Creating outdoor classroom features

collage of four image showing different site features

Like your indoor classroom, successful outdoor classrooms also have designated learning areas. A few well-chosen site features can really go a long way to making your school forest easy to access, learn in, and enjoy. Not all features are needed in all school forests.

Determine which features you need. Then make your own or get help and funding.


A trail’s purpose is to guide the traveler from one place to another. People rely on trails, especially in wooded or hilly sites with limited visibility over long distances.

Photos of trails in various school forests.


Most sites already have some established trails, even if they were created by deer. Whether enhancing existing trails or creating new ones, consider the following:

  • Destination: Does the trail take you to an interesting place?
  • Places to highlight: What points of interest exist along a trail? Do you want students to experience wet areas in your forest such as a spring, marsh, steam, or pond?
  • Places to avoid: What places do you want to avoid (such as a steep slope) or protect (such as rare species) in your school forest?
  • Width: An 8- to 10-foot-wide trail accommodates two people walking side-by-side. Clear trails a little wider than your desired width to accommodate vegetation that creeps in.
  • Height: Vegetation should be cleared at least 6 feet from the ground.
  • Material: Trail surfaces may be bare dirt, woodchips, or gravel.
  • Keep an eye on your school forest. Will you install trail cameras?

Taking care of your trails

You don’t need to manage your trails alone, but you do need to communicate your needs and ask for help. Trails need periodic maintenance, just like your indoor classroom.

Can your grounds staff take care of the trails? If you’re not sure, ask! Discuss possibilities with grounds staff, district administration, and your school leadership. Grounds staff could simply walk the trails periodically to pick up hazardous trash and lop off branches that are reaching into the trail. Discuss ahead of time with leadership what to do in case a large tree falls over a trail.

Remind leadership that the school should maintain its outdoor classroom (school forest) just as much as their indoor classrooms such as the music room or gym.

Some school forests have set up standing trail maintenance days involving students and families. For example, each fall they order a large shipment of woodchips to be delivered to the head of a trail. Then families arrive with pails and wheelbarrows to move the chips into place along trails and gardens. Then each spring, families are invited back to clear trails of brush and debris that fell during the winter. Having regular events is part of the school culture of stewardship and families are happy to help.

If your trails experience significant damage such as a windstorm contact your local DNR forester for advice.

Trail map

An accurate map is essential for raising awareness about your school forest. Teachers rely on maps to understand where they can take students in your school forest and what to expect when they get there.

Photos of trail and educational signs in various school forests.


Sketch a map using an online map tool or even on paper. Your map can be simple or complicated, according to your needs. At the very least, include trail entrances, trails, and a compass rose.

You can also mark areas of interest for teachers and classes:

  • Conifer Grove/reading area
  • stream/ditch/pond
  • benches/outdoor classroom area
  • firepit/storytelling area
  • storage shed
  • gathering areas (such as “Grandmother Oak” or “The big boulder”)
  • gate
  • port-a-potty
  • no-go areas, if any
  • easiest door from the building to reach the trailhead

Consider posting your map at your school forest entrance and/or providing laminated maps for each classroom. You may also want to post it on the school website or Facebook page for all teachers and staff.

Winter trail use

Walking through deep snow is hard work. If your students don’t have snowshoes, your trails may be unusable. Discuss ahead of time who could pack snowy trails in the winter. Could your grounds staff or a volunteer parent or neighbor run a snowmobile through the trails for winter walking?


A bridge or boardwalk may be as simple as laying a few boards over a wet area or an engineering project resulting in a long-term sturdy structure. It depends on your time and budget.

Photos of bridges and boardwalks in various school forests.


Getting help and funding

Seating, benches, platforms, shelters, nature play areas

Having a place for students to gather or sit can help organize your class outdoors. Seats can be as simple as downed logs or stumps, boulders, portable benches, or benches installed into the ground.

Photos of benches in various school forests.


Photos of classroom areas in various school forests.


Photos of shelters and buildings in various school forests.


Photos of nature plays area in various school forests.


Registered Minnesota school forests can get up to two large metal signs from the School Forest Program. You can get them by contacting the program.

Interpretive signs are usually unique to your school forest. They label or tell a story about a physical feature, plant, animal, or history of the area.

Photo of signs at various school forests.


Interpretive sign examples

  • Hill City School Forest (posted at trail entrance)
  • School Forest Boundary (posted at boundary between the school forest and private property)
  • White oak (posted next to a white oak)
  • Nelson farm site (posted next to ruins of a farmstead)
  • Hill City School Forest was established in 1972 for use by the Hill City School District. Students come here to practice math, science, and writing skills in the context of the natural world.
  • This white oak is estimated to have sprouted in 1850, before Minnesota was a state. It provides food and habitat for hundreds of species of birds, insects, and mammals.
  • The Nelson family farmed this area between 1880 and 1940. After donating the land to the school in 1950, scout groups have planted and tended hundreds of red pine seedlings.

Directional signs

  • Laminated maps with a “You are here” dot posted at trail entrances and intersections.
  • Arrow sign pointing back to school building.

Permission signs

  • No hunting
  • No fishing
  • No motorized vehicles
  • No dogs
  • Caution – poison ivy
  • Restoration in progress
  • Leashed dogs welcome (please pick up after them)
  • Rare plants. Look, don’t pick!
  • Families welcome. Please leave no trace.

Photos of posted rules and regulations signs at various school forests.


Make your own signs

Getting help and funding


Gardens serve a variety of purposes in a school forest depending on what you need to teach.

  • Rain garden: Treats runoff and prevents erosion.
  • Vegetable garden: Provides food, but you need to maintain it in the summer.
  • Food forest: A grove of trees and shrubs that provide fruits and nuts for animals and people.
  • Wildlife/pollinator garden: Attracts critters through the seasons.
  • Prairie garden: Bare stalks can provide visual and artistic interest in the winter.
  • Grove of small trees: Provides a quiet, calm space for reading or soothing anxious minds.
  • Winter garden: Students can observe and appreciate the beauty in bare stalks, focus on patterns in tree bark, listen to the gentle sound of wind through conifers, and read stories in animal tracks.

Whatever you choose, consider the tools you need to take care of it. You’ll also need a space to store the tools. Remember, students can take care of the garden too.

Minnesota School Garden Guide how to set up and teach about vegetable gardens from Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom.

Photos of gardens at various school forests.


Getting help and funding

Other features

Your school forest and outdoor classroom space can be place to showcase student art, practice music or singing, study weather and phenology, attract wildlife, build survival shelters, or anything else you dream up. Here are some ideas for even more projects your students can do in their school forest.

Teachable moment

All grades can benefit from learning a variety of subjects, topics, and skills outdoors in your forest, schoolyard, wetland areas, and gardens. Teachers can use lessons from a variety of sources.

School Forest Activity Board – We have curated dozens of outdoor lessons by Minnesota school forest teachers for school forest teachers. If you forget your username and password, ask your school’s school forest site coordinator.

Jeffers Foundation lessons - outdoor lessons by Minnesota pre-service teachers

Project Learning Tree, Project WET, and Project WILD offer a variety of indoor and some outdoor lessons on environmental topics

Get inspired: How Nevis School Forest got funding and volunteers

Get inspired: How Dean Makey School Forest’s “Kindergarten Grove” invests in the future

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