Reimagining the Boundaries of Classroom Education

Timmons Group’s education experts take a look at some of the site development issues surrounding K-12 facilities today. This is the third of a weekly, three-part series.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. - Benjamin Franklin

Student engagement has long been a hot topic among educators. A recent study by Indiana State University found that nearly half of high school students feel bored everyday, half of students report skipping school at least once or twice, and 20 percent consider dropping out entirely. These disheartening statistics beg the question: how might our school environments and teaching methods be failing to engage so many young people?

In order to keep students more engaged, many educators are implementing new and innovative strategies, including redefining the traditional boundaries of the classroom all together. A growing body of research, including a notable study by researchers Julie Athman and Martha Moore, shows that environment-based education significantly raised motivation levels.

These findings are driving the evolution of the modern classroom. More and more school systems are asking students to explore and learn from the world around them and not just in the four walls they’ve been assigned. This includes Albemarle County, Virginia, where Timmons Group’s Landscape Architecture and K-12 Civil Engineering team tackled this challenge with design ingenuity in transforming the courtyard at Greer Elementary School into a 21st-century classroom to promote outdoor learning and student interaction.

The elementary school wanted to offer opportunities for outdoor education that focused on hands-on activities to enhance critical thinking, problem solving, and environmentally-sound decision making.

Inspired by David Thornburg’s theory on archetypal learning spaces, the design incorporates elements of a campfire, watering hole and cave settings, which foster formal group learning, informal gathering and interaction, as well as private, individualized study, respectively. A small amphitheater supports structured outdoor classes (“the campfire”), while customized sails in the school’s colors create shady spots and delineate small-scale learning spaces for individual study and reflection (“the cave”). A boardwalk and paths traverse the site, from which students can observe and study native plants and wildlife within the school grounds. Students can grow food in raised planters and use the gardens to conduct botanical experiments on plant growth and pollination (“the watering hole”).

Flow-through planters and rain barrels capture stormwater and mitigate runoff, incorporating sustainable practices into the design and educational programming. Together, these elements form an inviting space that foster children’s interaction with nature. The Courtyard offers a wealth of learning opportunities that correspond with the state’s Standards of Learning and reimagine the boundaries of classroom education in public schools.