Pop-Up Natural Classroom Fertilizes Better Student Learning

September 27, 2023 By Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu

Corn rows grow tall above the blacktop, squash runners jog left and right around their planters and several varieties of green beans twist and climb a trellis while fifth graders eat lunch at umbrella-shaded picnic tables.

Welcome to the most unusual classroom at Harrisonburg’s Keister Elementary School.

“It’s calming. It’s a lot easier to pay attention while we’re out here,” says fifth grader Landon Boykin, using words seldom heard during elementary school lunch hours. “You feel stuck in the classroom, especially when it’s nice outside. In nature, you have freedom.”

He’s right. Brick walls, blacktop and well-trampled grass make up the utilitarian scene set for most elementary schools, but University of Virginia School of Architecture researcher and doctoral candidate James Barnes wants to add nature and beauty to the design. And he’s using three parking spaces at the school as a test bed.

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“I’ve been interested for a long time in how to connect people to nature and create nature-based spaces in our public areas, and what better place to do that than in our public schools?” he said. “If you’re looking at schools, oftentimes they’re pretty deprived of green spaces. And, if there are green spaces, they are usually just grass. But we know that diverse kinds of nature exposure are good for child development, in mental health, physical health, emotional development and learning.”

Nature, Barnes said, is more than Bermuda and fescue grasses scattered with dandelions, the landscape of most school green spaces.

“I’m looking at how kids respond to biodiversity and plant biodiversity. Do they learn differently when they’re in an enriched environment versus, say, in a classroom or outside sitting on pavement?” he said.

That’s where Harrisonburg’s Keister Elementary comes into the play. It’s an urban school at which 80% of students are from families earning incomes below the federal poverty level. About 40% of students come from homes where English is not the first language.

"In the classroom, if you’re running around, you’ll get in trouble. In nature, you can’t get in trouble."

— Riley Prins, fifth grader.


“It’s a complex socio-economic and ethnic school,” Barnes said. “It’s got a great heart. And it’s got a lot of pavement that looks like pavement and turf that looks like turf.”

It also has some students who dig being in a corner of a parking lot surrounded by plants, planters, bees and grasshoppers more than being in a classroom of fluorescent lights and whiteboards.

James Barnes portrait

James Barnes noticed that schools are often bereft of green space. He developed a pop-up nature classroom to help improve mental health and learning for students. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Being around nature, you’re in the wind and all that stuff, like the breeze. And if you start zoning out, you can just get up and walk. It’s also harder to zone out because of everything around you,” fifth grader Riley Prins said. “In the classroom, if you’re running around, you’ll get in trouble. In nature, you can’t get in trouble.”

In the parking lot’s corner, Barnes has developed a pop-up nature preserve. It’s a leafy, green venue that he hopes will make it easier for children to learn and for educators to teach, and for which he started researching plants and developing the architectural concept more than two years ago.

Brooke Imber portrait

Keister Elementary art instructor Brooke Imber said she has been “blown away” by her students’ responses to the parking lot garden. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

His intention is to provide different “micro-habitats” with literally garden-variety plants of varying species, flowers and textures. He hopes to determine how non-human actors in the space, such as butterflies and bees, respond to small-scale interventions and measure how quickly and to what extent pollinators and other insects colonize the new surroundings.

Most important, he wants to know how kids respond.

“One of the questions I’m interested in is do kids zero in on the diverse section of plants or the rows of corn that are monoculture? I’ve got one installation that’s just rows of corn, like a tiny little cornfield,” he said. “There’s corn, beans, and squash in one section. This installation is a pollinator garden right here, so it has black-eyed Susans and coneflowers, all sorts of flowering plants.”

Michael Richards portrait

Michael Richards, superintendent of Harrisonburg City Public Schools, is a supporter of Barnes’ pop-up nature classroom project. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

As a plus, the vegetables are edible, creating the chance for another lesson from the unusual classroom. The corn, with thick stalks that resist wind, is popcorn that can be harvested and used in class.

Besides observing and talking with students and teachers about the green space, Barnes sends the kids on a photo safari of the planted environment armed with inexpensive digital cameras. The idea is to see what plants, insects or designs attract the students.

Fifth grader investigating plant
Fifth grader Landon Boykin gets close to a bumblebee with a digital camera, part of both a school art class and James Barnes’ research. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

On the first assignment, most of the kids said they took pictures of the bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies and even yellow jackets – the jerks of the wasp world. The tiny buzzers paid little attention to the camera-wielding kids taking close-ups.

Other photography assignments will follow and Barnes will review the pictures to get a snapshot of what the students find of interest.

“I’ll pull information about how they perceive the space through the lens of the camera,” Barnes said. “At the same time, I’m tracking how many times the teacher has to say, ‘Pay attention, Jimmy,’ compared to indoors.”

So far, it’s surprisingly seldom. Art instructor Brooke Imber, Barnes’ partner on the teaching staff, said her students seem to focus better being outside.

“I’m absolutely blown away with the calm essence that being in a space like this brings the kids,” she said. “Typically, with drawing prompts, the kids will be engaged for a little bit and then they’ll start getting loud and I’ll talk to them about their noise levels in the classroom. Something I noticed about kids working at [the outside tables] is it was so quiet.”

The students, she said, stayed focused.

Two kids examine a specimen together
Riley Prins and Landon Boykin, both fifth graders, check out one of dozens of photographs Boykin took in the pop-up garden. Boykin said he stalked one butterfly for several minutes before snapping the right shot. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“It felt like each table was its own island, because they’re surrounded by plants on either side,” she said. “So even though we’re in this parking lot, it totally feels like we’re in this outdoor forest.”

Barnes’ research project has received support from the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens; UVA’s Blandy Experimental Farm and State Arboretum of Virginia; UVA Sustainability’s Equity and Environment Fund; the UVA Student Arts Council; the UVA Sustainable Food Collaborative; Harrisonburg City Public Works; and the Natural Garden in Harrisonburg.

Even more important, it has support from the Harrisonburg Public Schools.

“I love old schools, but the way they built schools back then and all the way through the 1970s and the ’80s was with the inside in mind,” Superintendent Michael Richards said. “I think that now we want to build them with the outside in mind.”

Richards said most new schools have built-in outdoor study spaces. For older schools, like Keister Elementary, Barnes’ idea of pop-up nature is a good addition. It’s also affordable. Barnes worked on a shoestring budget of about $5,000, buying readily available material from hardware stores, including plywood, paint, potting soil and seeds.

Art instructor reviews work of kids
Art instructor Brooke Imber reviews fifth grader Riley Prins’ pictures. Thousands of photos taken by dozens of students will be reviewed to better understand what aspects of the pop-up garden attract the most student attention. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The pop-up nature area can be broken down, moved and reassembled in another parking lot or even another school, if necessary. That flexibility could be important, Richards said.

“Teachers don’t want a stale classroom. They want to change things up. They want to have a new seating arrangement. They want to have the kids come in and think, ‘Oh, something new today.’ They get engaged to learn that way,” he said. “And the pop-up outdoor learning space, it provides the same thing. It’s a place to go to study something new and something different every day.”

The kids are all for that.

“I’d rather stay out here than go back in the classroom because you can do so much more outside,” Landon said.

“Outside, in nature, you’re basically free,” Riley said.

“It’s more boring in a classroom. Out here, there’s so much to explore,” classmate Ariana Cardoso said. “Inside is only one room, but nature is infinite.”

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications