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Developing an outdoor classroom: Blending classroom curriculum and outdoor play space

“What’s this?“ asks 4-year-old Blake, pointing to the orange-and-black insect on the zinnia leaves in the play yard.
“A ladybug, “ says his teacher.
“Will it bite?” he asks. Before his teacher can reply, he wants to know more: “Is it a baby? Where is it going? Can I play with it?”

Why should children have to wait until they go inside to find a book about the ladybug they have just discovered, or wait for crayons and paper to draw pictures of the bugs in the garden? Children are eager to examine this new discovery with all their senses. By setting up learning centers outdoors, teachers can provide information for children as they seek to understand the world they live in.
Why blend the classroom curriculum with the outdoor play space? Children learn best by doing. The outdoors, weather permitting, offers children as much opportunity for active learning as they have indoors. The outdoor environment can offer rich learning experiences not found indoors. The play yard is full of wonderful things for children to experiment, discover, and explore. In a well-planned outdoor environment, children do much more than run, climb, and ride bikes. They notice the weather, insects, plants, and everything going on around them. Their curiosity is stimulated as they seek answers to their questions about their new discoveries.
An outdoor classroom is ideal for an emergent curriculum, one in which units are planned in response to children’s interests and discoveries. An observant teacher can watch for teachable moments when children make a discovery, ask questions, and are eager to learn. Nature provides a convenient and readily available source of learning materials.
The outdoors is also the ideal place to provide experiences that are sometimes considered too messy to do indoors. Sensory experiences such as measuring flour or mixing sand and water can be more fully explored without the limits of the indoor classroom. For the preschool child, the freedom to use materials, without restriction, always leads to greater levels of creativity and understanding.
Outdoor learning centers offer learning opportunities just as they do in the indoor classroom. Centers focus on writing, art, reading, science, manipulatives, and blocks with the same high quality of content as indoors. They provide opportunities for quiet play as well as active play while children are outside.
Teachers can extend current themes and projects into the play yard by planning for outdoor activities in weekly lesson plans.The most successful programs with outdoor classrooms employ a trained play yard coordinator who works with classroom teachers to bring curriculum themes outdoors. When all staff brainstorm together, amazing things can happen in the play yard. Teachers support the yard program by consistently enforcing rules for use and storage of yard equipment and materials. Cooperation and communication among the staff are the key elements to make this program work. When it works, you will have a rich and exciting play yard.

What is an outdoor learning center?
A learning center is a place where children have access to the materials or equipment necessary to fully explore their current interest. Learning centers support and complement each other as well as current classroom topics. Outdoor learning centers, like those indoors, promote active learning through play and hands-on exploration. Using as a classroom topic, for example, the children will find a variety of different insects while planting the spring flower garden in the play yard. A well-stocked cart or cabinet is essential because science is the core of the outdoor curriculum. Children need a variety of resources in their process of discovery, and materials ideally are readily available indoors and outdoors.

What is the teacher’s role?
The teacher can make all the difference in what a child does or does not learn. Ideally, the outdoor coordinator or teacher is a skilled listener, understands the outdoor environment and has a passion for it, and is able to ask open-ended questions to prompt, coach, and support a child’s exploration while outside. Because the outdoors offers ongoing learning experiences, the coordinator—with the classroom staff on the yard—is able to support and add excitement to these experiences. In addition to handling all the ordinary responsibilities of teaching, yard coordinators and teachers are comfortable holding a creepy-crawly insect, digging sand tunnels, helping weed the garden, and setting up an exciting yard even if it rains.
The teacher understands that children learn about the physical world through natural curiosity and an urge to touch, see, hear, smell, taste, and investigate. By using hands-on material amply provided by nature in a well-established play yard, a teacher can support and encourage children’s interests, and use their questions to guide them in understanding the world in which they live. Children are not passive observers but active investigators. They are perfect examples of the saying: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

How to plan outdoor learning centers
To create learning centers outdoors, begin by drawing a diagram of your yard. Decide what type of learning centers you would like to have and which areas of the yard best suit the needs of each center. Consider soft and hard areas, wet and dry areas, and quiet and noisy areas. Spend time observing the play patterns of the children. How do they use the various areas, corners, and existing structures and tables? Where are the children’s natural pathways?
Try to match learning centers to the types of activities children like to do in certain areas. You would not put the quiet reading area in the middle of a natural pathway because it would disrupt the children seeking rest and quiet.
Consider the weather at different times of the year. Do you have a covered area to use when it rains? Do you have an area protected from the wind? Do you have a well-shaded area for hot, sunny days? How will the different seasons change the types of activities you can provide?
Consider who will use the yard and when. How many children will be on the play yard at the same time? Will more than one age group be using the yard at the same time, or at different times? The number of children in the yard will influence how many centers you decide to provide. The more children in the yard, the greater choice of activities you will provide.

