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Building engaging science labs—outdoors


“OK, time’s up,” says Ms. Bridget, clapping her hands. “Let’s see what you’ve found.”

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 a tree.”

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 science.

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 at

Scholars 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 observe.

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 experiences.

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).

Teachers create 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 to investigate.
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 it.
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:
holding containers,
sand toys,
building toys (such as blocks and boxes),
wheeled toys,
natural materials (such as pine cones, rocks, mud, sticks, and smooth stones),
art supplies (such as brushes, paint, cups, water tables, sponges), and
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.

But 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
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 living things.

The three major components of life science are biology, physiology, and ecology. is the study of life, such as plants and animals. refers to the functions and behaviors of living things. 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 surroundings.

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.

For instance, 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.