Building engaging science labs—outdoors
by Heather Olsen, Susan Hudson, and Donna
“OK, time’s up,” says Ms.
Bridget, clapping her hands. “Let’s see what you’ve
She guides the 4-year-olds into a circle on
a blanket of newspapers covering the cold ground. The children
begin to empty their paper bags to reveal nuts, twigs, rocks,
leaves, seeds, and a feather.
“What are these, and where did you find them?” Ms. Bridget asks Mindy.
The child points to the large oak tree by the back fence.
“Acorns!” cries Daniel. “We have those at our house.”
“What would happen if you pushed this acorn into the ground and covered
it with dirt?” Ms. Bridget asks the group.
“It would be lost,” says one child, slowly shaking his head.
“A bird might find it,” says another child, imitating a bird pecking
around on the ground.
“No,” Daniel insists. “It would grow into
Mindy takes a closer look at an acorn, her eyes
growing wide. “Is there
a little bitty tree in there?”
Many early childhood teachers,
like Ms. Bridget, take advantage of the outdoors as an extension
of the classroom. Except in the worst weather, the outdoors offers
a place for many kinds of learning activities, such as reading
and telling stories, painting and modeling with clay, marching
in a rhythm band, and—especially—learning
The best designed outdoor classrooms are those that
invite children to explore, follow curiosity, and engage in rich
sensory experiences. Research shows that young children’s
thinking is sophisticated. They are capable of a wide range of
reasoning processes used in science: observe, describe, compare,
question, predict, experiment, and reflect (Barnett et al. 2007;
National Science Teachers Association 2009; Yoon and Onchwari
2006). In addition, as experienced teachers know, young children
have a sense of wonder about the world.
Bringing children outdoors
for science is timely, given the movement in recent years to
reconnect children to the natural world (Charles et al. 2008).
(To learn more about this movement, see the report Children
and Nature 2008 at www.childrenandnature.org/downloads/CNMovement.pdf.)
argue that children develop psychologically and cognitively as
well as live happier and healthier lives when they are given
opportunities to play in the outdoors (Clements 2004; Kellert
2002). It makes sense, then, to turn outdoor spaces into exploratory
places where children are free to investigate, manipulate, and
The outdoor environment is filled with informal learning
possibilities. But for these possibilities to materialize, outdoor
environments need to be designed and planned. It is through planning
that young children can be provided with the time and opportunity
to become young scientists. This article offers tips on designing
quality and safe outdoor environments to enhance science inquiry.
Can children learn science outside?
Before planning for informal science concepts in the outdoors,
teachers need to reflect on whether children can engage in
science concepts outside. The first step is to ask if you truly
believe that children’s play experiences can foster a
sense of discovery in the outdoors. Learning and discovering
through play is based on theories of John Dewey and Jean Piaget,
who believed that young children learn best through their play
The National Association for the Education of
Young Children states: “Young children are scientists
at play” (2002).
It is through play that children can develop an understanding
about life and its meanings.
Science is everywhere outside. With
proper planning, the design of the outdoor environment allows
children to construct a meaningful understanding of the world.
Playful discovery happens when teachers plan environments that
stimulate children’s thinking and
are interesting and familiar (Martin et al. 1998).
magical moments for children by exposing them to places that
encourage imagination, exploration, discovery, and manipulation.
Teachers need to maximize outdoor spaces so children have the
opportunity for scientific discovery.
Creating quality outdoor
science environments involves four components:
1. The environment must be SAFE™ (Thompson et al. 2008).
2. Children are given plenty of time to explore.
3. The space has plenty of manipulative objects for children
4. The space is purposeful.
1. Creating a SAFE™ environment. Children
grow physically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually when
the outdoor environment is SAFE™. The National Program
for Playground Safety identifies four factors of injury risk
for children on playgrounds: Supervision, Age-appropriate design
of equipment, Fall surfacing, and Equipment and surfacing maintenance
(Thompson et al. 2007).
