The benefits of spending time outdoors are well-known for physical and mental wellbeing and we all know that heading outside the classroom whenever possible makes sense.
Providing attractive, practical places to congregate, sit, eat and ‘hang out’ is bound to encourage more of this, so schools are wise to plan their outdoor places to promote maximum use.
Furniture has moved on from the simple wooden bench. Even the ‘Buddy Bench’, previously extolled for its inclusive, relationship-building benefits, is being overtaken by less overt, more face-to-face interaction-friendly options.
Providing more inclusive options is key. Outdoor settings that encourage children to gather in a group and experience eye contact with each other is likely to promote conversation and inclusion. Directly facing other people can sometimes seem formal and may be daunting to some, so a staggered seating arrangement that introduces different heights and distances between seats can provide more options for students to choose how close they wish to be to others, or at what height level they want to be.
In the 2020s, sustainability and use of natural surroundings in outdoor furniture is widely admired. Using the reduce, reuse, recycle mindset, schools can create seating out of unwanted old furniture, crates or tree trunks, for example. Revitalising your outdoor spaces may provide the perfect premise for a class project. Children generally love being involved in design, or redesign, and a school-wide competition or learning experience could be made of a repurposing project.
Consideration should be given to portability of furniture or whether outdoor furniture needs to be static and secured. Having dual or multi-purpose furniture adds value and will increase use, so thought must be given to the wider picture of dining, encouraging conversation, seated games, and outdoor learning in the mix.
Creating a comfortable space is ideal – physically, as well as socially. And while beanbags may work for summer seating and have many plus points, they’re not great for dining or using on wet ground in winter. Likewise, hot weather will also have its drawbacks – you don’t want seating that is exposed and unshaded or have seating material liable to reach volcanic temperatures in the summer heat. Be creative but think safety first!
Gus White, National Sales Manager at Felton Industries, told us that “outdoor classrooms are becoming increasingly popular with schools wanting to create additional learning spaces”.
“Some become a feature of regular timetables while others form a bonus offering to students who enjoy getting outside for learning.
Other trends we have noted include the continuing demand for aluminium bench seating as an absolute staple across all schools, while variations exist between high schools and primary schools for other ranges of outdoor furniture.
The former will often opt for larger outdoor settings such as Jumbo Park Settings which have seating on every side seating between 12 and 14 students, more outdoor shelters, and grandstand seating. Two-sided park settings are a favourite amongst primary schools, as is coloured outdoor furniture.
“During breaktimes, outdoor table settings of any kind form a focal point for students to meet, eat, drink and relax.
As students face each other while sitting, they promote interaction and encourage connection. In addition to table settings, buddy benches can be found throughout primary school playgrounds in Australia as a place to go and meet new friends, especially during breaktimes which for some children can be a lonely time.
“For permanent bench seating there are in-ground or above ground bench seats which offer safe, sturdy seating options. For outdoor spaces that are smaller or multi-purpose more flexible seating is often required with free standing stackable bench seating. All bench seating comes with a choice of coloured safety end caps to ensure no sharp edges.
“Aluminium is a very popular material for outdoor furniture in schools as it is strong so can easily cope with the high usage demands of a busy school environment. Being lightweight makes it versatile across different outdoor areas whether as free-standing bench seats or as portable grandstands. Aluminium is also very durable, so it won’t rust, warp or deteriorate outside over time making it an ideal choice to meet high safety standards.”
According to Craig Light from Area Safe Group, “There has been an underlying tendency to spend the least amount possible on basic bench seating for minimum humanitarian standards. This hasn’t always resulted in the best fit-for-purpose outcome for students. However, government schools are catching up fast and even leaping ahead of private schools in many cases, installing seating that is not only functional but looks great and coordinates well with the architecture of adjacent buildings!
Part of this trend towards designer furniture includes early planning for how the furniture is to be used, plus a genuine desire for Australia-made which has better quality, shorter lead times and similar initial investment than imported furniture.
“The promotion of improved mental health and wellbeing coupled with the realisation that flexible and outdoor learning environments assist with improved learning abilities has led to a growing trend for social furniture. Social furniture is furniture that facilitates group environments. This includes 360° circular, 180° semi-circular, zigzag, angular bench seating and four-sided round or square picnic settings, which all help bring students together during breaks. If there is no group furniture provided, schools find that students end up sitting in a circle on the ground facing each other, rather than sitting on a single straight bench.
Outlining some popular trends, he added: “Bright coloured furniture can lift the general mood of otherwise bland locations: There is a fairly even mix of thought, with some schools choosing to coordinate the colours on outdoor furniture to match the architectural palette of adjacent buildings and those that opt for bold primary colours for a more playful lively mood.
“While many schools invest heavily in shade structures, these are predominantly permanent structures with the disadvantage of blocking out sunshine during winter months. Individual shade umbrellas and covered picnic settings are becoming increasingly sought after for their flexibility. These have the flexibility to allow full natural sunshine in winter but also block out the heat during summer.”