Simplified: Outdoor classrooms are becoming one of the latest trends in Sioux Falls-area schools, and more are on the way. Here's what you need to know.

Why it matters

  • Outdoor classrooms are exactly what they sound like – a space for learning, together, outside. And the goal, as simple as one might guess, is to get kids outside more.
  • Though outdoor classrooms have been present in Sioux Falls for a few years now, they've seen increased popularity – both locally and nationally – since the pandemic.
  • So far, local outdoor classrooms are mainly in schools that have an active parent-teacher organization to lead the charge on fundraising. David O'Hara, an Augustana University professor who brought an outdoor classroom to campus, said he hopes to see that change.
"The schools that can afford to do it, I’m glad to see it," said O'Hara, who's consulted with schools both in the area and out-of-state on building outdoor classrooms. "But the thing I would love to see is for schools that have a harder time affording it finding ways to build outdoor classrooms."

What does an outdoor classroom look like?

As with any classroom, it varies, but some of the basics are the same.

The outdoor classrooms in Sioux Falls and Harrisburg typically have:

  • a semi-circle shape,
  • benches,
  • some combination of pavers, boulders and other landscaping to make it look nice,
  • and some type of shade (from trees or constructed).

Where are some of the outdoor classrooms locally?

There's one at Liberty Elementary in Harrisburg, and Freedom Elementary just received $25,000 in funding from the PTO to construct one of its own.

"The goal behind it is just to get outside on those warm days and utilize outdoor space for fresh air and learning," Freedom Principal Tanja Pederson said. "It allows us some flexibility in space."

Endeavor Elementary started planning for an outdoor classroom back in 2019, but when the pandemic hit, plans were delayed. Now, the plans are done, and Principal Mike Munzke said the hope is to have the $30,000 project done this summer.

  • Munzke added that anything that gets kids outside is a win.
"They’re not thinking about textbooks or working on the computer," he said of students this time of year. "They’re thinking about getting outside."

In Sioux Falls, John Harris Elementary modeled its $23,000 outdoor classroom off of Augustana's with O'Hara's help. It opened this past fall and has been used year-round, according to media specialist Stefanie Hage.

"We originally just focused it on serving classrooms, (but I see) students utilizing it during recess," Hage said. "It's need to see where the kids will take it."

R.F. Pettigrew Elementary also worked with O'Hara on an outdoor classroom.

What happens next?

Endeavor Elementary's outdoor classroom is expected to be completed this summer, and the classroom at Freedom – if the additional $15,000 in funding is raised – is also expected to be done in time for school to start next fall.