S Supervision is crucial to prevent injuries
and avoid potential lawsuits. A supervisor’s role is
to select the best materials for the environment so that lessons
can be effective.
A Age-appropriate design refers to a play environment that meets
the developmental skills and abilities of the children using
F Fall surfacing under and around slides, swings, climbers, and
other playground equipment must be resilient to prevent injury
if a child falls while playing. (State regulations may specify
surfacing coverage and depth.)
E Equipment maintenance of the play areas includes eliminating
hazards and keeping the materials in the outdoor environment
in good condition.
2. Children are given
plenty of time to explore. Children learn
how to learn by having enough time to explore, perform experiments,
and solve problems. Exploring, investigating, and problem solving
takes time. Children need time to become engaged, work through
puzzling situations, and reflect on their findings. Sometimes
children need time for their sense of wonder to come alive.
3. The space has
plenty of manipulative objects for children to investigate. Children love to engage with the physical environment
and the pieces in these spaces (Nicholson 1971; Moore 1986).
Manipulative objects are materials that children can pick up,
sort, arrange, and collect. Examples include the following:
building toys (such as blocks and boxes),
natural materials (such as pine cones, rocks, mud, sticks,
and smooth stones),
art supplies (such as brushes, paint, cups, water tables, sponges),
dramatic play toys (such as kitchen materials and cooking utensils,
dress-up clothes, dolls, and action figures).
“Loose parts,” such as those above, make the outdoor
play environment complete (Dempsey and Strickland 1999). It’s
important to provide a variety of materials and enough of them
so each child has the opportunity to manipulate and explore.
4. The space is purposeful. Typically, the outdoor environment
has been viewed as “the playground” comprised of
play structures, and its purpose has been seen as a kind of school
recess. As such, children are let loose to enjoy “free
time” in the environment, while staff members congregate
and take a rest from interaction in the indoor classroom.
the benefits of the outdoor play environment are more extensive
than “burning energy” and taking a break from academics.
Educational research is rich with empirical evidence supporting
the relationship between play and learning. In particular, children
are able to socialize with their peers and explore the environment
using their five senses.
Making a space that is purposeful does
not necessarily mean a formal structure as found in the indoor
classroom. Instead, the staff sees the outdoor environment as
an extension of the indoor classroom and arranges the outdoor
environment to supplement the indoor curriculum. For instance,
if story time is about Peter Rabbit, then outdoor time might
be spent in a garden area harvesting vegetables that Peter and
his friends might eat.
Different types of science
Science must be relevant to children. It must be taught in a
way that allows them to construct meaningful understanding
from their experiences. Teachers need to interlace science
concepts into everyday play opportunities. This can be achieved
through offering the fundamental concepts of life science,
physical science, and earth science into the outdoors. See
the checklist on page 36 for suggested manipulative materials
for each type of science.
Life science allows children to develop an understanding of the
differences between living and nonliving things. Life science
gives children a chance to closely observe, care for, and enjoy
The three major components of life science are
biology, physiology, and ecology. Biology is the study of life,
such as plants and animals. Physiology refers to the functions
and behaviors of living things. Ecology is the relationship
between living things and their environment.
There are many options
for teaching life sciences, but the simplest technique is to
have children explore their immediate outdoor classroom. A preschool
in Florida might grow and study an orange tree, while children
in Nebraska may want to plant and care for corn or beans. Young
children need experiences that they can directly relate to their
The outdoor environment has life science when it
incorporates living things such as plants and animals and how
they interact with their environment. Young children are involved
in life science when they are working with manipulative objects
that include seeds, plants, birdhouses, bird feeders, bug nets,
magnifying glasses, bug holding containers, magnifying glasses,
worms, binoculars, clear containers, and stethoscopes.
consider what could happen if children were given seeds to plant.
Planting seeds outside is a wonderful opportunity to discuss
what is needed for living things to grow and develop. Children
can discover how to care for the seeds through providing the
right amount of water, nutritious soil, and sunlight. Other days,
bug nets and holding containers could be available to allow children
to discover how living creatures share the outdoor space.