Tuesday 16 October 2012

Practical Tips for Making Outdoor Learning a Reality (Guest Post by Emily Plank)

Absolutely delighted to have Emily from Abundant Life Children guest posting this week, sharing her thoughts on how to create an outdoor area that allows for real quality learning.

Practical Tips for Making Outdoor Learning a Reality

I am one of those “outdoor education” types: championing the child’s right to be muddy, cheering unstructured time in nature, encouraging adventure, and supporting efforts to unplug.  Yet, despite my utopian idea of young children busily building forts or crouching to inspect the tiny wings of a moth, actually developing a style of education that works outside is an ongoing challenge! 
I grew up a city girl in Southern California.  Despite what you might assume, I spent a good deal of time outside engaged in typical childhood endeavors of tree climbing and endless swinging. Mostly, I remember playing for long stretches with my brothers or my friends, making up story lines to mimic the realities we observed around us.
My mission as an early childhood educator has been to identify the critical elements of nature play and find a way to make those elements work-able in my day-to-day experience.  I am an in-home care provider, meaning I am charged with the care and education of a small crew of seven children with a wide age range (currently, 15 months old – 4.5 years old).  They arrive at my home around 8:00 am and stay until 5:30 pm.  I am responsible for preparing meals (breakfast, morning snack, lunch, and afternoon snack).  I clean, I assist with toileting, I encourage thoughtful interactions between children, and I structure the day. 
Through the process of developing my space, I have found several key elements and ways of implementing those elements that have been very successful in my setting. 
1.       Defined spaces.  Environment signals usage.  Cluttered spaces signify high intensity activities and chaos (think giant, unordered toy boxes).  Partitioned, disconnected spaces suggest inflexibility in material movement.  Wide-open fields offer spaces for running and kick a ball, but limit small-motor, creative play. 

Strategically designing an outdoor classroom involves balancing the many uses: areas for art, areas for small gatherings of 1-2 children, open areas for running and jumping, areas for creative expression, and areas for messy and dirty play.  One of our favorite and most frequently used areas is a large rectangular area with a mulch base.  It serves as our art and outdoor eating area, since it is a natural space for messy activities. 
2.      Independence – keeping the children in charge.  My firm belief is that one of the greatest gifts we can give to children is to foster their sense of competency.  How frustrating is it to want to do something, but lack the ability?  An outdoor classroom should provide lots of child sized items, movable step stools, and clearly defined and age-appropriate expectations. 

On nice days, we frequently take our shoes off outside (sand + shoes = bummer!).  But, keeping track of seven pairs of shoes is an impossible task for me.  Children at Abundant Life are clear about the expectation: if you take your shoes off, put them on the shoe shelf where they can be easily found later. 

3.      Water.  For play, and for washing.  Children need water to facilitate their experiences with other materials (dirt, sand, grass, etc.), to expand their basic mathematical and spatial development, and to clean up when they are ready to come inside. 

A water hose with an on-off valve that children can activate on their own, a sophisticated water pump allowing children to draw water whenever they want, or even a large group size water thermos on a low table can provide the opportunity for children to collect water for their play whenever they want. 

4.      Specific interest areas.  The following is a list of areas that I think are a “must have” in outdoor classrooms.  Some of these areas rotate in my outdoor classroom, but all are available at any moment when the need arises. 

Digging space – an unused dirt patch in the corner or a dedicated sandbox.  Children should be able to dig deep and mix with water.  Keeping kitchen materials nearby facilitates dramatic play with mud or sand. 
Levels – children want to climb in order to see the world from a different point of view.  When we finished digging for our sand pits, we used the dirt to create a grassy knoll in the middle of our yard.  Large tree stumps, moveable wooden crates, or heavy-duty wooden blocks that can be stacked accomplish the same idea.

Tinkering area – loose parts and fasteners.  Consider hammers and nails, string, tape, glue, natural materials such as pinecones and acorns, small pieces of wood, wooden wheels, and popsicle sticks.

Mixing station – an assortment of dry and liquid materials for children to combine and mix.  In the past, we’ve included oats, vinegar, oil, baking soda, lotion, syrup, liquid water color, sand, dried beans, rice, and sequins.  Some areas prohibit the use of food items for sensory play as it can send a conflicting message about the use of food, so deciding on what materials to include requires some reflection. 
What about you?  My outdoor program is always changing…do you have ideas that are on your “must-include” list when you take children outside?  Leave a note below in the comments – I’d love to hear your ideas! 

Emily Plank is passionately passionate about care for children in their early years.  She is a play-enthusiast, expert block-builder, and skilled storyteller, honing her skills during her days with the children at her in-home program, Abundant Life Children.  When she’s not playing, she is tirelessly spreading the message of play and respect to those who work with children (teachers, parents, and policy makers) through her blog, abundantlifechildren.com, and her in-person workshops and presentations.  She is honored to contribute to Learning for Life!


  1. Thanks for a lovely guest post Emily. I always begin by thinking about what is special about being outside... we need activities that make the most of the multi-sensory nature and opportunities do discover, explore, investigate and play in a different way to indoors. I also believe in the involvement of children in the development of an outdoor space through ongoing dialogue and ideas expressed by the children which are then acted upon.

  2. I have chooks in my yard. I like the idea of young children learning to respect and care for other creatures.

    1. Hi Peter, yeah think any creatures for little ones to have to take care of can only help. We have 2 guinea-pigs that the children love collecting juicy leaves for.

  3. Thank you for this useful and inspiring post. Details like this help make it happen. Sharing!

  4. Thank You Very Much.. i love this post.. :)

  5. Wonderful...I love this. Thank you for sharing Emily!

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  7. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
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  8. Thank you so much for sharing the awesome ideas

  9. Wao really cool post. Nice ideas and are innovative also. Would like to try them with my niece.

  10. Nice post Emily! Really good to read

  11. Nice ideas and are innovative also.

  12. Thanks a lot for posting this amazing post Emily Plank!
    I am reading second time your post.
    Excellent tips, this tips liked my girl friend also.
    Thanks again for this post!


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