Planning and Funding an Outdoor Educational Space
In our series of papers surrounding the needs and justifications for intentional outdoor educational spaces, we’ve covered multiple topics.
The need for these educational spaces exists, so now what?
Yes, we need to add, update, or upgrade our outdoor spaces in our schools.
Yes, we see the need and we know what general direction we need to go in.
But the essential questions remain:
How do we get this done?
How much will it cost?
Where will we get the money to turn these necessary and practical plans into a reality in the public education system?
In our experience, beginning with a fully formed plan is the essential catalyst for getting a project funded and built.
Planning may seem like a blanket term that covers what our other papers have discussed so far; recognizing the need, examining the ways that an outdoor space can benefit those that use it, and envisioning the type of space that needs to be created. While all these steps come together to play a part in the planning process, there is so much more to creating a well-conceptualized plan. Beginning with a thorough site analysis helps identify the potential opportunities or challenges that might arise during the design process. There could be existing spaces that are being underutilized or not used at all due to reparable conditions, spaces that could be converted for more efficient and effective uses, or areas that are raw and ripe for expansion. Having a thorough site analysis gives planners the first key in unlocking the full potential of a design.
After site analysis,
the next step in the planning process is gathering data and input from the parties involved or affected by the project. In an educational space, it is important to host input meetings with administrators and staff, students, and parents/community members to get a full scope of what various users of these new spaces see as the primary focus for the design. Students in particular can provide creative and unique perspectives in the planning process and may even help free up the design from falling into conventional boxes that have been overdone. Young people tend not to let budgets or historical confirmation biases deter their dreams while as adults, we can sometimes put unintentional limits on our creativity and brainstorming by letting our budget limitations or past experiences block our ability to let our creativity flow freely. Conducting surveys with different age groups from the school and even allowing them to do drawings or sketches of what their favorite outdoor space looks like or what their ideal play structure would be can breathe new life into the planning process.
Next, implementing the input and data obtained
into a set of conceptual plans helps bring all the intangible efforts of the process so far into something tangible and visually marketable. The design/conceptual planning part of the process is when both the planners and the client can let their creativity and vision for the project loose. This is where months,, or even years, of discussions and dreams can start being put to paper. Within the parameters of the available physical site and financial boundaries, there are few limitations to what can be achieved in the conceptual planning process.
Once conceptual plans have been created,
the funding and planning components of the project begin to run along intersecting paths. Conceptual plans can be used to estimate overall costs, create phasing and sequencing plans for both fundraising and construction, and create realistic and common goals for everyone involved so they can move in the same direction with aligned priorities and timelines. These plans can also be used as a marketing tool, helping give visualization to the goals of the fundraising efforts for the community involved and creating pride and hope for the future realization of the project. Creation of construction plans and the installation, programming, and maintenance planning round out the planning process of the project, while simultaneously, the funding efforts can go into full effect.
To begin to understand the process of funding an outdoor educational space project in the State of Texas for a public education facility,
it is imperative to understand how public schools in our state receive funding. The most widely known source of public education funding is of course tax money, and these funds are used in two ways; maintenance and operations, and debt service. School bonds are a form of debt service. A bond is a promise to pay back with interest a certain amount of money that is being borrowed for a specific use through voter approval.. Prior to any bond vote, a volunteer citizen committee is usually created to develop a bond package for presentation to the board of trustees to approve or deny. During 2023, the Sstate of Texas has passed almost 7.5 billion dollars in bonds for a representative 10 school districts. This money covers a variety of needs for each school district ranging from new schools, new land for future schools, renovating campuses, new playgrounds, and safety upgrades.
Another avenue by which public educational facilities are funded is through federal grants. In 2023, the only federal grants awarded in the state of Texas were designated towards expanding the charter school system.
At least $2,580,000 was awarded to 15 charter schools in federal grants, none of which required matching funds to be supplied at the local level.
There are also nonprofit organizations that supply funding to assist with public education projects.
Green Schoolyard America is a nonprofit whose purpose is to
“Seek to transform school grounds into park-like spaces that improve children’s well-being, learning and play while contributing to their community’s ecological health and climate resilience.”
Through legislation, local programs, and grants they have helped over 50 school districts since 2020.
The other potential funding source for public education projects comes through local PTA/PTO organizations or individual fundraising and donors. While different organizations and school districts have various restrictions on how funds can be given to local schools, creating a long-term plan to raise funds through a parent/community organization is usually a possibility if you understand that the fundraising efforts will likely take considerable time and must be done within the parameters the donor organization and the school/district have in place. An example of how this might work from recent experience is the organization may implement a fundraiser and designate that all funds from this be designated toward a long-term project to create and improve outdoor educational spaces.
The State of Texas PTA does not allow the direct purchase of any outdoor play equipment to be made by a local PTA, so the PTA donated the funds raised directly to the school, who will then have that donation approved by the district and school board to be transferred into a dedicated fund earmarked for future outdoor educational space projects. While this may sound like a lot of red tape, the process was simplified once both the school and the fundraising organization understood the allowable parameters for fundraising and making donations in their district. This is another example of how having a conceptual plan can be of great benefit to a project.
The ability to provide a visual overview of the long-term plan for improvements can exponentially increase the success of fundraising efforts. It is also an extremely useful tool in the phasing of a long-term project. When you have a plan in place, you can take on large-scale projects one bite at time, matching the available funds to the phase of the project that is doable at that level and in the appropriate sequence (i.e. playground safety surfacing should be replaced at the same time or after equipment, otherwise new surfacing could be damaged in the removal or installation process if equipment is upgraded after).
An expression we’ve seen prove true over and over in our industry is:
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
By working with an experienced team to create a planning and funding strategy that is appropriate and realistic for your school, successful completion of the project is almost an inevitable conclusion. With patience and planning, there’s little room for failure!