Take it outside: the added benefits of school courtyards

Posted by on Dec 12, 2012


You may remember your days as a kid staring out the window or staring at the clock waiting for the school day to end so you could be outside again.  Today, kids aren’t as likely to take advantage of the outdoors and there seems to be a declining interest in outdoor experiences in general.  While this is unfortunate, I totally understand the desire to be indoors.  Take the time and look around at the multitude of influences upon today’s youth; xbox, wii, ipads, ipods, dvr, blue ray, etc.  To put it simply, I had Pong, the Commodore 64 and a beta max, this equated to all of ten minutes of interest and then we went outside.  You can easily search the internet and find the benefits being outdoors has upon both the physical and cognitive development of children. Recent projects we’ve been working on incorporate these benefits in a very real way through well designed interior courtyards.


Schools have long included outdoor spaces in the form of courtyards; these architectural maneuvers provide day-lighting and ventilation.   Both my middle school and high school had courtyards, but I don’t recall them as pleasant spaces and they were more than likely off-limits.  I think at most, I was allowed to eat lunch in the space as a senior privilege.  I remember a space with overgrown planting and deferred maintenance issues resulting in limited functionality and scant use of the space by students or faculty.


Spring ahead to today.  21st century schools are looking at courtyards as opportunities that support their learning curriculum, expose students to healthier living, and provide an opportunity to connect to nature. At Birchwood Design Group we’ve seen a shift in the emphasis that schools are placing on courtyards.  As more and more school curriculum’s move from STEM to STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math For more information on the STEAM movement go to http://stemtosteam.org/), courtyards are playing a pivotal role in getting youth in touch with nature in ways that integrate these core learning areas.


In our recent experience, courtyards have become spaces that are a living lab for the sciences, places of experimentation and inspiration for art and design classes, and areas that can develop math skills through measuring and geometry. They also provide places of contemplation and discussion for language arts programs and are utilized as cafes to support a school’s culinary arts program.  Courtyards have also included a playground for a Pre-Kindergarten program and open space for outdoor functions and performances.  Whatever the needs and desires of the facility may be – courtyards do double duty as places of outdoor learning while at the same time improving the quality of indoor spaces through day-lighting and ventilation.