In response to the health crisis, they set up schools on abandoned ferries; classes were held on rooftops and in nearby forests.1

The above quote is not a description of contemporary educational spaces in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, this is a description of outdoor learning environments established in response to the early 20th century tuberculosis crisis. At the time, there were 65 such outdoor classrooms established as alternative teaching and learning environments.2 However, once the health crisis subsided, learning returned indoors.

This paper will briefly trace the intermittent history of the design and use outdoor classrooms in PK-12 educational settings, including an examination of the nascent but growing movement for contemporary outdoor learning environments, culminating in a case study project focusing on the design and construction of a series of modest outdoor educational installations for a California elementary school, with the aspiration that these spaces might inspire outside teaching and learning. A group of advanced architecture students, with input from the children clients and under the supervision of a faculty advisor who is a licensed architect, transformed a series of empty spaces at a local elementary school into interactive outdoor learning environments. As a design-build exercise, these hands-on projects took these students out of the traditional studio and into an interdisciplinary professional experience.

While these case studies were originally inspired to function as spaces for environmental learning, there is a growing interest in outdoor learning environments in order to provide a viable alternative to the current challenges with indoor learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Particularly during this pandemic, marginalized students are more likely to be further disadvantaged due to unequal access to online education as well as additional economic and social stressors on top of home confinement, all of which further increases the learning gap.3 Access to outdoor learning environments could provide one answer to the current challenges of accommodating in-person learning.

Taking advantage of the restorative and calming potential of the natural environment, outdoor classrooms could provide an alternative pedagogical setting to assist with the return to in-person learning while also providing an opportunity for designers to critically re-examine generic learning environments.