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Wolfe Garden at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Oct. 5, 2023.

Office of Sustainability advocating for outdoor classrooms

Ohio University’s Office of Sustainability is hoping to implement several outdoor learning spaces over the next year. 

Kyle Butler, an associate professor in the Ohio Program of Intensive English, is also the sustainable living hub coordinator within the Office of Sustainability. He said he wants the project to help students in higher education develop a connection with nature. 

The Office of Sustainability is still in the early stages of developing the project, and the university is unsure how much of the budget the project will receive. 

The idea for outdoor learning spaces was modeled after Solid Ground School, which is an elementary school outside of Athens where kids are taught outdoors four months out of the year, Butler said. 

Sam Crowl, director of the Office of Sustainability, is also involved with the outdoor classrooms at OU and knows of Solid Ground School having a focused curriculum on sustainability issues.

“It's a very intentional K through sixth-grade school that really talks about sustainability and environmental issues … a lot of natural issues, and incorporates those into the actual curriculum of the school,” Crowl said. 

The Office of Sustainability is looking into three types of outdoor learning spaces: nature spaces, provision spaces and outdoor classroom spaces. 

The nature spaces will consist of signage to let professors know they are available to bring students outdoors for a lecture at any time. There would be limited cost and construction with these spaces because they would only need a cabinet and some signage, Butler said. 

“The kind of intermediate type of spaces, we're calling provision spaces,” Butler said. “They would function as they currently are as outdoor natural spaces, but we would add the addition of an outdoor cabinet that could hold teaching supplies.”

The provision spaces would also be promoted by the university, with professors and student organizations able to reserve them. 

“We're hoping that by promoting these (spaces), by making them spaces that can be reserved that we can really encourage people to take advantage of this more often,” Butler said. “Perhaps by doing it in a way that's more thoughtful and planned.”

Butler plans on having a designated outdoor classroom space as the third type of learning space. 

“(Butler) wants to build sort of an outdoor classroom,” Crowl said. “He wants to have a very intentional space, that has sandstone boulders for sitting or cushions—things like that.”

Crowl said Butler has been doing extensive research about outdoor learning spaces and has seen these areas at other institutions. 

Other campuses, such as Tulane University and Washington and Lee University in Virginia, have designated outdoor learning areas, Butler said.

“Tulane University in Louisiana has a really nice outdoor classroom space. This one is next to some classroom buildings and it's got a brick floor and some built-in stone seating with some desks,” Butler said.

Currently, Butler and his undergraduate assistant Zane Wulliger, a senior studying environmental science and sustainability, are conducting a survey to get students’ perspectives about what they would like in these outdoor learning spaces.

“The purpose of this survey is to receive feedback from Ohio University students regarding their thoughts and feelings about the Outdoor Classroom Initiative,” Wulliger wrote in an email. “Not only will this survey help promote outreach for this initiative but it will also gain perspectives that would be considered during the implementation stage as well.”

Wulliger said he is attempting to reach the most students by promoting the initiative and survey through social media and popular areas on campus, such as Alden Library.

“We're trying to figure out what level of experience and interest students have with teaching and learning outdoors,” Butler said. “Also, we want to get a sense of what would make the experience more comfortable and accessible for everybody.”


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