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Teach it outdoors: Experiences that are safe and exciting


What makes the outdoor classroom different? Everything!

From the ambient sounds like birds, road traffic, and chirping insects to the freedom children feel in being able to move about freely in a large space, learning—and play—is magnified.

Across all developmental domains and through every traditional learning center, the outdoors offers children a wider range of possibilities for exploration, discovery, evaluation, and satisfaction. In dramatic play, for example, wheel toys—cars, trucks, and busses—enliven standard restaurant, gas station, and car wash props, encouraging children to reenact familiar family experiences. Similarly, outdoor equipment like beams, balls, and hoops enriches a circus study with opportunities to explore a tightrope walker’s balance and agility.

Nature exploration takes on new meaning outdoors. When children analyze natural materials inside a classroom, they miss the context. A piece of bark makes much more sense, for example, when a child can see, touch, and smell it as part of a living tree. Sorting, classifying, and measuring stones by weight and size is more instructive when a wide variety of objects is available—more than what might be feasible on the indoor discovery table.

Art activities too become oversized when they aren’t limited to an 8-by-12-inch sheet of construction paper or a chunk of play dough shared with five other children. Music, dance, sculpture, painting, weaving, and painting can unfold on a grand scale unimpeded by furniture and the caution to “keep the paint on the paper.”

Use the following activity ideas to help you get started with teaching outdoors and feeling confident that you’re offering the most spacious stage for important learning.


Sorting circles
Sorting is a pre-math skill in which children can learn to identify and group materials by attributes, such as color, size, texture, and shape.


Here’s what you need:
sidewalk chalk or paint
objects for sorting


1. Paint or draw a series of sorting circles in a quiet area of the sidewalk or the ground.
2. Introduce the sorting objects with questions. For example, you might gather both rough and smooth stones. Invite children to touch each and to sort into the proper circle.
3. For older children, make the sorting circles into Venn diagrams and sort materials with overlapping attributes—black stones, black stones with white specks, gray stones, and gray stones with white specks, for example.


Wind chimes
Making a wind chime can help children develop basic science and math skills, including learning about weight and balance.


Here’s what you need:
metal coat hangers
light braided twine
metal noisemakers like bells, lengths of metal pipe, discarded silverware, or knitting needles
hooks for hanging


1. Cut lengths of twine to correspond to the metal noisemakers.
2. Tie one end of the twine to the metal and the other to the base of the clothes hanger. Make sure to secure the objects firmly.
3. Make several wind chimes to hang in different areas of the playground. Each will make its own sound—soft, clanking, bold, and resonant.


Outdoor loom
Chain-link fences are generally unattractive, but they make instant looms. Provide lengths of yarn, strips of fabric, and flexible found objects like long grasses, ribbon, or plastic slats.

Alternatively, build an inexpensive, reusable loom.


Here’s what you need:
2 sturdy uprights like trees or poles about 4 feet apart (see “Quiet space canopy” in this article)
netting material like temporary plastic fencing or reused onion sacks
2 lengths of clothesline
string, rope, plastic strips cut from discarded plastic bags, and yarn


1. Tie the netting material securely between two upright poles.
2. Show children how they can weave in and out of the netting with yarn. Invite them to find other materials like grasses and twigs to add to the weaving.
3. Challenge the children to weave vertically, horizontally, and diagonally.


Ice sculpture
Ice invites important conversations with children about matter and its states. Water is a liquid that, when cold (when the heat is taken away) becomes a solid—ice. As a summer activity, ice sculpture is cool and refreshing. In climates with winter freezes, playing with natural forms of ice makes wearing mittens and hats worth it.


Here’s what you need:
large block of ice
containers for freezing water, such as juice cans, molds, rubber gloves, heavy balloons, and ice cube trays
food coloring
shallow wading pool or water table
spray bottles


1. Buy a large block of ice from an ice company, or fill a large plastic container with water and freeze.
2. Fill a variety of small containers with clear or colored water and freeze.
3. When the water is frozen, place the large block of ice in a wading pool or other container that will collect the melted ice. Turn out the other shapes.
4. Invite children to build an ice sculpture. Water from a spray bottle will hold the ice shapes together.

