Friday, September 26, 2014

The Outdoor Classroom: Part One

We are fortunate that our classroom has a back door that opens out to a paved alley. On one side is our classroom wall and windows, and on the other is a cinder block retaining wall, just tall enough for me to peek over. Beyond the wall is a grassy rise with spruce trees growing on it, and just behind the trees is the fence that borders the cemetery.

It sounds like a bleak setting for outdoor play, but with the creative thinking and openness to diverse play materials that are inherent to children at play, it has become one of our most used centres.

Some of the items at the children's disposal are:

slices of log
river rocks of various sizes
a small water table (but a bin filled with water would work just as well)
lots of buckets
construction trucks
baskets and beanbags
soccer balls
sidewalk chalk
magnetic fishing poles
fish and insects with magnets glued on to them
hula hoops

Most of the items were gathered here and there, and the cost has been minimal to set this centre up.

Every day during our open-choice centre time, one of the teaching team members supervises outside while the other stays inside. It has created a beautiful balance for the many kinds of learners in our room. Many of the children want to be using large muscles throughout the day, so having the option to get outside to kick a ball, run races, climb the hill, balance on logs, bend to push a truck, or lift up stones prevents many of the behaviours one might expect from a child who would otherwise have the wiggles. There is a flow between the outdoors and indoors, and many children float between the two.

Some of the children organize games like creating a caterpillar by attaching themselves together with hula hoops. Another group draws symbols on the wall and has a contest of who can hit each target with a bean bag. Another trio surrounds the water table and giggles as they catch fish. The children use chalk to create hopscotch games, to trace log shapes on the pavement, and to practise letters and numbers in meaningful ways (e.g. one child wrote "$300" beside the beanbag game to indicate the price of playing!).

The children who prefer to be alone blow bubbles, draw and print on the cinderblock wall, collect pine cones, or balance rocks.

There is something for everyone in the outdoor classroom. There are so many opportunities for so many skills to be built. The children think they're just playing and having fun. We adults know, of course, that we are growing whole, healthy children by giving them the tools to:

*engage in rich multisensory experiences
*shout and be boisterous
*be physically active
*collaborate and create games
*take challenges and risks
*develop strength, balance, and physical coordination
*explore natural objects, and adapt them to their own purposes

We are amazed ever day to see the creative play, deep conversation, and physical competence we observe when outside with the children. We often just watch, and record what's happening by taking notes, videos, or photographs. The children's capacity for using open-ended materials in new ways knows no bounds.

Recently, I observed that some of the children were using our inside blocks to build catapults, teeter totters, and something that resembled a jet ski. Because these blocks are not built to hold the weight of a child, some of them were getting damaged 

I sat with them and shared my observation with them (that they were wanting to build bigger "real" things that they could sit or stand on). I asked if they thought we could use some big log pieces and some sturdy planks in our outdoor centre. Their eyes went wide as they nodded, and immediately broke into excited discussion of what they might do with these materials.

I'll be setting my husband to work with the chainsaw this weekend, and raiding our old drive shed for some wide barn board planks! I can't wait to see what the children create.

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