Building engaging science labs—outdoors
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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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
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.