Storage and organization are essential
A small storage shed on the play yard is probably the most efficient way to store equipment and materials. The shed should have plenty of shelf space so that you can find things easily. Label the shelves so staff will know what goes where during afternoon clean-up. We have a container for lost parts and pieces. The yard coordinator regularly returns these items to their proper places to ensure that games and equipment stay intact.
Plastic milk crates are excellent storage containers. Each crate will contain a different type of equipment. Larger items such as bikes and shopping carts can be stored on the floor under the shelves. Reserve enough shelf space for art materials such as easel paper, paints, and brushes.
Milk crates are not for storage only. We use them in many ways: as chairs at the various tables, building blocks, and cars, for example.
You may reserve some materials for outside use only and borrow other materials like manipulatives, animals, blocks, and puzzles from the classroom. Store those things that are specifically for outside use in the shed. Be sure to return other materials to the classroom. Care and cleaning of equipment is easier than you might think. Fill a water table, buckets, or dishpans with warm, soapy water, and set the toys that need cleaning next to it. The children will wash them again and again. Children also like to wash tilings with a cloth and scrub brushes, which are excellent for improving body coordination.

Learning center ideas
Writing center
This center often leads children into many imaginative games. It contains a variety of materials that encourage creativity. The center also promotes language in all its forms—writing and reading as well as talking and listening. A telephone is a wonderful tool because it encourages verbal communication. We often hear children having a conversation with Mommy or Daddy, especially when they are feeling lonely or sad. They usually feel better after this imaginary contact with a parent.
A small-wheeled cart with two or three shelves works well for storage and set-up of equipment. We restock the cart from the storage shed when we set up in the morning; and then we simply carry it out and place it next to the writing center table. On the top shelf are markers, crayons, colored pencils, scissors, insect stamps, two small stamp pads, and chalk—each in an appropriately sized open container. The second shelf holds paper, and the third shelf holds a telephone and small, message-size pieces of paper. For variety, we add a keyboard, different types of paper, or an adding machine.
The writing center area is in the same place every day. This helps the children team to use it properly. A small trash can in the area helps children dean up after they finish projects. Once the children learn proper use and clean-up rules, they can incorporate them into almost any play activity. With proper supervision, children learn that writing tools, puzzles, and books are each kept in a special place. All day, they will go back and forth from writing to running to climbing. At the same time, they understand that they may write a note and carry it to the dramatic play or climbing area or make signs for the yard. We have rolls of tape readily available for their signs.

Dramatic play
We have a small, open-sided playhouse for this center. With different props, this structure serves as a grocery store, fire station, hospital, or flower shop. Place rugs on the ground to create a soft and quiet area. Provide dress-up clothes, or add blocks to encourage building activities.

Art and manipulatives
A large table works well for this center because you may need mom for large groups of children. When you are not using this area for art projects, you can use it for manipulatives, puzzles, and games or for parent lunches and dinners. For manipulative materials, consider Waffle blocks, wild animal figures, Legos, puzzles, games, wooden blocks, small cars and trucks, dinosaurs, and plastic plants and flowers. Ideally, all are durable, reasonably weatherproof, easy to sort, and fun.
For arts projects, consider sponge painting on individual sheets or on a large piece of paper taped to cover the table. You can also plan watercolor painting, finger painting, painting rocks, collages made from natural items such as shells and moss, and wood sculptures with glue.

Sensory table
This wonderfully versatile area is used for sensory experiences such as sand, water, mud, and goop (cornstarch and water). Add some play dishes, measuring cups and spoons, sieves, funnels, and similar items. Include brooms and dustpans for clean-up.
Children love to pretend they are baking and cooking. Move a table near the sand box and provide water. Children can mix sand and water in large bowls with spoons, place their creations in baking pans, and slide them into an oven made by stacking a couple of empty milk crates. When they are finished, hose down the area and fill the sensory table with warm, soapy water and provide a few wash cloths so they can wash the dishes. Set out dishwashing as a cool afternoon activity.
The sensory table is also used for manipulatives with small or round parts. Lincoln Logs with people or farm animal figures are a favorite. Use Legos, miniature wild animals, miniature dinosaurs, small wooden blocks, Bristle Blocks, or any combination of materials you have on hand.