current issue button
about TXCC button
back issues button
manuscript guidelines button
resources button
Page:   <  
1  2
Acquire PDF for full version of this article.
  (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader®)
Building engaging science labs—outdoors


Physical science
Physical science is the study of nonliving things. It involves the investigation of physical properties, such as the principles of physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry may sound scary to some educators, but the fundamentals are accessible to everyone.

Indoor classrooms do a good job of providing physical science by encouraging children to investigate size, color, weight, and shapes of objects. Other basic physical science learning occurs in activities with water (float, sink, flow, freeze) and air (temperature, blowing).

Unfortunately, many outdoor spaces are not designed to allow children to connect with physical sciences. But teachers can use common outdoor play equipment in creative ways. For example, teachers can help spark curiosity by allowing children to explore motion through wheeled toys. Why is pulling a wagon easier on concrete than on grass? What’s different about rolling a toy truck on a path, up a ramp, and through a tunnel?

Teachers can also engage children in experiments with balls, blocks, and building materials as well as materials such as sand, dirt, and water. Teachers can create physical science activities well-suited to the outdoors such as flying paper airplanes and kites.

Many indoor activities can be brought outdoors. Science tools such as magnets, magnifying glasses, levers, balances and weights, bicycle tire pumps, and prisms are obvious choices. Kitchen utensils such as spoons, strainers, funnels, and eggbeaters add interest to sand and water activities. Simple—and messy—experiments such as mixing baking soda with vinegar and blowing bubbles with different utensils are easily done outdoors.

Children can become involved with these objects individually or in groups. Physical science inquiry starts with explorations that lead children to learn differences and similarities and question cause-and-effect relationships.


Earth science
Earth science is the study of the earth and its size, shape, and makeup. It’s about studying the earth’s behavior, the environment, and natural components. Earth science curriculum includes studying the properties of the earth, ocean, atmosphere, weather, geology, astronomy, and the universe.

Many young children are not regularly exposed to the natural world. Research shows an enormous increase in the use of electronics, television, technology, and video games in young children’s lives. Richard Louv (2008) in his book argues that children are so plugged into television and video games that nature has come to be perceived as a kind of a “bogeyman.”

Teachers and teacher educators play a major role in continually seeking activities that keep children aware of the world around them. Creating outdoor spaces that allow children to explore and to learn about the world’s natural elements enhances their understanding and appreciation of the environment.

Young children are doing earth science when they explore the clouds, sun, shadows, moon, rocks, water, snow, rain, grass, dirt, trees, and shrubs. Young children love to collect objects. Teachers need to provide enough holding containers for children’s collections.

Manipulative objects that enhance earth science include telescope, rain gauges, thermometer, maps, pictures, and sand and water tables. Teachers may want to consider providing craft materials in the outdoor space so children can document what they see and hear. Then children can record their observations. For example, children can use a logbook to draw, paint, or color what they observe outside. They can use digital cameras to record changes in plant growth, leaf color, and weather.


Providing developmentally appropriate outdoor science concepts
Young children need to play with manipulative materials that fit their developmental abilities. Many manipulative materials, especially natural materials (such as stones, pine cones, seeds, and feathers) are free or inexpensive.

When looking at the outdoors as an extension of the classroom, teachers need to remember that all outdoor spaces and children are different. Before rushing to the catalog to buy items or placing every manipulative material in the outdoor environment, teachers need to have a plan in place. The first step is to decide the types of science experiences children should have in the outdoors. The curriculum will influence the planning process.

The second step is to determine who will be using the outdoor space. The type of learning experience will vary depending on the children’s developmental abilities. Earth science for a 2-year-old is different from that for a 4-year-old. Two-year-olds may be excited about collecting and sorting rocks, whereas 4-year-olds might want to experiment with the rocks’ weight, size, color, and shape.

The third step is to consider the outdoor resources. These resources include environmental elements, hazardous conditions, and storage units that may be present. For instance, the topography or drainage can be problematic. On one hand, mud puddles and other naturally occurring water can be a great learning tool for the children. But the water should not be draining from a sewer or other toxic location. Nor should the water be left standing long enough to breed mosquitoes.

Another environmental element is shade to protect children from UV rays and sunburn. Shade may be available from trees or from structures such as patio covers or sheets draped over chairs.
Hazardous elements include utility lines, roads, parking lots, water ponds, and air-conditioning units. These elements are constraints and need to be fenced off. Air-conditioning units and utility boxes should be completely enclosed so no children have access.

Storage units outside are a necessity but are often overlooked (Grounds for Play 2009). Because teachers are strapped for time, materials used outdoors need to be stored at a location convenient to teachers and children. Having more than one storage unit in areas where children play is ideal. Sturdy construction, secure locks, and shelving are important features.


Design high quality outdoor science labs
Outdoor spaces are filled with possibilities for science experiences. To ensure high quality experiences, teachers need to design SAFE™ spaces, give children plenty of time to explore, provide plenty of manipulative objects, and plan purposeful activities.

Teachers can make science relevant to children’s everyday play experiences by incorporating basic principles of life science, physical science, and earth science. When equipped with age-appropriate tools and materials, the outside environment becomes an exciting place for children to observe, collect, describe, predict, experiment, and reflect.


Barnett, D.W.; A.M. VanDerHeyden; and J.C. Witt. 2007. Achieving science-based practices through response to intervention: What it might look like in preschools. 17 (1): 31-54.
Charles, C.; Richard Louv; Lee Bodner; and Bill Guns. 2008. Sante Fe, N.M: Children and Nature Network.
Clements, R. 2004. An investigation of the state of outdoor play. 5 (1): 68-80.
Dempsey, J., and E. Strickland. 1999. Staff workshop teacher handout: The whys have it! Why to include loose parts on the playground. 14 (1): 24-25.
Grounds for Play. 2009. Storage and shade structures.
Kellert, S. 2002. Experiencing nature: Affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children. , P. Kahn and S. Kellert, eds. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Louv, R. 2008.. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books.
Martin, R.; C. Sexton; K. Wagner; and J. Gerlovich. 1998. . Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.
Moore, R., and H. Wong. 1997. Berkeley: MIG Communications.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. 2002. “Starting Children on Science,” in series. NAEYC.
National Science Teachers Association. 2009. Executive Summary: ,
Nicholson, S. 1971. How not to cheat children: The theory of loose parts. 62 (1): 30-35.
Thompson, D.; S. Hudson; and H. Olsen 2007. . Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics.
Yoon, J.; and J.A. Onchwari. 2006. Teaching young children science: Three key points. 33: 419-423.


About the authors
Heather Olsen, D.Ed., an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa and assistant director of the National Program for Playground Safety, has been associated with the development of outdoor play areas for children and educating the public about age appropriateness, supervision, and maintenance. She has given presentations throughout the country about the design of safe play areas and has written articles on creating quality play areas.

Susan Hudson, Ph.D., holds one of three endowed professorships in the United States in leisure and youth services. She has a distinguished record of teaching, research, and service, including serving as division coordinator and coordinator of graduate studies at the University of Northern Iowa. She is also the education director of the National Program for Playground Safety.

Donna Thompson, Ph.D., is a national and international expert in playground development and safety and the executive director of the National Program for Playground Safety. She has more than 20 years experience teaching, writing, and researching about playgrounds. She has done numerous presentations on playground development, including network television interviews, and served as consultant for numerous groups planning playgrounds.