Are you a teacher looking to expand your lessons beyond the classroom walls? Perhaps you are a parent or caregiver looking to revamp your own outdoor space this season. Or maybe you have no particular designated outdoor space at all but want to bring some nature based learning on-the-go. Either way, I am excited to share some fresh air and fresh ideas for creating your own outdoor classroom. While the word “classroom” often gives forth an image of sitting sedentary at a desk with a pencil and paper at hand, I truly believe some of the most valuable learning experiences come from an opportunity to move, explore, discover, and create. Nature is a fabulous place for this to occur!
As the weather warms in many places, we all have the itch to get outside and play. Research shows that children who are given ample time and space to play and explore in nature are learning and developing as well. There are a plethora of resources and research on the topic available at naturalstart.org.
Setting Up Your Outdoor Classroom
But where do you begin?
Let’s break it down into seven main categories and I’ll take you through it (and through my own outdoor classroom) step by step:
- Plant, Tend & Grow a Garden
- Literacy Outside
- Math Outside
- Science Outside
- Play Outside
- Art Outside
- Bringing It Inside or On the Go
1. Plant, Tend & Grow a Garden in your Outdoor Classroom:
Whether you’ve gardened before or have a brown thumb, whether you have a huge yard or a small pot, I encourage you to plant, tend and grow something with your children.
Gardens are a place where multiple areas of learning can happen all at once, without specific planning. Through gardening, we learn about the process and miracle of a tiny seed growing into a plant, a flower, a fruit or a vegetable, perhaps even a tree.
We meet our “neighbors” in many forms. We experience the farm to table journey whether or not we have the farm. Gardens are truly a place of wonder and fascination.
A few things to consider as you set out to plant, tend, and grow your garden:
What should I plant?
- When it comes to planting with children, you should plant whatever you want! Don’t be afraid to fail–it can and it will happen, even to an experienced gardener.
- I would recommend starting off simply and not biting off more than you can chew. Consider planting flowers that attract helpful pollinators and support native species in your area.
- Maybe you’d like to plant a food garden with vegetables, herbs and fruits. Perhaps you might pick a few favorites or try a new variety. I would recommend against planting something you don’t like to eat.
- If you end up with an abundance and more than you can use, sharing among neighbors and friends is a great way to build community.
Related post on What to Plant: Five Senses in the Garden
Utilize community and written resources.
- Local garden nurseries are a great place to begin.
- A neighbor who has an incredible garden is another great resource and beautiful friendships can emerge.
- There are some great ideas for activities and literature about gardening with children on Fantastic Fun and Learning and a great place to begin is with this article, Gardening with Kids.
2. Literacy Outside in your Outdoor Classroom:
Reading and writing tend to be indoor activities, but they don’t have to be restricted to a location with four walls and a roof.
Here are some ways to encourage reading and writing outdoors in your yard and beyond:
Garden signs for a print rich environment
Using signage in your garden and yard is a great way to expose your little learners to literacy through printed word. Even pre-readers can appreciate labels and signs in print, especially if they include pictures as well.
There are many creative ways to make your own garden signs, whether it’s to label your plants, different learning areas or even as an art installment.
Early writers may love the opportunity to participate in creating garden signs.
Chalk is a great medium for outdoor writing/drawing.
I keep a tightly sealing tin stocked with chalk in a variety of sizes and colors at the ready for outdoor play. It can be used on pavement, walls, fences and sidewalks and will wash away at the next rain!
Letter and word rocks and/or manipulatives.
One great way to bring letters and literacy outdoors on a shoestring budget is to write letters and/or words (even draw pictures) on rocks with acrylic paint pen.
One of my favorite first ways to introduce this is with the letters in your children’s names.
From there, you can work a whole alphabet, word rocks for building sentences, stories or poetry and even illustrated story rocks for accompanying a good book or creating your own outdoor story.
Letter manipulatives from indoors can also be brought outside, like alphabet magnets or blocks. These are great for outdoor letter/word scavenger hunts!
Bring a book!
Whether it’s a field guide, a nature themed children’s book or just some of your usual favorites, there’s no reason you can’t bring books outside.
Consider setting up a cozy outdoor area especially for reading if you have a covered and shady location and the space/budget to include some cozy places to sit and read.
Nature journals and clipboards
These are great ways to bring literacy and writing outdoors and on the go.
Garden observation station
Create a Garden Observation Station for recording weather, garden, wildlife or other nature updates and news using a dry erase board or chalk board.
Markers or chalk can be stored in an airtight container.
