Reimagining the Outdoor Classroom Using the Design Process

students collaborated in teams

A water fountain, recycling bins and storage shed; a canopy tent that uses trees as supports and has clear sidewalls which roll down in rainy weather; hammocks, a koy pond and fruit trees; a pollinator garden with hidden messages and more! These are just some of the ideas Lyn Garofolo’s fifth graders proposed for the school’s outdoor classroom—an underutilized space behind Katonah Elementary School.

The project, called Reimagining the Outdoor Classroom Using the Design Process, immersed students in a user-focused approach to innovation.

The students couldn’t wait to share their research, process and creative solutions with the educators and parents who came to learn more.

enthusiasm is evident!

empowering students ... and educators

The presentation was the final step in a design project the students had been working through since October 2022. Designing solutions for the real-life challenge was as empowering for the fifth graders as for their teacher Lynn Garofolo and school librarian Jeanne Hand. The two educators are both part of the 2023 Innovation Cohort—a district think tank—and are studying the impact of the design process on student engagement and learning, and as a path to developing visible thinking skills.

empathy-driven decisions

“Empathy is an important part of the design process,” said Ellie. She described how teams of students moved beyond their own assumptions about the outdoor classroom and spoke to students and teachers at KES about how they wanted to use the space.

Molly, Cora and Ellie reached out to Assistant Principal Kweon Stambaugh, Staff Developer for STEAM and Sustainability Steve Zoeller, and Sadie, a first grader. Themes of safety and sustainability emerged. The fifth graders learned that these space users wanted a place to experience nature without going on a long hike. “Sand down the benches because they have splinters,” their stakeholders shared.

Second grader Spencer wanted fruit trees. Rosie, Ben and Shannon incorporated that element and, in keeping with the school’s commitment to sustainability, they added waste and recycling bins and a pollinator garden. “We also added hidden messages for a positive vibe,” said Ben, describing signs with information about the plants and animals in the garden.

Isabelle, Andrew and Brody met with kindergarten teachers and students because by the time construction on the outdoor classroom is done, they will still be at KES to use the space. “It’s important in the design process to think about other people because you’re building for them,” said Brody.

design thinking leads to creative results

opportunity to work with national expert

An impressive aspect of the project was that after conducting research and brainstorming ideas, each team worked with directly with Dr. Robert Dillion, a national expert on school design, to refine key elements.

Lily, Amanda and Jaya interviewed Judy McCormick’s first grade class and heard their young students’ interest in having a place to read, have snack and listen to stories. “Dr. Dillion suggested we add a water fountain and a shed,” said Amanda, “to make it both a beautiful and useful space to learn.”

prototyping stage puts ideas to the test

Each team collaborated on a sketch, then created a 3D prototype with materials including cardboard, pompoms, plastic and modeling clay.

Gabi and Phoenix spoke about the importance of this step. “You can revise and fix any problem,” said Phoenix.

The team of Annabelle, Henry and Eliza also reflected on the improvements they made through prototyping stage. “We worked on it for a while, but no matter how hard we tried, it just wasn’t right,” said Annabelle. “We answered some questions and revised our sketch and model.” Only in this final phase did they add clear plastic roll-up walls and a tent held up by trees.

taking a closer look

deep learning

After the teams’ presentations, everyone was able to visit the models of outdoor classroom concepts set up in the library.

“Presenting their findings was an important step in the design process,” said Hand, after the event. “We hope some of the students’ ideas will be considered in the district’s renovation plans.”

“We are so proud of what the students have learned,” said Garofolo. “It will prepare them for future success in middle school and beyond!”