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Way Beyond Recess: Creating an Outdoor Classroom

5 March 2013 admin 16,898 views No Comment Email This Post Email This Post Print This Post Print This Post

By Ingrid Andrews, Director of Early Childhood Development Center and Wee Tartan Infant Toddler Center

IMG_0022The below article was the lead article in the March issue of The Newsletter of the National Association of Episcopal Schools. To view the original article, click here.

The Outdoor Classroom is a place where children can immerse themselves in nature, hone observation skills, practice persistence and cooperation, develop academic concepts and physical skills and learn problem solving skills and, of course—play and have fun. An Outdoor Classroom is much more than “recess” and a place to simply “let off steam.” At the Early Childhood Development Center at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, the Outdoor Classroom is an artist’s studio, a science lab, a library, symphony hall, theatre and gym.

The Outdoor Classroom Movement

For some time we’ve been concerned about too much “screen time” and not enough “play time” for young children to explore out-of-doors. After reading the research about what Richard Louv called “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his 2008 landmark book Last Child in the Woods we took a good look at our playground and made a commitment as a staff to provide an outdoor environment and curriculum rich with a myriad of learning opportunities – opportunities that give children freedom to use their imaginations and create play on their own, as well as engage in curriculum planned and facilitated by our teaching staff. We pledged to work at giving back to today’s children what society has taken from them: that un-hurried time to play and explore their world.

We first heard about the Outdoor Classroom movement from Eric Nelson, director of special projects and founder of the Outdoor Classroom Project and Outdoor Classroom Demonstration Site Network in California. When we saw slides of Outdoor Classrooms in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, we realized that we had already started on this journey. We learned that concerned educators and parents across the country are taking a careful look at outdoor environments for children.

Our Outdoor Classroom Journey

We started by using a faculty professional development day to visit schools. We then de-briefed what we could add to our playground to further nature study and what curriculum could be integrated into IMG_9885outdoor experiences. We brainstormed intentional math, science, language, literacy, social studies, art, music and drama curriculum that could be offered outside. Beyond ‘what’ we could do, we thought about how children develop what Lilian Katz called the dispositions for learning (creativity, persistence, collaboration, problem solving and communication) and made that an important part of the lesson planning.

With hard work, study (reading and attending workshops) and generous grants from our Parent Teacher Fellowship, we’ve made big changes over the last few years within the same physical outdoor space (100’x80’).

We moved and expanded our garden to maximize the sun exposure and encourage fruit and vegetable growing potential; we expanded our recycling and composting efforts and remained committed to maintaining our barnyard with chickens. We moved our sand area to where the garden used to be and built a deck for hollow block-play when the sand used to be. We had a stone wall built around our sand area (does “Frederick” live there?) to contain the sand and provide a natural look. We added a marimba and set of bongos and created nooks for quiet play with blocks, books, Legos and standing up sand and mud play. These additions enhanced our existing Art Room and Motor Area, each ‘manned’ by a full time outdoor teacher.

Last year we added a deck around our big Pepper Tree to use as a stage for our young actors and musicians and provide a cozy spot for reading, playing with puppets and puzzles. We made sure to plan for lots of ‘loose parts’ for children to feel control over their environment and to use creatively in their play. We planned places for small groups to gather and have conversations, as well as places to ‘run like the wind.’ We’re in the planning stages of re-routing our bike path, adding a tire swing and grassy hill for rolling. As we see how the children use the space and ideas keep inspiring us, our Outdoor Classroom changes, too.



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