If you wish to create a permanent sign/label on it you can do so with acrylic paint pen and a spray of acrylic adhesive to preserve it.
Ideally, this will do best long term in an area with some overhead coverage/protection from the elements.
Chalk boards and dry erase boards can often be found inexpensively at secondhand stores or on discount at big box stores. If they are also magnetic, this is great place to use magnetic letters or words for magnetic poetry as well.
3. Math Outside in your Outdoor Classroom
Math outside is more natural than you’d think!
Nature is abundant in loose parts and manipulatives for counting, grouping, weighing, measuring, creating geometric shapes and more.
Bringing out some tools from indoors can also enrich mathematical thinking and learning outside.
- Plastic rulers and tape measures can be made available for measuring plant growth, circumference of a tree trunk, area of a garden bed.
- A balance scale can be brought out to compare weights of different produce. (How many cherry tomatoes does it take to equal the weight of one large tomato?)
Opportunities for measurement, sorting/comparison, estimation, math operations, fractions, patterns and more are everywhere you look in nature–and you needn’t look far:
- Planting seeds encourages counting by twos.
- Designing flower gardens can encourage pattern recognition.
- Can you sort a collection of pine cones by size from small to large?
- Can you use a stick as a tool of measurement and measure how tall your friend is?
- Can you use sticks or rocks to trace shapes drawn in chalk?
4. Science Outside in Your Outdoor Classroom
This one seems almost self-explanatory. Nature and the garden are full of scientific discoveries waiting to be made by scientists young and old alike.
You could create an entire year’s worth of science curriculum by planting, growing, harvesting and seed saving/preserving your garden harvest or observing seasonal changes in trees or animal behavior.
Some creative and simple additions to your outdoor space can also encourage scientific discovery and observation:
Create a weather station to explore wind, rain accumulation, temperature and weather patterns.
You can document what you see in your nature journal or at your garden observation station board, or simply bring it into natural conversation.
Outdoor thermometers and rain gauges are often available at dollar stores in the spring.
One way to learn about and appreciate different types of weather in all seasons is to get outside in different types of weather in all seasons.
A popular Scandinavian proverb reminds us that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
Follow their lead and run with it!
Children ask a billion questions outdoors. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know–but don’t stop there either.
If your little one stumps you with a question about tree stumps, venture on to the library or the internet to learn more.
If your child has a particular interest, infuse your outdoor experience with books, learning opportunities and maybe even some local field trips to explore the topic further.
While many outdoor experiences might be plagued by warnings to keep off the grass or not touch the plants, your outdoor space can be one that encourages a hands (nose, mouth, ears and eyes) on approach.
Consider allowing your young master gardeners their very own plot or pot to tend.
Create a snipping garden with a selection of small/inexpensive plants, flowers or herbs that are OK to be cut and harvested for mud pies, fairy potions and other important uses.
Here are some more great ideas on Using All Five Senses in the Garden!
Tools for Observation, Collection and Documentation
These can be stored outdoors with a little creativity and ingenuity.
Some ideas for what tools to include can be found below in the list of items to include in your Nature-on-the-Go kits.
Many items can withstand the elements and those that need a bit more protection can be stored in plastic pencil pouches, sealed containers or under covered/shaded areas.
5. Play outdoors in the Outdoor Classroom
Creating an outdoor space that sparks wonder and encourges play does not need to break your back or your budget. You might consider some of the following ideas:
MUD PLAY–just add water!
I am a huge fan of dirt in all forms, especially mud.
You might set up a designated mud kitchen or just supply some pots, pans and spoons for mixing a nice pile of dirt and a water source.
Your kids may come in covered from head to toe, but research points increasingly to the many health benefits–both physical and emotional–of playing in dirt and mud!
Small World Play
Small world play with natural and manufactured loose parts is a great way to spark wonder in the garden.
Tiny toys and people and animals brought from indoors can ignite the imagination of little ones playing outdoors.
Fairy gardens and fairy houses can be created with thought and intention or on the go after a yard or neighborhood scavenger hunt to collect materials.
Fairy gardens and fairy houses can be created with thought and intention or on the go after a yard or neighborhood scavenger hunt to collect materials.
Create an “I Wonder” Station
Don’t be overwhelmed or alarmed if your children don’t naturally take to playing and exploring independently outdoors.
Creating an “I Wonder” Station can turn your outdoor classroom into a real destination!
I love using a simple plant hook with a sign.
