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the completed Manor College outdoor classroom

Guest Blog: Designing an Outdoor Classroom

Outdoor learning isn’t a new new concept: outdoor classrooms may have become increasingly trendy in recent years, but California has an “environmental education” movement dating back to the 1960s, while Waldkindergärten (“forest kindergartens”) started cropping up in Europe as early as the 1950s.  With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, historians and journalists pointed out that open-air schools helped curtail the transmission of tuberculosis and other contagious diseases in the early 1900s, and may prove useful in the present crisis.

Last year, Manor College enlisted our help in creating a new outdoor classroom for the benefit of their students and faculty.  In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the design considerations that we encountered on this project.

Pop-Up or Permanent?

Some higher education institutions pivoted quickly to outdoor learning by employing temporary solutions – for example, UC Davis and the University of Virginia both utilized tents.  Other colleges, such as Saint Michael’s in Vermont, offer degree programs in environmental science, agriculture, and similar fields and have been fostering outdoor learning environments for years (Saint Michael’s established their Teaching Gardens in 2004).  How long you envision using your outdoor classroom will dictate the permanence of its components.  Our client had begun exploring outdoor learning spaces some years ago, including the addition of a gazebo in 2017, so our design and construction needed to stand up to long-term use.

Manor College's outdoor classroom gazebo
Manor College added this gazebo to the campus in 2017 but it was inefficient for its purpose. This is the site of the new outdoor classroom.

Purpose-Driven Features

Before jumping on the outdoor classroom bandwagon, carefully consider its intended purpose.  Will it be primarily used for small seminars, or need to accommodate larger groups?  Are you looking to construct something to host classes outside only when the forecast is cooperative, or do you need to factor weather-proofing elements (ex. overhead shelter) into the design?  Is this a space where lectures will be given, or does it need to be large enough to hold dance troupes, orchestras, or other performing arts ensembles?  Manor College opted for a simple “theatre in the round” approach, with a central circle surrounded by three tiers of seating, making it a multi-purpose space suitable for a number of uses.

close-up of hardscaped outdoor classroom at Manor College
The terraced seating was a natural fit with the gentle slope of the location.

Location, Location, Location

Choosing the right spot for your outdoor learning space is an important decision.  Tucking it into a quiet corner of the campus may seem ideal to reduce distraction, but putting it too out-of-the-way may deter faculty from holding classes there.  On the other hand, a location next to a high-traffic road, sports facility, or other bustling area may introduce too many distractions for effective learning.  Be sure to consider accessibility for all potential users of the space: a classroom that seamlessly facilitates wheelchairs, ASL translators, and other potential aids will make for a more welcoming experience.  When possible, it’s also nice to “go with the flow” of the surrounding landscape instead of against it.

The new outdoor classroom at Manor College is built into the side of a small hill; the terraced seating blends seamlessly into the surrounding slope.  Some attractive landscaping boulders and perennial shrubs provide a nice natural border for the space.  A smooth paved path connects the classroom to surrounding walkways, helping ensure its accessibility by all faculty and student body members.

hardscaped outdoor classroom, with Manor College banner in foreground
Planting progress: some attractive shrubs provide a lovely border to the new classroom.

Parting Thoughts

With so much of modern life bound to technology and various screens, it feels important as ever to maintain some connection to the natural world surrounding us.  Countless studies and newspaper articles demonstrate that outdoor education provides a variety of benefits, including more engaged students, higher academic achievement, and fewer absences.  While the sky’s the limit regarding the types of outdoor furniture and equipment you can include in such a space, our Manor College project shows that a relatively straightforward but thoughtfully designed structure can be highly effective.  If you have additional questions before getting started on your own outdoor classroom, don’t hesitate to contact Woodward Landscape Supply or us – we’re here to help! 

Author Info

For over 40 years, Souder Brothers Construction has provided a full range of services for commercial and high-end residential construction projects. Based in Horsham, PA we serve customers throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. Visit our project galleries for examples of our work!

Winterized Patio in Chester County PA

A Simple Guide to Patio Planning: Winterizing – Guest Post

After careful planning, selecting a professional, watching the installation, and enjoying your new outdoor living environment,  the season changes and it is time to move indoors. So,

What about Winter?

Patios do require seasonal maintenance and caring for them in wintertime will ensure yet another full year of relaxing moments outdoors. Here’s a checklist for your own outdoor space, which you should ideally tick off well before the year’s first snowfall:

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Patio Supplies in Chester County PA

A Simple Guide to Patio Planning: Patio Safety – Guest Post

Outdoor living is a major trend and it’s here to stay. You read my article “A Simple Guide to Patio Planning” so you’ve made all the important decisions, identified a trustworthy professional to help you with the project, and are ready to take this patio show on the road. What else should you be aware of?

Safety First

Extra amenities and fire hazards

Having an open grill, a furnace, some lighting, and plants in or around your patio sounds great – and kudos to you if you can afford them. However, it’s extremely important to note that the lighting should be low voltage and very well insulated, for outdoor use. Furthermore, any sort of cooking equipment that involves an open fire should ideally be placed outside the patio, with all the proper safety measures for ventilation in place. Also, make sure the base of the patio is level, to avoid wobbly chairs and tables.

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large pile of topsoil

All About Topsoil


Let’s talk about topsoil.

It’s one of the simpler landscaping supplies – essentially just dirt – but like anything you use to improve your property, it works best when you have the right information.

So, consider this blog post an introductory course to topsoil: what it is, how it’s different from similar materials like compost, and how to use it.

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outdoor patio with bar and fire pit

A Simple Guide to Patio Planning – Guest Post

Word on the street – or, better said, in the great outdoors – is that outdoor living is a major trend and it’s here to stay. You see it in camper van remodels, the revival of camping and hiking—and, of course, in the increased number of patios popping up left and right., in gardens all over the country.

The beauty of a patio is many-splendored, as this relatively low-cost and low-maintenance upgrade to your property can serve a great number of purposes. It can be a decorative addition, with a beautiful structure and hanging plants all over it. It can stand as the new family gathering space for fun-filled board game nights outside or cozy summer lunches. Last, but not least, it allows you to enjoy time outside, either socializing or reading, without being exposed to the scorching sun and its harmful UV rays.

That said, where do you start, when you’ve already decided you want a patio? We’ve put together a quick list of tips and tricks, selected from the experts, and here’s what they have to say about your soon-to-be favorite outdoor hangout.

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