Variation: If you’re using this as a summer activity, use salt as an adhesive with the water in the spray bottle to hold ice shapes together.


Mural art
Invite children to make BIG art. Introduce the concept of cooperative art projects and invite all the children in the group to add to the mural. Leave it in place over several days so that even reluctant artists have a chance to participate.


Here’s what you need:
lengths of fabric or heavy mural paper
fence or building wall
clothespins, paper clips, or tape
art media like chalk, paint, collage materials, and glue or tape, or colored water in spray bottles


1. Attach a long length (at least 6 feet) of fabric or paper to a fence or the side of an outdoor building.
2. Provide a single art medium such as chalk or paint, or offer several media to encourage a mixed-media mural.
3. When the mural is complete, bring it indoors to decorate a hallway.

Adapt this activity to a particular unit of study—undersea life, gardens, the forest, architecture and famous buildings, or clouds. Tweak the materials accordingly.


Light-sensitive plants
Explore the impact of the sun on plant growth. Be alert to other plant needs such as watering, and avoid the use of chemicals to kill bugs. Study the insects instead.


Here’s what you need:
small garden plot or large plant containers
digging tools
water and watering can
plants, at least four kinds that have different responses to sunlight


1. Loosen the soil in the garden plot, or fill the large containers with soil.
2. Plant four or more plants in the plot or containers. Water thoroughly and place in the sun.
3. Encourage children to observe how the plants respond to the sun. Keep a class chart or journal to record the children’s observations.
4. Observations may include the following:

Sunflowers grow tall. The flower head follows the sun each day.

The morning glory is a vine and will need support as it grows. Typically it has blue or purple flowers that open in the morning and close in the heat of the afternoon sun.

Four o’clocks are small shrubby plants. The differently colored flowers open in the late afternoon.

Moonflower vine has giant, fragrant white flowers that open after dark and close when the sun rises.


Making mud pies is a dying art. Explore the textures and smells of wet mud—whether sandy or clay—and help children appreciate the first paint.


Here’s what you need:
areas of the playground out of traffic
digging tools
pie tins, muffin tins, other containers
tubs of water for cleanup


1. With the children, scout an area of the playground to dig and wet.
2. Clear the area (a couple of feet square) with tools and hands. Talk about what you find, such as insects, rocks, and other hidden treasure.
3. Explore the texture of the dry soil. Can it form a ball or does it trickle through fingers?
4. Add water to the soil a bit at a time and continue to explore the texture and smell. Heavy clay soil will hold imprints and can be molded. Lighter, sandy soil makes a paste or paint-like substance.
5. Invite children to play with the mud. They might use it to cover a container like adobe or use it as paint. Of course they can fill pie tins and let the soil dry for mud pies.


Quiet space canopy
Tents and canopies hold almost magical charm for children. This one is flexible, easy to put up and take down, and inexpensive. Make sure to equip these quiet spaces with board games, puzzles, books, or music.


Here’s what you need:
old sheets or lengths of fabric
4 4-foot lengths of aluminum conduit or PVC pipe
4 2-foot lengths of steel reinforcing bar (rebar)
zip or twist ties

1. Choose a level area of the playground away from high traffic areas.
2. Determine the size of the canopy by laying the fabric on the ground. Fold or tear the materials to the desired size.
3. Hammer the rebar into the ground at the four corners of the fabric. Bury one end at least 10 inches.
4. Slip the conduit or pipe over the rebar.
5. Use zip ties to hold the corners of the fabric to the top of the pipes.

Variations: Modify the design for use by infants by hanging streamers or bells from the edges of the sheet and drawing or painting large designs on the sheet before hanging. Put an old blanket or quilt on the ground under the canopy and invite new explorations in the fresh air.


