Classroom Design, Natural Phenomena and Experiential Learning: Integrating Nature and Learning in the Classroom

By Kelle Brooks.

Published by The International Journal of the Constructed Environment

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Current research in education shows that “experiential learning,” a theory developed by Jean Piaget that places value on the primacy of authentic experiences, is an effective educational method that leads to meaningful and long-lasting learning. Experiential environment-based learning, which promotes inquiry-based observation and analysis, has been shown to advance retained knowledge, increase engagement and enthusiasm for learning, while providing an antidote to society’s increasing detachment from nature and cultural obsession with technology. This paper posits nature not as a subject to learn about, but as a tool to learn with. Rather than relying on occasional outdoor excursions, as the current pedagogy suggests, classrooms should provide direct interaction with natural phenomena in order for students to develop a deep understanding of traditional subject matter, while reflecting on the directness and complexity of their experiences.
Despite many positive trends in outdoor curriculum and school design such as “green schools” and “healthy schools,” which focus primarily on a checklist of prescriptive items, contemporary classrooms often do not reflect important current directions in educational philosophy. Throughout the 20th century, two factors have shifted away from learning experientially with the natural environment: buildings have become less connected to the natural world due to increased security and the prevalence of air conditioning, and curricula has become more concerned with memorization than with experience. To what extent are classrooms, currently and historically, designed as reflections of current educational philosophy? This paper provides a survey of well-designed classrooms, classrooms that support experiential learning by design.

Keywords: Classroom Design, Environmental Education, Experiential Learning, Green Schools, Healthy Schools, Nature Deficit Disorder, Natural Phenomena

The International Journal of the Constructed Environment, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp.255-268. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 7.705MB).

Kelle Brooks

Assistant Adjunct Professor, School of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Kelle Brooks has been working between the fields of art, architecture and landscape architecture, with a primary focus on creating direct relationships with physical phenomena that link one to the unique qualities of place. She is particularly concerned with the relationship between aesthetics and sustainable design. As principal in Brooks Clifford Design and project architect at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, she has tested these issues on many built projects. Her current research concerns the role of architectural design on experiential learning for classrooms and playgrounds with the goal of enabling children to learn through direct sensory engagement with natural phenomena. As a design studio instructor at Carnegie Mellon University, she teaches spatial and material composition, emphasizing the physical, sensorial, and intellectual integration of natural and built environments.