Natural playgrounds, or outdoor classrooms, are places for active learning to take place. This can be in addition to an inside classroom, or it can serve as the primary or only classroom. I was inspired to create a natural classroom after attending a nature explore workshop. I learned about child development, the value of loose parts play, and the value of giving children more time outside of a traditional classroom to explore and learn. In our society there are more and more concrete, paved, plastic, and man-made surroundings. Natural playgrounds and outdoor classrooms are a growing trend that show promising results for child development. Research and evidence show the importance for children to have consistent exposure to natural environments with multiple textures, scents, sights, sounds, and natural elements such as wood, rock, stones, plants, and water.
Changing the Environment
How can we as teachers or parents address common learning challenges? What if we go back to nature or natural environments? Are children able to think better, be calm, and focus? When I am outside, I am calmer and find peace in the gentle breeze in the trees and wind chimes. Possible learning experiences outside might include plants, animals, patterns, math concepts, literacy, and science experiences. Learning in a natural environment, where children can be invested in play, can bring greater understanding because it encompasses a range of senses and hands on learning. When outside, children have space to move heavy logs or maybe pushing or pulling other children around in a wagon to give the impact they need so they can focus on other tasks.
Defining Learning Spaces
Just as in the classroom or in family childcare, learning areas need to be defined. You can get many great learning space ideas from other teachers, resources, and sources online. Books include Learning with Nature Idea Book, Let Them Play by Jeff Johnson, or Loose Parts Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky. One way that we define spaces is with what mother nature has put in our space. For instance, our music area is centered in a natural grove of trees that have grown over the years. What a great natural defining of space. It is surrounded by our trike trail as well. Around our large block area with stumps for rolling, lifting, pushing, stacking, etc., is another group of trees with large and small dump trucks for scooping, pushing, and dumping mulch into one another. On a side note: children love to play with mulch. Don’t fight it! Give them a way to explore the mulch in a constructive fashion that you are okay with.
My Favorite Outdoor Space
One of my favorite spaces in our certified Nature Explore classroom is the music area. One of the many reasons I love to be outside is because it is so peaceful even though we are close to a big road. I love the peaceful sound of our many wind chimes in different tones blowing in the breeze. Wind chimes can be purchased in many places or DIY. If you purchase one, be cautious of things that can break and become a hazard such as small glass pieces. Depending on the area you live in, you probably have a plethora of natural materials to create wind chimes with a little ingenuity. Since we live in Florida, we have a shell chime that the children love to feel, walk between the rows of shells, and listen to. One of our problems with it has been that it gets tangled as they go through it.
Knowing that they love to go through to make the sound and let them swing, I was super excited when I found some bamboo that a neighbor had cut down. Now we have a “People Chime”! We hung the People Chime made of bamboo and decorated it with child and adult hand prints so the children could walk through it and make them swing a little bit to create a deep hollow tone as they hit together. I remember the day the children came out and saw the finished product. We were surprised at their first experiences with it. We had created this wonderful — wait for it — Chick-Fil-A Drive Thru! What?! Wait! I planned, drilled, carefully sanded so they were smooth, and created this super cool super-size bamboo chime that they didn’t see as that at all. They saw a drive thru for fast food restaurant. Oh, my did I have a good laugh!
Other Outdoor Space Opportunities
Did I mention that another reason I love the music area is because they have a great deal of dramatic play in the area? We have a large xylophone with metal pans attached on either side for different sounds, sticks for tapping, rain sticks, a large wood frog guiro rasp, shakers, an assortment of wind chimes, a new bamboo people chime, sticks for microphones, and colorful scarves that can decorate an area. We have an old sheer curtain re-purposed to create teepees, or anything else we want to create. As I consider this music area and think of a high school or college, I see the components of the “arts”. I see math as they count the clamps for the scarves, sticks, or patterns in rhythm. I see self-expression, building relationships, honing friendship skills, learning problem solving, and visual and auditory discrimination as we consider the different elements of the area that create sound.
How can you create a music area in your outdoor area or natural playground? Check out the great natural playground pieces at Play with a Purpose! I would love to add some of these pieces to our areas!
Are you considering a natural playground? Here’s where to start: