To meet the growing enrolment demands across our major cities, both state and federal governments have injected funds into refurbishing existing institutions and building new schools, which is great news for architects and designers looking to push the boundaries of education design.
However, with mounting evidence to support the link between student engagement and academic achievement, “We can no longer restrict children to four walls of a classroom,” says Richard Leonard, director of Hayball, the multi-disciplinary practice tasked with delivering the new Richmond High School in Melbourne.
“In the last five years or so particularly, we’ve seen a far greater emphasis on external spaces in education facilities,” he says.
“By this I mean they’re no longer considered the area you make look nice at the end if you have any money left, but instead they’re spaces that support learning and are valued as essential components of the learning landscape,” he explains.
One such way to promote learning outdoors is by utilising furniture to “blur the boundaries of inside and outside spaces”.
To achieve this, Leonard recommends first defining the activities and usages of the space so that it supports the seamless transition of teaching and learning from the inside out.
“We need to see the outside areas -- and the furniture componentry -- as a critical part of the overall learning landscape,” he says.
When furnishing outdoor spaces, the first thing that may come to mind is robustness and longevity.
However, a more sophisticated design response would be to adopt the student-centric mindset, Leonard explains.
“That means - at its core - focusing on making an attractive space for people to be in, to enjoy, and to socialise in.”
“It can't just be a lawn with a couple of trees and plants thrown in.”
“It must have purpose, amenity and quality,” Leonard says.
Danny Cheung, an industrial designer at Street Furniture Australia, says that a popular way to set up gathering places on campus is by combining multiple curved and straight benches to make ring and ‘S’ formations that complement other elements of the landscape, such as existing trees and shade.
“Platform benches are multifunctional, and double as seating and tables,” he says.
“Students can sit on them in a group, write and work, relax and play.”
For a more “organic feel”, Cheung suggests round tables such as cafe tables and stools to create softer lines.
A pop of colour also works well in places of learning to encourage play, he adds.
“This might be a bright powder coat on just the frames of the furniture or a whole setting.”
But he recommends doing your research to ensure the powder coating is long-lasting and fade-proof.
Additionally, nature play is also very ‘in’ right now, particularly for younger children.
“This means benches and seats are specified with eco-certified Jarrah hardwood battens, to harmonise with more ‘natural’ forms.”
“Plenty of benches are needed on the fringes of these places to ensure there are clear sight lines for supervision,” he says.
A favourite with universities -- particularly for cafes and eating areas -- are moveable seats.
“Paired with moveable tables and stools, they allow students, staff and visitors the autonomy to sit in the best spot for their needs,” says Cheung.
As outdoor spaces at educational institutions are often key hubs for social experiences and development, the furniture you choose must also reflect this and be accessible and inclusive.
“Picnic settings can include shorter benches or longer tabletops to allow for wheelchair access.”
“To us, public spaces are more than the gaps between buildings,” Cheung explains.
“They have the potential to connect people in otherwise isolating urban environments. Furniture is a key part of this.”
“Furniture is a sign that it’s okay to spend time, and explore,” Cheung says
“Spaces become more fluid with furniture -- they invite people in.”