Back to top

Creating Outdoor Classrooms

Creating Outdoor Classrooms
Schoolyard Habitats and Gardens for the Southwest
Drawings by James Richards

A practical, hands-on guide for creating schoolyard gardens using native Southwestern plants, fully illustrated with photographs, drawings, and design plans.

January 2008
211 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 156 line drawings, 152 b&w photos, 1 map, 7 tables |

Schoolyards have come a long way from the barren playgrounds that many people remember. Today's school campuses often feature gardens in which students can learn about native plants and wildlife, grow vegetables and fruit, explore cultural traditions, practice reading and math skills, and use their imaginations to create fun play spaces. And for a growing number of urban students, these schoolyard gardens offer the best, if not the only, opportunity to experience the natural world firsthand and enjoy its many benefits.

This book is a practical, hands-on guide for creating a variety of learning environments in the arid Southwest. Filled with clear, easy-to-use information and illustrated with photographs, drawings, and plans, the book covers everything necessary to create schoolyard gardens:

  • An introduction to schoolyards as outdoor classrooms and several types of habitats, including art gardens, cultural history gardens, ecological gardens, literacy gardens, and vegetable gardens
  • Design theory, including a history of garden styles, and design principles and design elements
  • Beginning the design process, including identifying participants and writing a design program that sets out goals and requirements
  • Conducting site research and synthesizing design elements to arrive at a final design
  • Design essentials, including project funding and design features, maintenance, accessibility, safety, and project evaluation and revision
  • Wildlife ecology, including elements needed for survival such as food and shelter
  • Creating gardens for pollinators and other wildlife, including hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, moths, bats, and flies, as well as pest control
  • Lists of native plants for various kinds of habitats and nurseries that sell native plants, as well as books, web sites, and other resources for learning more about native plants and wildlife

