Developing an outdoor classroom: Blending classroom curriculum
and outdoor play space
“What’s this?“ asks
4-year-old Blake, pointing to the orange-and-black insect
on the zinnia leaves in the play yard.
“A ladybug, “ says his teacher.
“Will it bite?” he asks. Before his teacher can reply, he wants
to know more: “Is it a baby? Where is it going? Can I play with it?”
should children have to wait until they go inside to find
a book about the ladybug they have just discovered, or wait
for crayons and paper to draw pictures of the bugs in the
garden? Children are eager to examine this new discovery
with all their senses. By setting up learning centers outdoors,
teachers can provide information for children as they seek
to understand the world they live in.
the classroom curriculum with the outdoor play space? Children
learn best by doing. The outdoors, weather permitting, offers
children as much opportunity for active learning as they
have indoors. The outdoor environment can offer rich learning
experiences not found indoors. The play yard is full of wonderful
things for children to experiment, discover, and explore.
In a well-planned outdoor environment, children do much more
than run, climb, and ride bikes. They notice the weather,
insects, plants, and everything going on around them. Their
curiosity is stimulated as they seek answers to their questions
about their new discoveries.
classroom is ideal for an emergent curriculum, one in which
units are planned in response to children’s
interests and discoveries. An observant teacher can watch
for teachable moments when children make a discovery, ask
questions, and are eager to learn. Nature provides a convenient
and readily available source of learning materials.
is also the ideal place to provide experiences that are sometimes
considered too messy to do indoors. Sensory experiences such
as measuring flour or mixing sand and water can be more fully
explored without the limits of the indoor classroom. For
the preschool child, the freedom to use materials, without
restriction, always leads to greater levels of creativity
learning centers offer learning opportunities just as they
do in the indoor classroom. Centers focus on writing, art,
reading, science, manipulatives, and blocks with the same
high quality of content as indoors. They provide opportunities
for quiet play as well as active play while children are
can extend current themes and projects into the play yard
by planning for outdoor activities in weekly lesson plans.The
most successful programs with outdoor classrooms employ a
trained play yard coordinator who works with classroom teachers
to bring curriculum themes outdoors. When all staff brainstorm
together, amazing things can happen in the play yard. Teachers
support the yard program by consistently enforcing rules
for use and storage of yard equipment and materials. Cooperation
and communication among the staff are the key elements to
make this program work. When it works, you will have a rich
and exciting play yard.
What is an outdoor learning center?
A learning center is a place where children have access to
the materials or equipment necessary to fully explore their
current interest. Learning centers support and complement
each other as well as current classroom topics. Outdoor
learning centers, like those indoors, promote active learning
through play and hands-on exploration. Using as
a classroom topic, for example, the children will find
a variety of different insects while planting the spring
flower garden in the play yard. A well-stocked cart or
cabinet is essential because science is the core of the
outdoor curriculum. Children need a variety of resources
in their process of discovery, and materials ideally are
readily available indoors and outdoors.
What is the teacher’s role?
The teacher can make all the difference in what a child does
or does not learn. Ideally, the outdoor coordinator or
teacher is a skilled listener, understands the outdoor
environment and has a passion for it, and is able to ask
open-ended questions to prompt, coach, and support a child’s
exploration while outside. Because the outdoors offers
ongoing learning experiences, the coordinator—with
the classroom staff on the yard—is able to support
and add excitement to these experiences. In addition to
handling all the ordinary responsibilities of teaching,
yard coordinators and teachers are comfortable holding
a creepy-crawly insect, digging sand tunnels, helping weed
the garden, and setting up an exciting yard even if it
The teacher understands that children learn about the physical
world through natural curiosity and an urge to touch, see,
hear, smell, taste, and investigate. By using hands-on material
amply provided by nature in a well-established play yard,
a teacher can support and encourage children’s interests,
and use their questions to guide them in understanding the
world in which they live. Children are not passive observers
but active investigators. They are perfect examples of the
saying: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember,
I do and I understand.”
How to plan outdoor learning centers
To create learning centers outdoors, begin by drawing a diagram
of your yard. Decide what type of learning centers you
would like to have and which areas of the yard best suit
the needs of each center. Consider soft and hard areas,
wet and dry areas, and quiet and noisy areas. Spend time
observing the play patterns of the children. How do they
use the various areas, corners, and existing structures
and tables? Where are the children’s natural pathways?
Try to match learning centers to the types of activities
children like to do in certain areas. You would not put the
quiet reading area in the middle of a natural pathway because
it would disrupt the children seeking rest and quiet.
Consider the weather at different times of the year. Do you
have a covered area to use when it rains? Do you have an
area protected from the wind? Do you have a well-shaded area
for hot, sunny days? How will the different seasons change
the types of activities you can provide?
