By Reader Staff
Students and teachers know too well the challenges of classroom learning during COVID-19. Alternative education models, inconsistent schedules and safety protocols make concentration in the classroom much more difficult. One alternative being proposed by Kaniksu Land Trust, with support from the University of Idaho, is the outdoor classroom model, which some local schools have already joined in a pilot project.
“We’re so excited about this creative opportunity to support learning outcomes in our community, both now and into the future,” said KLT Executive Director Katie Cox. “When innovative organizations like LPOSD, KLT, University of Idaho and Colorado College gather around a common objective, anything seems possible.”
Area teachers have reported outdoor learning spaces foster better concentration, fewer behavioral issues and improved attendance.
Learning outdoors does have its challenges. Weather during the school year is often cold, rainy, windy or snowy, and playgrounds and sports fields at schools offer little protection from the elements.
To address these concerns, KLT installed collapsible tent structures in fall 2020 at two local elementary schools to serve as temporary outdoor classrooms. These proved sufficient to provide a degree of protection from inclement weather as well as open air; yet, while KLT’s outreach programs and temporary shelters served their purpose, there was a desire for something more.
“We knew that these tents were not a long-term solution if we looked down the road five years,” said Cox.
KLT began discussing more sustainable models for outdoor classrooms with University of Idaho and LPOSD staff. From this idea, a partnership emerged with KLT, UI, LPOSD and Colorado College to leverage resources to accomplish more. With a basic video of what might be possible, the architecture faculty at Colorado College committed to using the Sandpoint outdoor classroom concept as a design challenge for an architecture studio course taught remotely during the fall. Colorado College students met virtually with students, teachers and administrators at Farmin-Stidwell Elementary, and proceeded to create outdoor classroom models customized to the climate and needs of local schools.
The design students earned work experience on a real-world project, while LPOSD received consultation and design work at no cost. The best part of all was that Farmin-Stidwell students were directly involved in the design process.
“So often design — specifically architecture — in an academic setting can happen in a vacuum,” said Zac Stevens, an architectural design coordinator at Colorado College.
Both designs include features that utilize the natural qualities of native and recycled materials to retain thermal energy (to maximize warmth), facilitate wonder, blend with the local environment (including the architectural design of the existing school building), obscure power poles and neighborhoods, and highlight natural features.
The students took into account local wind patterns and areas of maximum sunlight for comfort in the elements. Separate ingress and egress centers allow for safe use of the space by multiple classrooms throughout the day. The location of the outdoor classrooms was positioned so as not to detract from existing playgrounds and sports fields.
Each concept was unique from the other. One group focused their design on making the space as seamlessly integrated into the land as possible, even proposing using recycled materials as appropriate.
The second group’s design incorporated physical and mental health enhancing components such as tunnels and colorful tinted plexiglass filters to counteract the effects of gray days in the winter.
“As I look forward to our outdoor spaces, this project has brought a larger perspective on what I thought might be possible,” Farmin-Stidwell Elementary School Principal Erik Olson said.
The partner review session, which marked the end of the project for the Colorado College students, inspired additional innovative ideas. For instance, the spaces intended for classroom use during school hours could be repurposed as recreational and event spaces when school is not in session. The group also discussed how the environment itself might respond to the spaces, perhaps providing opportunities for students to observe local wildlife.
A second group of architecture studio students at Colorado College will be focusing on a similar design project later this winter, this time in partnership with Washington Elementary School in Sandpoint. The eventual dream of the partnership is to bring this vision to reality by constructing one of the student designs on school grounds.
Long after COVID-19 safety precautions have become obsolete, generations of children will continue to benefit from access to outdoor spaces for learning. The outdoor classroom may be a guarantee of that reality for all children.
To learn about the ongoing project visit kaniksu.org or follow KLT’s social media channels.
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