This guide will be essential for landscape architects, school personnel, parents, and students. Indeed, its principles can be used in designing schoolyard habitats across the country, while its information on gardening with native plants and wildlife will be useful to homeowners across the Southwest.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction by Kim Duffek
    • About This Book
    • Making Outdoor Classrooms a Reality
    • The Need for Wildlife Habitat and Native Gardens
    • Bioregions of the Arid Southwest
  • Chapter 1: Schoolyards
    • The Schoolyard as an Outdoor Classroom
    • Overview of Schoolyard Environments
      • Introduction
      • History of Playground Design with Applications for Contemporary Playground Design
      • Nature and Play
      • Adult Memories of Valued Play Places
      • Implications for Design
    • Learning and the Natural Outdoor Classroom
    • Schoolyard Garden Types
      • Art Gardens
      • Cultural History Gardens
      • Ecological Gardens
      • Literacy Gardens
      • Vegetable Gardens
  • Chapter 2: Design Theory
    • Introduction
    • History of Garden Styles
      • Prehistoric "Gardens" (20,000-3300 BC)
      • Ancient Egyptian Gardens (3300-500 BC)
      • Ancient Mesopotamian (3500-538 BC), Sumerian (3500-900 BC), Assyrian (900-625 BC), and Neo-Babylonian (611-538 BC) Gardens
      • Ancient Persian Gardens (539-331 BC)
      • Ancient Greek Gardens (700-136 BC)
      • Ancient Roman Gardens (510 BC- AD 476)
      • Ancient Chinese Gardens (1600 BC- AD 1279)
      • Japanese Gardens (AD 575-1600)
      • Medieval European Gardens (AD 476-1350)
      • Islamic (Moorish) Gardens, Spain (AD 700s-1400s)
      • Italian Renaissance Gardens (AD 1350-1765)
      • French Grand-Style Gardens (AD 1495-1750)
      • English Romantic Gardens (AD 1715-1840)
      • Spanish Colonial Gardens (AD 1492-mid-1700s)
      • Colonial and Early American Gardens (AD 1630-1840)
      • American Romantic Gardens (AD 1830-1930)
      • Victorian Gardens (AD 1820-1900)
      • Classical Beaux-Arts Gardens (AD 1893-1930)
      • Modern Gardens (AD 1930-late 1970s)
      • Postmodern and Contemporary Gardens (AD mid-1970s-present)
    • Design Fundamentals
      • Design Principles
      • Design Elements
  • Chapter 3: Beginning the Design Process
    • Introduction
    • A Design Process for Planning Outdoor Classrooms, Wildlife Habitats, and Gardens
      • Identify Participants
      • Write a Design Program
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4: Site Research and Design Synthesis
    • Review and Evaluate Previous Steps
    • Site Research
      • Site Selection
      • Site Inventory
      • Site Analysis
    • Design Synthesis
    • Conceptual Design
      • Zones, Spaces, Design Features, and Spatial Sequencing
      • Circulation Patterns
      • Testing Design Concepts
    • Preliminary Design
    • Final Design
  • Chapter 5: Design Essentials
    • Introduction
    • Project Funding
      • Grants and Cash Donations
      • In-kind Donations
      • Organization of the Fund-raising Process
    • Design Features
      • Earthworks
      • Ponds
      • Plants
      • Shade Structures
      • Storage Areas
      • Pathways
      • Seating
      • Walls
      • Signs
    • Maintenance
      • Weeding
      • Fertilization
      • Pruning
      • Bird Feeders and Bird Baths
    • Accessibility
      • Requirements
    • Safety
    • Project Evaluation and Revision
    • Outdoor Classroom and Schoolyard Habitat Assessment Criteria
  • Chapter 6: Ecological Principles and Wildlife by Kim Duffek
    • Introduction to Wildlife Ecology
    • Elements for Survival
      • Food Resources
      • Water Availability
      • Providing Shelter
      • Space to Survive
    • Pollinator Gardens and Wild Visitors
      • Introduction
      • Hummingbird Gardens
      • Butterfly Gardens
      • Bee Gardens
      • Moth Gardens
      • Bat Gardens
      • Fly Gardens
      • Wildlife Gardens
    • Completing the Web
      • Pest Control
      • Decomposition
      • Unwanted Visitors
    • Seeds for Thought
    • Words of Inspiration
  • Appendix: Regional Plant Tables by Kim Duffek
  • References and Additional Reading

Lauri Macmillan Johnson is Professor in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Arizona, as well as a consulting landscape architect in Tucson and Denver.


Now, far away in the woods a bird called; another answered; presently the hammering of a woodpecker was heard. Gradually the cool dim gray morning whitened, and as gradually sounds multiplied and life manifested itself. The marvel of Nature shaking off sleep and going to work unfolded itself to the musing boy. A little green worm came crawling over a dewy leaf, lifting two-thirds of his body into the air from time to time and "sniffing around," then proceeding again—for he was measuring . . .

—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Natural environments are important for people of all ages, but especially for children. Wild places provide young people with opportunities to discover natural phenomena like those described by Mark Twain. Brilliant colors held within streams of sunlight; rainwater creating miniature drainageways in the mud; wind permanently bending trees; ant highways; and the endless sights, sounds, and tastes of the natural world are mysteries of life that have inspired civilizations throughout the ages.

This book is a general guide for the design and implementation of natural outdoor classrooms envisioned to include a variety of learning opportunities through the creation of wildlife habitats and other gardens, including art gardens, cultural history gardens, ecological gardens, vegetable gardens, and literacy gardens. As such, the text is intended as a sourcebook that includes sections on the history of garden styles, design fundamentals and processes, and information and ideas to provide readers with inspiration for their own unique garden creations. Focus is given to the Southwest—its natural and cultural history, arid land and climate, plants, and wildlife. But the content of this text can be applied in the creation of gardens for other regions, whether these focus on wildlife, art, culture or history, integrated learning, or simply delight and contemplation.

