Even the best projects can always be improved and enhanced. Explore this alphabetical listing of suggested features to encourage students, staff and visitors to explore, utilize, enjoy and help sustain your project! Check out engaging features like creative paths, “Little Free Library” storage boxes, art, natural seating and play items, and so much more!
Geology Study Area: Develop an area where samples of local rocks are kept to learn about local geology. The samples should be large so that they are not removed, or stored when not in use.
Little Free Library: Build or buy a storage case for books, guides, magnifying glasses, etc.
Music: Musical items – either purchased or naturally constructed – truly enrich outdoor areas for children, like sensory gardens and nature play areas. Outdoor musical instruments can be purchased from sources such as Free Notes Harmony Park and Earthplay as well as other sellers. For a lower cost, hands-on approach, there are many do-it-yourself outdoor instruments, such as bamboo “chimes” and Boom Drums, and random items (pots, pans, etc) can be always be clipped to fences with carabiners or otherwise hung or attached to experiment with different sounds. Visit Pinterest for great ideas and instructions!
Nature Play: Install components to encourage nature play & discovery
Outdoor Classroom: Install features to support outdoor instruction & learning
Plants in the Schoolyard: Learn how to choose and use plants to create exciting features for human and wildlife visitors!
- Create an outdoor seating area for classes; it can be as simple as upside-down buckets, tree stumps, benches (purchased or constructed), outdoor mats or picnic tables. Place in an area that is easy to access from the school building. Hillsides are a good place for a small amphitheater. Check out Pinterest and Instructables for do-it-yourself seating instructions!
- Site Furniture (Boston Schoolyard Initiative Schoolyard Design Guide)
- Seating & Gathering Area (BSI Outdoor Classroom Design Guide)
- Sample Outdoor Bench Design (USFWS Schoolyard Habitat Guide)
Sensory Gardens: Sensory gardens are gardens filled with plants and features that provide visitors the opportunity to explore with all five senses. They are particularly engaging for developmentally challenged children and young children, although everyone can delight in a sensory garden! Aim to plant native plants and herbs, and avoid invasive species that can unintentionally spread into natural areas. Use containers to provide varying heights and make sure paths through the garden are accessible. Don’t limit your garden to plants alone: add musical instruments, wind chimes, tactile items, habitat features and more. Pinterest is an excellent source for sensory garden ideas.
- Sensory Gardens: Natural Learning Initiative
- Avoid Invasive Species
- Chesapeake Region Native Plants
- Install Habitat Features for Wildlife
Shade: No one wants to sit in the glaring sun for an extended period of time. Plant shade trees throughout the site especially near the playground. Arbors (built or purchased) also provide shade. Research shade structures and talk with your school facilities staff about potential options. Make use of existing shade by placing seating (logs, rocks, benches) under trees. Program outdoor activities under existing shade trees.
Signs: Identify projects with signs to help identify areas and, in some cases, to protect projects (like areas that may accidentally be mowed). Signs will publicize the project and can help explain the appearance of natural habitats.
Trails & Pathways
A common mistake is to create a schoolyard project (e.g., a wildlife garden, sensory garden, meadow, etc.) without any path through it or along it. Access is important if you want to engage students, staff and visitors with your project. Primary pathways directly connect the indoors to the outdoors and provide easy movement around the outdoors for teachers and children. Secondary pathways provide “short cuts” and more exploratory routes between primary pathway segments. Tertiary pathways provide “adventure trails” with little loops off other pathways.
- Edging: Install path borders to protect plantings adjacent to primary pathways and indicate where the path of travel is (and where it’s not!)
- Curves: There are few straight lines in nature. Curves also add a sense of exploration and motivate children’s movement.
- Grass & Woodchip Trails: If you are creating a grass trail, ensure it is at least as wide as the mower (approx. 6’ wide). Many tree maintenance companies will provide wood chips for trails (e.g., through woodlands).
- Accessibility: Be sure to consider wheel chair access in trail design (width, surfacing, etc.). Common materials for trails can easily meet the width, slope and firmness requirements for ADA.
- Circulation & Pathways (BSI Outdoor Classroom Design Guide)
- Designing Pathways Infosheet: Natural Learning Initiative
- Installing Stepping Stone Pathways
- Creating Tree Cookies for Paths (& More!)
Weather Station: A weather station is an excellent compliment to any outdoor learning area. Weather station tools are available in age appropriate varieties, ranging from simple rain gauges to full digital weather monitors. Consider building or buying a “Little Free Library” to hold your tools!
Wildlife Habitat Projects: Install nesting boxes, gardens &more and more to attract and support wildlife, and offer opportunities for learning and observation.
Wildlife Observation Blind: A simple three-sided wooden structure with slats cut out at eye level will allow students to view wildlife on the other side. It can be placed in front of bird feeders, wetlands, in meadows or along thickets for closer observation of secretive wildlife.
Wildlife Tracking Box: A wooden box filled with mud or modeling clay and placed near water or a feeding area makes a good tracking box. Visiting animals will leave tracks which students can identify, make plaster castings of, write stories about, etc.