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The ultimate outdoor learning environment all year round

Jason Eastwood, Managing Director at Canopies UK, explores the key considerations for creating the right type of outdoor learning environment

Posted by Alice Savage | May 12, 2017 | Facilities & buildings

With the benefits of outdoor learning being widely promoted by bodies, including the Government, more schools are choosing to tap into the outdoor learning trend.

However, in order to provide outdoor learning all year round, schools ideally need to be able to create the right type of environment for both pupils and teachers. They also need to ensure their outdoor learning space is suitable for all year round use, too. 

It’s estimated that around 60% of a whole school estate is made up of land rather than buildings, which means there’s often plenty of untapped potential when it comes to creating stimulating outdoor environments

It’s estimated that around 60% of a whole school estate is made up of land rather than buildings, which means there’s often plenty of untapped potential when it comes to creating stimulating outdoor environments. In fact, the Department for Education and Skills call this outdoor space an ‘under-used and under-regarded asset’, citing that ‘school grounds are potentially as important to the education and overall wellbeing of our children as the school buildings are.’

For many schools, funding is a key issue when planning any sort of building extension or stand-alone semi-permanent structure, but with all schools set to become academies by 2020, much of this financial red tape looks set to be removed.

Location, location, location

Extending the classroom into the great outdoors allows for wider stimulation and provides an alternative teaching environment, or a safe place to play and learn, that’s sheltered from rain, wind and harmful UV rays. 

It’s precisely what Frampton Cotterell Primary School in Bristol did. They wanted a canopy that would enable them to create a learning environment where its teachers could take the classroom outside. The school now has a sheltered space where pupils can learn, as well as play and socialise, in all weather conditions.

Frampton Cotterell Primary School

It’s also worth nothing here that outdoor classrooms don’t have to be attached to the school building either, they can be freestanding and further away from the main learning space, to make the most of other areas of interest within the school grounds. Perhaps near an allotment space, a pond or outdoor science area?

Custom-made vs off the shelf

There are many canopy and walkway manufacturers in the UK offering a variety of seemingly high-quality ‘off the shelf’ shelter solutions, but ask yourself this: would you pay for a brick built extension that hasn’t been designed specifically for your building?

Canopy systems aren’t quick fix, temporary solutions. Today’s industry-leading canopies are self-contained buildings that can provide protection from wind, rain and UV rays. They can also feature retractable roofs that are operated by a remote or smart device, sliding glass doors, integrated guttering and heating.

Sir Stanley Matthews School

As a result, many educational settings, such as Sir Stanley Matthews School in Stoke-on-Trent, are seeing canopies as more of a viable and cost effective way of creating additional classroom space, as opposed to going down the extension and building work route.

Site specific calculations

To engineer a canopy for a specific project, manufacturers should ideally conduct a comprehensive site survey consisting of a number of site specific calculations. These measurements determine how canopies should be both manufactured and installed. 

Site specific calculations take into consideration factors, such as wind speed and snow fall, pre-existing trees and roots, drains, sewage and terrain type. If your canopy is going to be attached to a building, other factors, including the age, strength, height and construction of the wall, should be considered too.

Sandwell Academy

Our site-specific calculations were critical to an installation we carried out at Sandwell Academy. As the school is on high ground, it was essential that the canopy we installed could stand up to the British weather. The calculations enabled us to test the shelter for wind and snow load, as well as wind speed. We then manufactured the canopy accordingly.

Off the wall

For cantilevered, wall hung canopies, site specific calculations determine whether the wall is strong enough to take the weight of the shelter. With specific tests designed to mimic the weight of a canopy, a trained surveyor can ascertain whether additional foundation supports will be required in order to safeguard the canopy, the building and its users. 

Harris Academy

These tests were critical at an installation we carried out at Harris Academy, as their canopy design needed to incorporate window and door openings, awkward angles on the build and underground services and drainage. Part of the shelter was against a modern cladded building and other sections were against a large brick building, so the canopy needed to be both freestanding and wall mounted at different stages.

Outdoor learning is fast becoming the norm these days. And canopies are being seen by schools as the solution to getting more from their outdoor space, as well as providing that valuable outdoor learning experience come wind, rain or shine.

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