Because the parameters of all outdoor classrooms and other types of landscapes are unique, the design and implementation of any project will necessarily involve additional research and certainly modification of this information. Use this book as a touchstone reference and a point of departure, and be inspired to work collaboratively, particularly with children and youth, as their creative ideas are limitless. Be prepared to think of your garden project as a temporal place that will always evolve through time, as natural processes are dynamic and learning about the environment is interactive.

About This Book

This publication is intended to provide creative inspiration and guidance toward the implementation of successful outdoor classrooms for integrated learning. Designers of these spaces might consider art, mathematics, science, or, more specifically, native wildlife and plants as opportunities for learning. The text describes design processes and offers useful ideas for all garden types, particularly wildlife habitats and gardens of the Southwest. In recent years, much interest has arisen in obtaining information regarding the use of native plants to attract wildlife to backyards and schoolyards. Interaction with wildlife in a garden not only provides a venue for learning basic ecology but affords opportunity to study subjects as diverse as music and math. The need for a book such as this has arisen from a national movement in gardening with native plants. Thus the book, with its regional focus on the arid Southwest, is an essential tool for teachers in the Southwest who wish to initiate natural learning landscapes. Descriptive coverage of the subject also makes this text an ideal reference for landscape architecture students or home garden enthusiasts.

Making Outdoor Classrooms a Reality

The best outdoor classroom gardens are created with an overarching concept that is used toward the development of a schoolwide vision. This book contains ideas and necessary information for the design and implementation of successful outdoor classrooms. Several topics, including a history of playground design, nature and play, and learning in the natural outdoor classroom, provide a good overview. Other sections, such as schoolyard garden types and design theory, help designers develop strong design concepts, and information on site research and program development, with logical approaches to creating outdoor classrooms, will assist designers with approaches aimed at helping schools develop an individualized planning process for their unique goals. Special focus is given to ecological principles and garden requirements for pollinators and other wildlife of the Southwest, as these provide a good basis for integrated learning. Throughout the text are creative ideas on design features and materials, as well as thoughts on student activities that aid in the creation and utilization of outdoor classrooms. Sidebars, illustrations, photographs, and captions within the book can be used as helpful hints and overviews, with more detailed information contained within the main body of the text. The regional plant tables in the appendix provide a concentrated source of information useful in planning southwestern gardens of any type. Each table focuses on plants most suitable for a particular bioregion, with helpful comments, traits, and benefits for wildlife.

The Need for Wildlife Habitat and Native Gardens

With continued rapid growth of western cities, planning for the future needs of residents is reaching a critical stage. Every day, wild lands are removed to make way for human development. Habitat destruction creates an ever-increasing struggle for the wild creatures to survive and reproduce. Nevertheless, responsible planning could preserve our richest habitats and most critical wildlife corridors within cities and subdivisions. Schoolyard wildlife habitats might serve as design models for the community. Additionally, while some cities are already in a water crisis, others may have time for improvement. Cities such as Tucson, Arizona, have become exemplary models for desert living, as they have been successful in reducing residential water needs through the use of native and drought-tolerant plants. For some cities, however, there is room for improvement in the area of water conservation, particularly with regard to the ongoing implementation of high-water-use landscapes. Creating gardens and wildlife habitats with native plants is an important way to educate citizens and children alike about the necessity to conserve water. As they learn about the natural environment in general, they will also be exposed to specific information on regional ecology and natural resources. Within the context of desert environments, this will undoubtedly lead to better understanding about water resources. Therefore, contact with these outdoor classrooms will empower them to make a difference and become stewards of our environment throughout their adult lives.

Bioregions of the Arid Southwest

This book discusses creating outdoor classrooms and wildlife habitat gardens within the arid Southwest. A number of bioregions exist within this region, each with its own temperature and rainfall patterns, topography, and geologic history (see map in appendix). Each of these bioregions possesses attributes that differ from the others. This affects the types of plants that will grow or thrive there. From east to west and north to south, differences in temperature and rainfall patterns define many of the adaptations observed in wild communities regarding how they cope with conditions in their environment. Geology also influences these patterns greatly.

