Picture a standard playground advertisement with a fancy, expensive play structure that includes places for swings, slides, rock walls, bikes, and scooters.

As you imagine that playground ad, can you see the smiling children playing on those swings, slides, climbing structures, etc. Did you also notice that most of those children are playing individually? There are many resource catalogues showing this type of magnificent play structure, and to purchase them will be a major investment, not to mention the cost of installation for your program.

A quality play space does not need this type of playground structure, and is not lacking if they are not provided. In fact, cooperative play is more likely to happen if it is NOT there.

By keeping in mind a few basic guidelines, and by thinking creatively as you plan your outdoor classroom, you can provide a superior learning environment that children of any age will love and will play in cooperatively. The best part is that it can all be accomplished on a simple budget (translation: without much money). With a little extra ingenuity, your back yard (if you are a home provider) will look less like a playground and more like an inviting garden space when the children are not there; something those big playground structures can never do.

Your outdoor classroom is an extension of the indoor classroom, and anything that is done indoors can be done in an outdoor classroom, however, you don’t want to simply mirror the indoor environment. To make the most of the opportunities for growth and education for the children in the out of doors, there needs to be a carefully thought-out, creatively constructed, and highly interactive area for the children to not only repeat the learning from the inside, but for them to be engaged in a completely new manner that will reinforce their exploration and learning.

To get started, you might want to take a walk through the memories of your own childhood and the areas where you loved to play. You didn't always play at the playground. Back in the fifties and sixties, we had more freedom with less fear; more imagination with improvised playthings and fewer media-inspired purchased toys; more nature and less technology. Of course these other things existed, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

At any rate, my store-bought toys were primarily to be kept inside and the things that I played with outdoors were usually the natural items. There was digging in the dirt to create “houses” for the troll dolls, sweeping up pine needles to create walls and furniture outlines for playing house, mixing mud and the contents of the occasional salt, pepper and sugar packets to create a dinner fit for a king, and the ever-present game of kickball with the whole neighborhood. Other favorite pastimes included finding a cozy spot under a tree or in the shade of the bushes to draw, read or share secrets with a friend, building a tent with blankets or old sheets and playing board games in them, building a pretend campfire with rocks and sticks, and enjoying picnic lunches by the “campfire”. While my brother enjoyed some of these same activities, he preferred to create battlefields for his army men than build troll houses, dropping dirt-clod “bombs” on any wayward bugs; digging in the dirt was to look for buried treasure; and when he was quiet for very long under the shade of a tree, it was usually to take apart some toy or gadget that he had found to see how it worked. Has this stirred up any of your childhood memories? What other things did you enjoy outside?

Now, come back to the present, and look at those activities through the eye of an experienced early childhood teacher. Did you see the different types of learning happening? There was art, science and sensory, math, manipulatives and games, language and reading, dramatic play and gross motor games. Try to imagine doing these things in your outdoor play space. Now you have the foundation for your outdoor classroom design.

Remember that effective learning happens when a child is manipulating the environment and experiencing the results with relatively few boundaries, particularly those created by the “don’ts” – don’t dig in the flowers, don’t make a mess, don’t get in the water, don’t, don’t, don’t. The most important thing that you can do to make your outdoor play space into an effective learning environment is to be realistic in your expectations of how the children will want to use the area, and provide appropriate materials and spaces where they can do the things that children long to do in the out of doors. In so doing, you will create opportunities for real learning and fewer behavioral challenges that usually occur when children get bored and have little to do that engages them as fully as your creative play space will do.

Go to childcare-resources from More than a Playground: Outdoor Classroom

Space for Outdoor Games

Space for Science and Sensory Activities

Space for Art Projects

Space for Dramatic Play

Go to Learning Centers