The most equitable way to ensure that all students have access to outdoor learning is to equip all schools with on-site outdoor learning areas, to learn from and to learn within, and that all campuses include a strong balance of living elements on their school grounds. Some terminology and concepts that go along with this are:

  • Living Schoolyards: Richly layered outdoor environments that strengthen local ecological systems while providing place-based, hands-on learning resources for children and youth of all ages (Green Schoolyards America, 2017).

  • Outdoor Classroom: A space that brings learning outside, and often includes: seating, natural features (trees, shrubs, rocks, greenery, etc.), instructional materials (white board and clipboards), and gardens and/or greenhouses.

  • School Garden: An area of land within the school grounds (or very nearby) where plants such as vegetables, fruits, flowers, medicinal plants, trees, and bushes are grown. Small animals may also be kept in a school garden such as ducks, rabbits, chickens, goats and even fish.

Customized Technical Assistance

SMCOE's Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative (ELSI) has helped a number of districts and schools to repurpose outdoor spaces in a cost-effective way. This shift provides fresh air, hands-on learning opportunities, and many co-benefits related to health, academics, and behavior. 

For school stakeholders looking to get started right away, utilize the resources below: 

Outdoor Learning Resources During COVID-19

Outdoor learning is a time-tested approach to keeping students safe during a pandemic. A hundred years ago, schools around the world went outside to reduce the spread of tuberculosis and Spanish flu. Today, school leaders are looking again to the outdoors for the following benefits:

  • Provide more equitable access to in-person learning by getting more students on campus
  • Safer environment for staff and students with access to cleaner air and natural ventilation
  • Greater physical distancing
  • Cost-effective and quick to implement
  • Increased hands-on learning opportunities
  • Proven mental and physical health benefits for students and staff

Green Schoolyards America, in partnership with the San Mateo County Office of Education, Ten Strands, and the Lawrence Hall, has developing resources for outdoor learning in COVID-19 and beyond. Visit Green Schoolyards America's COVID-19 Outdoor Learning page to find official guidelines and policies, case studies, design resources, and outdoor learning integration tools. Additional resources are below.

Julie Hilborn

Coordinator, Environmental Literacy and Sustainability


Phone: (650) 802-5406