Add on a basket with:
- a book and activity,
- an intriguing question or idea,
- some silks and fabrics for building forts or making costumes,
- some puppets for an outdoor puppet show,
- some little fairies and dollhouse furniture to add to small world play…
Dramatic play outdoors can be set up just as it would indoors.
You may need to take into consideration toys and tools that can be left in the elements versus ones that need to be sheltered inside.
A mud kitchen could become a restaurant–children could even write/draw menus and recipe books to be laminated and used.
An outdoor table could also turn into a mad scientist’s lab with containers for mixing colorful water and baking soda/vinegar potions or a tool bench for young woodworkers to build or a potting shed with recycled pots, gardening tools and artificial flowers or fruits/vegetables for growing, harvesting and potting.
I like to hold to the motto here (and in all areas of learning) that anything you can do inside can be brought outside. It simply requires some extra planning and creativity.
6. Art Outside in the Outdoor Classroom
Art is all around us in the outdoor classroom. Inspiration has been found in nature for as long as time itself.
Art can be in the form of painting, sculpture, loose parts arrangement, photography and more.
You can create art that is permanent and brought indoors to display or displayed outdoors in your yard or garden.
Expose your little learners to some of the great nature inspired artists.
Creative Work Surfaces
Consider different working surfaces and environments such as portable easels for vertical work, clipboards and sketchbooks for art on the go and even how working in different spaces and at different times of day can encourage a different artistic experience.
Go BIG, and get Messy!
BIG Art and Messy Art projects are perfect for outdoors!
You’re likely to have more space outside for large scale art projects and it’s also a great space for messier art projects.
Think foot painting instead of fingerpainting.
Or “paint” balloon tossing.
Or “fly swatter splat painting.”
Just be mindful to clean up anything that could be harmful to the environment.
Related Post: BIG ART inspiration
Create with Natural Materials
Art with natural materials can be a great way to create outdoors.
Sure, nature provides an incredible muse for capturing beauty on paper (or canvas)–but what about ditching the paint brushes for some nature-made “brushes” using cut flowers, pine cones or interesting leaves and branches?
7. Bringing it INSIDE or On-the-Go
Sure, many of us would like to stay outside forever, but eventually we do need to go inside. Here are a few ways you might consider bringing a bit of the outdoors in with you:
Bring a bit of nature indoors
Nature inspired activities inside can include using items from nature or nature-themed in learning and play.
Perhaps you set up an indoor still life or set out a basket of tree “blocks” and natural loose parts for building and designing.
Maybe you plant and grow an indoor fairy garden, terrarium or herb garden in your kitchen window.
A Nature Table
Set up a Nature Table that includes items both found outdoors in nature and nature-inspired ones created or found indoors.
Change out your Nature Table through the seasons and year to capture changes outside and important family celebrations or traditions.
Head to the Kitchen
Cook, bake or create with your garden harvest!
From homemade breads, jams, cookies, build your own salad or pizza nights and even homemade playdough–you can use elements collected from your garden and even (carefully) foraged to create recipes to eat or play with.
Go on a Nature Based Field Trip
Nature based field trips are another category I include in “bringing it inside.”
Visiting the garden nursery, the library, the farmer’s market or produce stand, even local farms, museums and public gardens are all ways you can bring nature based learning with you after it’s time to come inside.
Make a Nature-on-the-Go Kit
Nature-on-the-Go Kits can be prepared and ready to take along to the park, the woods, the farmers’ market or botanical garden center.
You can keep it small and simple, stored inside of a pencil pouch or go a little larger with a backpack or bin.
Here are some ideas of items to include:
- A notepad, clipboard and paper or nature journal
- Masking tape or double sided tape for sticking small treasures into your nature journal. Masking tape can also be wrapped loosely around a wrist, sticky side out to create a nature bracelet with small leaves and flowers.
- Pencils, colored pencils and other writing/drawing implements
- A washable inkpad for making nature stamps out of seed pods, leaves and other small textured natural treasures
- A broken crayon for tree bark or leaf rubbings
- A small tin of clay or playdough for making nature prints or sculptures with found materials
- Magnifying glasses, binoculars, prism lenses or other means of taking a closer observation
- Containers with and without ventilation for collection and observation of found items (or temporary collection of living critters, keeping safety and supervision in mind)
- A field guide specific to your local area–there are great ones made especially for children to use found at your local library or bookstore
As the seasons shift into the warmer months in many places, we can all feel the itch to get outdoors. Now that you’re well on your way to infusing that space with opportunities for learning and play, you no longer have to feel it is a break from the important tasks of learning, but rather a destination for them!