Giant bubbles
Blowing bubbles is a great activity outdoors because you don’t have to worry about children slipping on a wet, soapy floor. Children have plenty of space to experiment and can watch their creations float in soft breezes.


Here’s what you need:
strong bubble soap
water table or plastic wading pool
large bubble wands
drinking straws


1. Mix a batch of strong bubble soap by combining 2/3 cup liquid dishwashing detergent (Dawn® seems to work best) and 1 tablespoon glycerin in a gallon of water. Allow the mixture to sit overnight before using.
2. Make wands by lacing a 3-foot length of string through two drinking straws. Knot the ends.
3. Pour the bubble mixture into the water table. Use wands to experiment with the best techniques for blowing big bubbles.
4. Empty and rinse the water table at the end of the activity. If desired, store the remaining bubble mixture in a covered container for later use.


Obstacle course
Build an obstacle course with a self-imposed rule to spend no money. Use the suggested—and free—materials below, plan the layout, and consider how you will modify the course to keep the children engaged and challenged.


Here’s what you need:
appliance boxes
tires without rims
carpet remnants
milk crates
lengths of lumber
plastic hoops
plastic wading pool filled with balls, bean bags, or pillows
lengths of heavy cardboard tubing (Sonotube® concrete forms)
discarded plastic trash cans with bottoms removed
cable spools
exercise mats
plastic sheeting


Evaluate the materials you’ve collected to plan the course. Make sure you can offer a logical entry and exit. For a low-to-the-ground course, for example, make sure you have a variety of pads, mats, and sheeting to encourage crawling and belly sliding. For a higher course, ensure stability with cleats and pegs. For summer play, consider adding a messy water or mud element. Just remember to introduce the activity and to supervise carefully.


Evaporating tic-tac-toe
School-age children will appreciate the added challenge the variation on this old game provides.


Here’s what you need:
sidewalk chalk
containers of water


1. Draw a large tic-tac-toe grid on a sidewalk with chalk.
2. Instruct the players to mark their places in water with either an X or an O. As in the standard game, three in a row wins.
3. But if the water evaporates from the space before the game is over, that space is available for marking again.


Drive-up window
Take dramatic play outdoors. The activity below combines indoor toys with outdoor equipment.


Here’s what you need:
large tree or table with umbrella
cardboard box to use as window
tricycles and wagons
food props from dramatic play center
cash register and play money
paper sacks and napkins
paper cups and straws


1. Encourage children to set up a fast food restaurant under a tree or on a table with umbrella. Make sure children can reach the area by sidewalk or smooth ground.
2. Invite children to ride their tricycles and wagons to the drive-up window and order food.

Variations: Plan this activity for snack time using real food. Set up a drive-up window for a bank, dry cleaners, or other business.


Cautions for outdoor play
While we welcome the first warm sunny day after a cold, damp winter, the sun is damaging. Heed these precautions offered by the American Cancer Research Center to ensure safe outdoor play—in all weather.
Avoid outdoor play during peak sun intensity hours, which is generally between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. If the shadow is short, the sun’s rays are most intense. Monitor the UV Index and Air Quality forecast ( On days of high intensity, plan indoor activities. This is particularly important for young children, older people, and anyone with respiratory illness.
Assess the outdoor space to ensure that there’s always adequate shade from structures such as porches, roof overhangs, and canopies.
Ask parents to sign a permission form allowing the use of sunscreen. Help children develop the habit of applying sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UV-A and UV-B rays with an SFP of at least 15. This habit may be as important to their skin health as regular brushing is to their dental health.
Wear hats with brims that shade the face and neck.
Make sure children—and adults—have easy access to water to avoid dehydration.
Plan ahead for extremely cold or wet outdoor experiences. Collect extra mittens, hats, rubber boots, and raincoats so children can be physically comfortable while exploring the outdoors in inclement weather. Make sure you have a supply of dry clothes for children to change into when necessary.
Pay attention to and follow emergency plans for weather emergencies like tornadoes and lightning storms.