be weeded, watered and pruned. While children may help with some of these tasks, ultimately they require additional commitment from staff or volunteers.

Formal Recognition

Classrooms that spend the time and energy to develop spaces aligned with the principles outlined by Nature Explore or the Outdoor Classroom Project appreciate the credibility and value lent by a formal certification process. Both programs offer such a designation, based on ongoing training, updates to the classrooms, and evidence-based design guidelines. Teachers noted that these distinctions help them communicate the value of outdoor classrooms and also help support outreach and advocacy to donors and community members.

What does this mean for YOU and YOUR Nature Explore Classroom?

The researchers highlighted commonalities among the most successful outdoor classrooms. Take their suggestions and run with them in your own outdoor classroom:

1) Offer maximum choice to children regarding where to play, what to play with, and with whom to play. Plenty of natural materials resulted in the most open-ended play and the least competition for resources.

2) Feature many small spaces: Nooks, crannies and hidey-holes emerged as the most important and beloved areas of outdoor classrooms. They support children’s need for autonomy, quiet time and solitary play.

3) Feature well-defined pathways and borders, which afford experiences for children with mobility challenges as well as overall clear spatial organization of the site.

4) Remain flexible! A classroom’s needs change over time. Those outdoor classrooms that were designed for growth and change flourished. These flexible spaces also tend to respond best to natural changes.

5) Offer opportunities for engagement from stakeholders including children, educators, parents, community members, donors and neighbors.


This is the first in a series of “Roots in Research” blog posts, in which we summarize key findings of research conducted by Nature Explore staff and our colleagues at other institutions.


Source: A Post-Occupancy Study of Nature-Based Outdoor Classrooms in Early Childhood Settings Author(s): Samuel F. Dennis, Jr., Alexandra Wells and Candace Bishop
Source: Children, Youth and Environments, Vol. 24, No. 2, Greening Early Childhood Education (2014), pp. 35-52.