Consider who will use the yard and when. How many children
will be on the play yard at the same time? Will more than
one age group be using the yard at the same time, or at different
times? The number of children in the yard will influence
how many centers you decide to provide. The more children
in the yard, the greater choice of activities you will provide.
Storage and organization are essential
A small storage shed on the play yard is probably the most
efficient way to store equipment and materials. The shed
should have plenty of shelf space so that you can find
things easily. Label the shelves so staff will know what
goes where during afternoon clean-up. We have a container
for lost parts and pieces. The yard coordinator regularly
returns these items to their proper places to ensure that
games and equipment stay intact.
Plastic milk crates are excellent storage containers. Each
crate will contain a different type of equipment. Larger
items such as bikes and shopping carts can be stored on the
floor under the shelves. Reserve enough shelf space for art
materials such as easel paper, paints, and brushes.
Milk crates are not for storage only. We use them in many
ways: as chairs at the various tables, building blocks, and
cars, for example.
You may reserve some materials for outside use only and borrow
other materials like manipulatives, animals, blocks, and
puzzles from the classroom. Store those things that are specifically
for outside use in the shed. Be sure to return other materials
to the classroom. Care and cleaning of equipment is easier
than you might think. Fill a water table, buckets, or dishpans
with warm, soapy water, and set the toys that need cleaning
next to it. The children will wash them again and again.
Children also like to wash tilings with a cloth and scrub
brushes, which are excellent for improving body coordination.
Learning center ideas
This center often leads children into many imaginative games.
It contains a variety of materials that encourage creativity.
The center also promotes language in all its forms—writing
and reading as well as talking and listening. A telephone
is a wonderful tool because it encourages verbal communication.
We often hear children having a conversation with Mommy or
Daddy, especially when they are feeling lonely or sad. They
usually feel better after this imaginary contact with a parent.
A small-wheeled cart with two or three shelves works well
for storage and set-up of equipment. We restock the cart
from the storage shed when we set up in the morning; and
then we simply carry it out and place it next to the writing
center table. On the top shelf are markers, crayons, colored
pencils, scissors, insect stamps, two small stamp pads, and
chalk—each in an appropriately sized open container.
The second shelf holds paper, and the third shelf holds a
telephone and small, message-size pieces of paper. For variety,
we add a keyboard, different types of paper, or an adding
The writing center area is in the same place every day. This
helps the children team to use it properly. A small trash
can in the area helps children dean up after they finish
projects. Once the children learn proper use and clean-up
rules, they can incorporate them into almost any play activity.
With proper supervision, children learn that writing tools,
puzzles, and books are each kept in a special place. All
day, they will go back and forth from writing to running
to climbing. At the same time, they understand that they
may write a note and carry it to the dramatic play or climbing
area or make signs for the yard. We have rolls of tape readily
available for their signs.
We have a small, open-sided playhouse for this center. With
different props, this structure serves as a grocery store,
fire station, hospital, or flower shop. Place rugs on the
ground to create a soft and quiet area. Provide dress-up
clothes, or add blocks to encourage building activities.
Art and manipulatives
A large table works well for this center because you may
need mom for large groups of children. When you are not
using this area for art projects, you can use it for manipulatives,
puzzles, and games or for parent lunches and dinners. For
manipulative materials, consider Waffle blocks, wild animal
figures, Legos, puzzles, games, wooden blocks, small cars
and trucks, dinosaurs, and plastic plants and flowers.
Ideally, all are durable, reasonably weatherproof, easy
to sort, and fun.
For arts projects, consider sponge painting on individual
sheets or on a large piece of paper taped to cover the table.
You can also plan watercolor painting, finger painting, painting
rocks, collages made from natural items such as shells and
moss, and wood sculptures with glue.
This wonderfully versatile area is used for sensory experiences
such as sand, water, mud, and goop (cornstarch and water).
Add some play dishes, measuring cups and spoons, sieves,
funnels, and similar items. Include brooms and dustpans
Children love to pretend they are baking and cooking. Move
a table near the sand box and provide water. Children can
mix sand and water in large bowls with spoons, place their
creations in baking pans, and slide them into an oven made
by stacking a couple of empty milk crates. When they are
finished, hose down the area and fill the sensory table with
warm, soapy water and provide a few wash cloths so they can
wash the dishes. Set out dishwashing as a cool afternoon
The sensory table is also used for manipulatives with small
or round parts. Lincoln Logs with people or farm animal figures
are a favorite. Use Legos, miniature wild animals, miniature
dinosaurs, small wooden blocks, Bristle Blocks, or any combination
of materials you have on hand.