I redesigned a school playground for my PhD – and the children got better marks learning outside

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the education of at least 1.5 billion school students. That’s more than 90% of the world’s children. Although many schools in the west, along with private schools in the developing world, have continued some school activities online, more than 50% of learners worldwide do not have a household computer. The absence of face-to-face learning and opportunities for playing with friends will have hugely impacted child mental health.

Countries are taking different approaches as to when, where and how to reopen schools, and some places are emphasising the benefits of outdoor learning.

Research has shown that an outdoor environment can improve children’s motivation and well-being, and can contribute to increasing children’s physical activity and learning outcomes. Learning in nature has been shown to reduce stress and boost mental well-being.

Outdoor learning was traditionally practised in countries across the African and Asian continents, but is increasingly valued less. In many cases, it is only perceived as an option when there is no functioning classroom. But now, more than ever, the benefits of outdoor learning must be capitalised on all over the world.


I have been researching outdoor learning environments for more than 10 years. While most research in this area is concentrated in western countries, my own has focused on Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh the net enrolment rate at primary schools is nearly 100%, but only 32% of the children reach higher secondary level (typically completed at ages 16-18). There are many reasons for this high dropout rate, including poverty and child marriage.

But one reason that is rarely considered is the quality of the learning environment. Evidence shows many students drop out because they do not feel attracted to school and did not like the traditional teaching and learning environment.

Teaching and learning outdoors has been core to the education system in the Indian subcontinent and was practised widely before the education system was formalised. It is still being practised in the town of Shantiniketan, India, established by the Nobel Laureate poet and philanthropist Rabindranath Tagore. But the idea is not mainstream and the political, physical and social infrastructure to support its wider implementation is absent.

I looked into whether learning in an outdoor environment can improve children’s academic attainment, motivation and play in a Bangladeshi primary school as part of my PhD. School grounds in Bangladesh are largely barren fields without any features. Clearly this needed to change if outdoor learning was to be encouraged. The school I worked with was a primary school 80 kilometre from the capital city Dhaka.

The original schoolground. © Matluba Khan, Author provided

I wanted the children’s input for the redesign. I asked Grade IV children (eight- to 12-year-olds) what they would like to have in their playground for both learning and play. The children drew pictures and shared their thoughts. I brainstormed with teachers separately and asked what they would need in the outdoor learning environment in order to take curricular teaching and learning outdoors.

Then we all participated in a model making workshop, led by the children. I supplied materials based on the drawings made by children and suggestions offered by teachers. We have presented the model to the local community who came forward to help us with whatever resources they could offer.

The model. © Matluba Khan, Author provided

A new classroom

The children wanted places to explore and experiment, to play and learn together, to challenge them physically and intellectually, to make things and be creative, to connect with nature, to be alone and to reflect. Studies with children from different parts of the world have yielded similar results, showing these preferences are universal.

Teachers, meanwhile, told me that nature can offer opportunities to try out science. They wanted different types of vegetation and a garden in the schoolyard. They requested an area with different loose materials such as twigs, branches, seeds and egg crates to help them demonstrate number theories and other mathematical problems. They also asked for some group learning settings for group activities and an outdoor classroom.

All of these preferences were then taken into account when the Bangladeshi architect, Fuad Abdul Quaium, and myself designed the school ground. We hired local masons and used low-cost materials and technology. The children designed a mural. The school ground was ready for use in January 2015. The teachers led children outdoors regularly for their maths and science lessons.

The mural. © Matluba Khan, Author provided

My research showed that the children’s attainment in maths and science improved after teaching and learning outdoors. The Grade IV children performed significantly better in maths and science compared to a comparable school which had had no change in the environment.

Hands-on learning outdoors made learning fun and engaging for everyone, but particularly benefited underachievers. We found that children who didn’t interact much in the classroom setting were more pro-active and participated more in their outdoor sessions.

The new schoolground. © Matluba Khan, Author provided

An outdoor future

Outdoor classrooms can also provide the space to maintain social distancing while learning. But the school ground should be designed in a way to support teaching and learning, and teachers need training in use of their school ground and surroundings for teaching.

My research strengthens the already existing evidence on benefits of outdoor learning. The study also generates new evidence for its use outside western countries, suggesting outdoor learning has the potential to improve the quality of education all over the world.

Matluba Khan, Lecturer in Urban Design, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Festival of Creative Learning – The process: Part 1

The experience with Innovative Learning Week team to organize an event was enlightening. We hope to continue this endevour in the Festival of Creative Learning.

We have been working with Snook to evolve Innovative Learning Week (ILW) into a Festival of Creative Learning. So far we have created a blueprint of the journey of the new festival, interviewed people involved with ILW 2016 (#ILW16) and had a design workshop with more key stakeholders from around the university to hear their thoughts and input about the best way forward with the festival.

As the week in February (previously inhabited by ILW) will be available for creative and innovative events in 2017, we started by considering what needs to be done in preparation for this as well as potential new features of the festival throughout the year.

DSC_4698 Blueprinting at Snook’s offices.

Producing a blueprint is a really useful tool for a big project like this, particularly when you want to evolve and build on the best of what has already been done. Read more about how it works…

View original post 275 more words

The Story of An Outdoor Classroom

Alochonaa (Dialogue)

 Matluba Khan*

Edinburgh, May 17, 2014 (Alochonaa): While much attention was paid to the design and construction of school buildings, little notice has been paid to the design of immediate surroundings of the building i.e. the school ground. The outdoor environment, the last considered aspect of the school design often remains as the left over space after the construction of the building. Historically the potentials of the outdoor environment have been undermined using it as only the ground for physical training or physical education. This trend is universal around the world.

For example, in Australia, large open spaces dedicated to physical activities do not have a proportional number of users and intensity of use in relation to the distribution of children (Malone and Tranter, August 2003). The worst case scenario is the conversion of residences in the city of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh to nurseries and primary schools…

View original post 1,790 more words

Visiting New Orleans: Work, Food and Fun

Go Abroad Fund

I was awarded to present my paper titled ‘Outdoor as learning environment for children at a primary school of Bangladesh’ in the 45th Annual Conference of Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). The conference was held from 28-31 May at New Orleans, Louisiana in the USA. Conferences combining landscape architecture and children’s development is not very common and this conference was an ideal one in the field I have been working.

There was excitement about the opportunity to attend the conference yet I was tensed because of all the arrangements I have to make before I set out. Applying for visa was the first step and also the most hectic one as I had to travel to London to face the interview. Besides booking the flight I had to arrange the accommodation beforehand. I shared a room with three other conference delegates in the same hotel where the conference took…

View original post 409 more words