Perfect spot for a small meeting space, outside an elementary school. (Author photo)

My sister is a teacher, so my messages are filled with the latest last newest update on her school’s ever-changing plan to reopen in a few weeks, or not, or sort of, or maybe not. It’s in flux, it’s maddening, and it’s very high stakes. I bet your school is the same. 

Flexibility helps, and outdoor spaces could give your school just that, since   coronavirus experts agree that outside is safer. If you’re against restarting in-person instruction, maybe the most vital in-person activities could be done outside. If you’re in favor of in-person instruction, but want lots of safeguards, moving some activities outside can help with that. If you’re one of the many people in the middle of this debate, meeting in person but outside is kind of an in-the-middle solution. 

I spent years designing outdoor spaces for schools and teaching others how to design them. It’s not just playgrounds and ball fields. 

Think about: 

Small meeting spaces
If everything else is virtual, but you just have to have a certain conversation or lesson or demonstration in person, this is place to do it. You don’t need much: a couple chairs, maybe a small table, but for maximum sanitation, people could provide their own folding chairs (and sanitize the table before and after). A chalkboard or whiteboard would be helpful, and fine outside as long as temperatures are above freezing. Position this space somewhere as free of distraction as possible, perhaps facing a wall of the building or an area of trees, not the parking lot or a road with traffic, with shade and protection from wind. A small elementary school might want three or four of these spaces, distant from each other as well, maybe marked with large colorful signs to make it easy to determine which one you’re headed for.

Teacher/staff lounge
Think of your deck or your favorite restaurant patio – that’s an outdoor lounge area. At a school it’s vital that this area be screened off so that kids and parents aren’t constantly wandering in, and you need some audio privacy – not next to the playground or the main entrance from the parking lot. All outdoor lounge spaces need shade and protection from harsh winds. Since hand sanitation is the name of the game right now, a sink would be ideal to include, but if water isn’t available nearby, at least a big jug of hand sanitizer needs to be included. 

Outdoor classroom 
A lot of schools have one of these already, but they were more popular years ago than now, so it’s probably older and maybe not used much. This could be the time to change that. Look for a semi-circle of simple benches somewhere, and be advised that if those benches are wooden and old, they may be tough to adequately sanitize between uses. Also be advised that putting a tent without walls over the outdoor classroom could make it a lot more useful. 

Small-scale gyms 
A spot to run around with a couple other kids or siblings could be really valuable, especially at schools where many families don’t have yards of their own. Playground equipment is problematic as shared surfaces that lots of little hands touch, so you need somewhere else. Maybe shared equipment is out, but you can do a lot with marking paint on the ground.  A bench here for adult supervision is a nice touch. 

Many paths to entry
Schools usually funnel all foot traffic to certain entrances, kids here, teachers there, visitors here. Social distancing demands that we do the opposite, and disperse that traffic as much as possible. Schools are required to have a lot of fire exits, so there’s plenty of doors, but think about how people get to those doors, especially from parking lots, local streets, and bus stops. You need lots of signs, maybe color-coded ones, maybe even temporarily repainting the doors to match that color-coding or painting lines on the ground like hospitals do. The trick is to make these many new paths to doors work with these other new outdoor spaces, so that visitors aren’t walking through the small meeting spaces and so on. You’ll likely need a master plan, a map of the school grounds with everything drawn on it. 

But it snows here!
Yes, many places in this country have at least a few months of the year where it’s too cold or too wet or both to be outside. But it’s less than you think. All the techniques used to make your favorite restaurant patio comfortable on chilly nights work for outdoor school spaces, too, like portable heaters and wind barriers. Most schools have at least some masonry on their facades, which holds heat from the sun, so any spaces next to a west- or south-facing wall will stay somewhat warmer. It should also be said that it’s well worth putting on a sweater and hat to bring COVID cases and deaths down. 

And if you can’t get enough of all of this, my final statement to you is:  forest kindergartens

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