In the Southeast, high rainfall influenced by the Gulf of Mexico tapers off in the hill country west of Austin, Texas. To the west of that area, arid Desert Grasslands begin to reign. In the plains of Texas, sporadic surges of Gulf moisture bring primarily summer rain to the region, a region that extends in several bands from Texas through New Mexico to central Arizona. Characterized by bunch grasses, it also commonly contains yucca, agave, mesquite, and juniper species.

Southwestern Texas, southern New Mexico, and a small portion of southwestern Arizona are the northern limits of the Chihuahuan Desert. Rainfall in this bioregion is primarily in the late spring and late summer and is influenced by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the rain shadow effect of mountains. The Chihuahuan Desert bioregion occurs at higher elevations than the Desert Grasslands and is characterized by low shrubs and leaf succulents such as creosote, yucca, and ocotillo.

Abutting the western edge of the Desert Grasslands is the Arizona Uplands subdivision of the Sonoran Desert. Studded by iconic saguaros and leguminous trees, it is the wettest of southwestern deserts, with rain being distributed in both the summer, from the Gulf of Mexico, and the winter, from the Pacific Ocean. Most of the region is on slopes or sloping plains at lower elevations than the Desert Grasslands and the Chihuahuan Desert.

As the influences of summer rains diminish in southwestern Arizona and southeastern California, the Lower Colorado subdivision of the Sonoran Desert takes over. It is characterized by very wide, low-elevation valleys containing expanses of creosote and white bursage, with saguaros and small trees being limited to washes and low mountains.

To the north of the Lower Colorado lies the Mojave Desert, which receives only a small amount of rain during the winter. The wide plains and rugged mountains making up the Mojave share much of the flora and fauna with other North American deserts. It is hot in the summer and rather cold in winter. The Joshua tree is the hallmark plant of this region, and annual plants are abundant; other vegetation is sparse.

To the west of the Lower Colorado subdivision of the Sonoran Desert lies the Southern California Inland Valleys bioregion. Fire-adapted chaparral plants such as chamise constitute the native vegetation. Good rainfall occurs mostly in winter within this biologic community situated on mostly steep mountain slopes.

Nestled between the Southern California Inland Valleys and the Pacific Ocean is a narrow strip of land constituting the Southern California Coastal Edge bioregion. Although it receives less rainfall than the Inland Valleys in winter, it is influenced greatly by the ocean and benefits from higher humidity and almost no frost. Low-growing shrubs such as sage and buckwheat make up what little is left of the native vegetation.

In all cases, soils influence the performance of plants through their physical and chemical makeup. Particle size of the soil determines how quickly water drains through it and dictates the frequency of watering. A clay soil with small particle size will hold on to water much more than sand. Minerals within the soil can also influence plant growth.

The tables in the appendix address the characteristics of plants that tend to perform well within these diverse bioregions. Some of the same plants may have varying horticultural needs in different areas, and may be referred to with different common names in other parts of the country. The reader is invited to try plants from other regions if they seem to fit within the parameters of the garden site. None of the tables are all-inclusive, and although it can be difficult in some communities to find native plants, there are people who grow them. A great science activity for children might be an experiment in which they determine the best way to germinate and grow native plants. This could involve Internet research combined with hands-on activities. Commercial growers may lend their expertise and even benefit from the information. For example, the tables in this book are actually the work of many people who, over the years, have provided information on their plants to others.


“A significant contribution to the fields of landscape architecture and environmental education. . . . This book's step-by-step explanation of the design process is excellent and has the potential to expand the book's audience beyond its schoolyard habitat and arid Southwest region.”
Frederick Steiner, Dean, School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin

“This guide is so well developed that it can serve as a primer in the education of landscape architects and other environmental professionals. The general public also can benefit from the practical and specific design steps, as well as from the comprehensive list of plant materials for arid and semi-arid climates in the United States.”
Pat D. Taylor, Director, Program in Landscape Architecture, University of Texas at Arlington