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Creating Effective Outdoor Learning Areas

Are you considering creating an outdoor learning area for students at your school or early learning centre? They’re a great way to enhance a child’s learning, as well as your school’s reputation. This article aims to give you some tips on creating the best possible outdoor learning space for your school.

While any covered area in a school is technically a COLA, the term is more commonly used for spaces covered by a large steel structure that offers rain and sun protection.

That being said, there are covered outdoor learning spaces in all types of educational settings, and you could even include covered outdoor study areas in the definition. The best COLAs have these things in common:

  •         Natural resources for children to explore the world around them
  •         Comfortable seating nearby for parents or teachers
  •         Outdoor shade and shelter structures for all-weather protection
  •         Plenty of space for communal activities
  •         Water and power access

Other features may include sandpits, basketball rings, mosaic paved areas, mural walls, water play areas and even gardens.

Important things to consider for outdoor learning environments

If you’re planning to build an outdoor learning area at your school or early learning centre, there are plenty of things to consider. Unlike a standard playground where you simply choose the location and have the equipment and shade structures installed, COLAs need a lot more careful planning. You want it to be an effective space for children to learn, play, and most importantly, be safe.

Here are some of the things you’ll need to consider when designing your covered outdoor learning area.

playground shade structurse

Get appropriate stakeholders on board

For many schools and early learning centres, there has long been a distinction between the outdoors being used for play and the indoors being used for learning. With the continual shift towards play-based learning, we’re now seeing more emphasis on creating outdoor learning environments. However, it also requires a shift in thinking. That’s why it’s crucial to get all of the appropriate people on board with your plans.


Stakeholders to consider will be teachers, parents, business managers, and of course, the all-important finance team. You’ll often need the backing of key individuals to move forward with your plans for a covered outdoor learning area, so make sure you can articulate and even present in written form, the benefits of the new space.

Inviting stakeholders to participate in the planning of the space is a great way to get them to ‘buy in’ to the concept of outdoor learning.

School Shade Sails

Providing appropriate COLA shade structures

Shade is incredibly important in an outdoor learning area, which is why most of them are known as ‘covered outdoor learning areas’. When children spend any significant amount of time outside, they need to be protected from the sun, and that’s where COLA shade structures come in.

Shade protects children from harmful UV rays, meaning they can enjoy the outdoors and learn in a fun, engaging environment without risking sunburn or health-related issues.

In addition, COLA shade and shelter structures also offer protection from rain for an all-weather protection solution. So, if you want children to enjoy their outdoor learning sessions at all times of the year, shade structures become increasingly important. Plus, it keeps all of your valuable learning equipment safe from the elements. So, even if it rained overnight, the kids can still enjoy outdoor learning in the morning with dry equipment.

quality shade sails for primary schools

Types of shade structures

There are several different types of shade and shelter structures used for COLAs, and it all depends on the type of space you have. The team at Greenline can consult with you on the best options for your space, but some popular examples include:

  • Star shade structures: With just one post, you get a lot of shade from these star designs. Best of all, it impacts less on the overall usable space because there’s only one post per shade sail. Sizes range from 6m2 (36 square metres of shade) to 12m2 (144 square metres of shade). The post doesn’t need to be in the middle, as they can be on one side (cantilevered). 
  • Metal COLA structure: You can have a COLA structure designed in a traditional gable or curved style to match existing architecture. You can also include skylights. They’re a much larger structure, usually up to 100m wide and 150m long.
  • Shade sails: These are a cost-effective option to give your outdoor learning area the shade it needs. Usually covering up to 20m, they’re great for general play areas and can also be fitted with post padding for extra safety.
  • Barrel vaults: This style is effective for large outdoor learning areas, utilising a curved roof and minimal support steelwork. While the size isn’t limited, most barrel vaults for outdoor learning areas are up to 100m in length and width.
tensile membrane structure

Choose areas with plenty of natural resources

Outdoor learning areas open up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to the way you engage students in learning. While traditional learning tools such as books, toys, counting apparatus and other classroom-based resources won’t be discarded, you have even more at your disposal outside.


When children play with a ball, for example, it’s always a ball, and the way they play with it is somewhat pre-determined. However, natural resources can spark a child’s imagination. Sticks, for example, can be anything a child wants it to be!


Of course, you’ll need to have artificial elements in the area too, such as seating, play equipment, sports resources and much more, but it’s a great idea to incorporate the natural world into the design too.

Steel COLA at St Laurence's College by Greenline

Make the space accessible

It’s a requirement for learning environments to be accessible for everyone, so ensure that your outdoor learning environment is kind to everyone. You should include plenty of pathways and open spaces for wheelchairs. If you have a lot of plants in the area, ensure they don’t grow over the pathways or drop seeds. Paths also provide opportunities for students to go on walks, ride scooters and play in a variety of other ways.


In addition, but for the same reasons, you should also ensure your outdoor learning spaces are on level ground. Not only does this make it a lot easier to install equipment and seating, but it also makes it easier for people with disabilities to enjoy the area fully.

The right type of seating

Every outdoor learning area needs good seating. Depending on the size of the space and the intended use, you may not choose to include a lot of tables and chairs, however there needs to be an appropriate room for children to sit comfortably during activities. Seating should always be provided at different heights to suit all children.

Again, you should consider wheelchair spaces too. If you’ll be involving the children in activities such as gardening, playing in sandpits or anything else, wheelchairs should have front-on access to allow participation.


Naturally, safety is paramount in any setting where children will be playing. While we won’t list each and every safety aspect to consider, here are some main ones to think about:

  •         Outdoor furniture should be solid and unable to be moved
  •         Structures and furniture should have no sharp edges
  •         All equipment should be bright and easily visible
  •         Ample shaded space for children to play out of the direct sun
  •         Padding for posts and other structures

Essentially, you need to consider the safety aspect of everything you include in an outdoor learning space. This is one of the first things you’ll be judged on, because all stakeholders (especially parents) want to ensure safety at all times.

If you’d like to talk to the COLA shade structure and shelter experts, contact the team at Greenline today. We design and install a range of different shade options for all types of outdoor spaces. We’d love to be part of building your brand-new covered outdoor learning area.