Exploring in the outdoor classroom

by Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. on April 17, 2012

in Children's Studio, Classroom Setup, Outdoor Classroom, Outdoor Classroom

One of the best things about my preschool is when we get to open back up the outdoor classroom.  Because there is no heat in the outdoor classroom, we can only use it during warm weather but we took a day last week to sneak out there and give it a go…

The outdoor classroom is basically a screened in porch on our property. It sits off by itself and has wooden floors and large screened in windows all the way around…

The outdoor classroom is primarily used for science, nature, and sensory play. When it comes to sand and water, clean-up time is a little easier out here then it is in our indoor classroom because most of the sand can be swept through the slats on the floor and the water can drain through the slats on the floor as well.  As a general rule, we do not bring food items out to the outdoor classroom but we do bring out many other kinds of materials….

The main pieces of equipment kept at all times in the outdoor classroom include a water/sensory table, a window easel, a painting/chalkboard easel, a sand/tinker table and several small sets of tables and chairs. The room is set up into centers so the children can freely move about and choose what interests them during our time in the outdoor classroom…

I use the tables to change up activities we can do outdoors. For example, we may set up one table as a playdough center but on another day, we will change it to a colored sand center…

I also switch out what is in each of the sensory tables very often. How often depends on the overall planning I have in mind for any given week. Today, the children found seashells buried down in the sand and spent time digging them up…

In the water table, the children explored a new kind of water bead (at least new to us) which I will share more about on another day…

I also change up the easels very often – almost daily. The children may find paint, chalk, crayons, markers, shave cream, sponges, and any thing else I can think of set up at the easels.  I want to keep the children coming back to explore the easels as often as I can…

The children are given time to choose where they want to play and they can rotate from one area to the next as they wish. Sometimes you will find a child enjoying a moment alone in an area…

And other times, you will find the entire class all hovering around one activity. I have learned not to worry when the children get to crowded because it doesn’t take long for a few of the children to decide they would rather just find something else to do and come back later. The children have learned to regulate their own time and their own choices extremely well throughout this school year…

But part of helping children to develop that ability to self-regulate is understanding how the classroom time and set-up is managed.  The children need to trust that they will have time to come back and visit a center or they will be upset that they missed out or highly stressed that they might miss out. Even if we have to stay a little longer than originally planned, I make sure the children have had the opportunity to explore every center that was important to them that day…

I also make sure that each of the centers are equally inviting (to the best I can).  What I mean by “equally inviting” is that each center is set up to be different but as equally interesting and engaging as the other (where possible). If only one center looked really cool and fun then the children would tend to all gravitate to that center alone and ignore the others which creates stress.  So I make sure that each center has its own appeal to spark their interest and will allow them plenty of freedom to explore in a way that will interest them….

Creating a well balanced and equally inviting classroom environment is not always easy and there are days when I don’t get it exactly right.  For example, I only had a few takers on my sticky easel today – the other centers were far more interesting than this today but on another day – the sticky easel may be the favorite. One off day doesn’t mean an idea is never a good idea…

Today was our first day to be able to go back out to the outdoor classroom but now that the weather is warming up, we will be able to integrate outdoor classroom time back into our daily schedule again. The children are very excited about this and so am I. It is super nice to be able to get out of our indoor classroom and the added time spent in sensory play is very soothing and relaxing to the children…

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