The multifarious benefits of outdoors learning are now generally accepted; fresh air and natural light stimulate the brain and senses, with the possibility of more flexible lessons. But a climate of reduced budgets has seen schools turning to their outside spaces to alleviate the pressures of overcrowded classrooms and there is little sign on the horizon of schools being offered any real help in addressing this problem.
But outside classrooms are not only a solution to a problem but can be a valuable resource in their own right. Establishing an “outdoor learning hub” helps teachers shape policies and strategy for outdoor learning and encourages collaborative activity in a very natural way.
Two primary schools in Devon approached Tim Rolison Design with very different needs. St. Michael’s Primary Academy in Exeter, a thriving church school in the heart of the city, wanted a space where children could practice mindfulness as well as becoming a centre piece for their sensory garden. Exeter Road Community School in Devon wanted an outdoor reading and storytelling space to commemorate the loss of a much loved teacher. Spending time with schools and listening to their needs provided an opportunity to take a fresh look at the design of the outdoor classroom from the ground up.
Discussions with schools uncovered recurring themes: the requirement to maximise the use of limited space and the need for multi-use flexibility offering value for money. How could a structure be created that gave maximum usage with the minimum footprint? A pint down our local led to the observation of the ubiquitous pub picnic table as being an ideal vehicle for social interaction. That became the catalyst for the fairly rapid development of a design.
“I had always wanted to try bringing the supporting posts of a gazebo in from the outside edges. It was a aesthetic bugbear of mine. There appeared no balance or tension in the usual designs, which always seemed dull and passive in form,” says Tim Rolison. “As seating is usually attached to these uprights, the resultant canopy overhang offers little protection from the elements.”
With the decision to use a translucent material for the roof that would allow light to flood in, all the elements were in place. Design is often a logical progression of stages rather than magical invention.
The resulting design is basically a hexagon with an inner and outer ring of benches with a raised platform between these that can either be used as a table or as tiered seating, whether it be used as an al fresco dining area, classroom or storytelling area. When the shelter at St Michael’s Academy was finished, the children were allowed to explore how they wanted to use the space.
This two-ringed approach to seating meant that a class of over 30 children could comfortably sit within a shelter which is only a little over four meters across. At Exeter Road Community School, a stunning illustration from children’s illustrator Alexandra Ball was printed onto the underside of the roof to create a very light, unique and beautiful space. Side blinds were also added to give extra protection from the elements.
Whilst we may not have created the least expensive shelter out there, it has been designed and engineered to give many years of pleasurable use. All of the timber is sourced from sustainable sources and is guaranteed to last for ten years. For less than £6,000, we feel we’ve created a structure that is robust, well-designed and long-lasting, helping to minimise the total cost of ownership. “Our aim has been to produce a structure that’s in-budget, works well and is attractive, giving pleasure and improving the quality of life of all who use it.”