Curiosity refers to a strong desire to know something. It is what drives one to seek, explore, discover, and invent. At no time in life, is a curiosity more powerful than in childhood.

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Schools are the stepping stone for nourishing children’s creative learning. They are one of the most influential environments that shape young minds and have a great responsibility in providing positive experiences to them. However, it is often noticed that school outdoor spaces are just left as playgrounds with little or no character to it, although children love spending their school time outdoors rather than indoors. The crafted spatial expression of the outdoor environment is so important and significant for children’s overall development that it should be designed very carefully. 

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Outdoor Learning Environments refers to experiential learning happening beyond architecture and education. School outdoor spaces should enable them to experience, explore, and interact with various natural phenomena, other beings, and themselves; thus, learning and growing from it. Playing outdoors is considered to be one of the best learning processes for children. The physical environment and behavior are co-related as one affects and is affected by its surroundings through the ‘affordances’ present there. 

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Designing spaces for children requires understanding children, their learning and developmental needs, the importance of their relationship with the outdoor environment, affordances present in the environment that caters to those needs, and only then one can create appropriate spaces for children. The article enlists characteristics of school outdoor environments based on child learning and development requirements, and guide designers in creating responsible spaces. 

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Boundary

A boundary is a fundamental tool in architecture that enables one to define places. It demarcates or divides a space. The strong physical boundaries like the form of school building help in clearly distinguishing indoors and outdoors and dictate the nature of outdoor spaces. The transition spaces allow for flexible interactions and activities. An assumed boundary, which doesn’t exist in physical form, but in perception is largely determined by the scale and proportions of the outdoor space that can either make children feel isolated or inclusive. 

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Place Identity 

Place-identity is developed when one forms a relationship with the physical settings and gives a meaning to it. It becomes a symbol for them to identify and associate themselves with. These help in creating memories for children that are attached to spaces and help in community formation. It could be an assembly area where the entire school comes together or a banyan tree in the playground around which children play.

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Experience

A space that orchestrates all the senses – visual appeal, a touch of the materials, smell of the air, sound of the space; help in creating a memorable experience of the space. Experience is dynamic and changes with temporal and physical scale. Outdoors offer children to engage in activities like playing with water, sand, mud, animals, birds, insects, etc. Such activities with living beings other than humans provide profound learning experiences to children. The best and most permanent type of learning is learning by experience and outdoor spaces offer a plethora of such opportunities.

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Cognitive affordance

Cognitive affordance refers to design features that enable one to think, learn, understand, and reflect. These features can vary in nature ranging from abstract, informative, interactive, etc. This can be achieved by creatively integrating various graphics or objects into the space-making process. They could be objects like sculptures, display boards, or graphics like maps, charts, or paintings interestingly integrated into space. They must have a visual appeal to grab children’s attention towards it. It should not create aesthetic pollution.

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Visual Connection 

Children love to peek out and look at things that generate curiosity in them. There should be spaces or framed views where children can observe things and help them develop a new perspective towards looking at ordinary things. 

In a visually well-connected outdoor space, teachers can monitor children without interfering with their activities. With peers watching over helps in regulating their behavior. Dead Corners or dark spaces should be avoided in outdoor areas for the children’s safety. 

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Physical Affordance

Physical affordance refers to design features that enable one to perform physical activities/play that leads to muscle development, movement skills, endurance, etc. Outdoor spaces offer a plethora of physical activity spaces. Different surface materials encourage variety in activities. E.g. playing in sand affords children to dig, jump, whereas playing in the grass would afford running, lying down, etc. Inclined, undulating surfaces also afford activities like rolling, sliding, skating, etc. which in turn help improve their balance. Outdoor Spaces can include collective games affordances by incorporating games onto floors like step-7, Ludo, chess, etc. There should be a dedicated playground for playing sports and Jungle gym like objects that are open to using as per the child’s ability.

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Natural Affordance 

Natural affordance refers to the natural features present in the environment like rocks, trees, terrain, etc. that motivate children to play, observe, and learn from it. These spaces help in reducing stress by providing positive experiences to children. When children spend time in nature, they build connections with it. Creating a ‘natural laboratory’ where children take care of animals, birds, trees/plants helps to inculcate environmental values and they learn to take better care of nature. 

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Healthy Risks 

Healthy risk refers to the manageable risks taken to explore and expand the existing boundaries. Risk-taking is an essential part of identity development. Providing healthy outlets of risk-taking such as climbing a tree, playing in the mud, hanging from a pole, etc. are important for child development. Outdoor environments provide open-ended opportunities that are at times risky and unpredictable. However, excluding risks and making spaces not challenging at all reduces children’s interest in physical exercise leading to the risk of obesity, compromised development, and limited play opportunities. Teachers and designers should come up with their own set of manageable risks that are local to their environment.

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Social Affordance 

The physical environment provides situations and settings for students to socialize and interact with each other. These settings are social affordances. The formal interactions are structured and there should be a common large gathering space where annual functions, festivals, or prayers can be held. For unstructured informal interactions, there should be creatively designed places to sit in groups and individually with good thermal like at transitional spaces – corridors, plinths, etc. where incidental interactions can take place. 

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Emotional Affordance 

The design features that provide opportunities in the physical environment to express or feel certain emotions are emotional affordances. Outdoor environments and their interactions with plants could contribute to reducing negative emotions, increase positive thoughts, and encourage constructive thinking. Outdoor spaces should provide children with a platform to showcase their talents and express themselves.

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Cultural Identity 

Cultural identity is the identity or feeling of belonging to a group and a part of one’s self – perception. It can be associated with nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc. It is what connects one with their past and connects to the future. Children need to understand the cultural importance of their place & belonging, at the same time realize & appreciate the cultural differences as well. Cultural elements that are native to the place should be well integrated into space.

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Colour 

Colors affect bodily functions, mind, and emotions with the energy produced by light. Children can be more sensitive to colors affecting their moods and energy levels considerably. It is one of the fundamental tools used by children to communicate and express themselves. However, creating a balance with color combinations is important as their environments shouldn’t have excessive stimuli or be blatant and lacking interest.

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Author

Aayushi Sanghvi, a young architect who extensively believes in the potential of research to make informed design decisions. She considers intellectual design dialogues as the stepping stones towards cognisant architecture. She is flexible, quick learner and an avid traveller; learning about new culture, people, spaces and expanding her horizon every-day.

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