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Getting Outdoors: Creating an Outdoor Classroom for Learning & Play

Sep 03, 2020    |   Outdoor & Sensory Play

In response to COVID-19, many early learning programs are trying to move more of their curriculum and activities outside. Outdoor learning takes advantage of fresh air and open spaces to help early childhood educators meet new guidelines and requirements for social distancing.

While most programs have time outside included in their curriculum, building an outdoor classroom goes one step further by prioritizing time spent outside. Curriculum and classroom materials typically worked on indoors are taken outside to be enjoyed in nature.

Developmental Benefits

In addition to providing a solution to social distancing challenges, outdoor learning offers  many benefits for children’s learning. Researchers have found that when children learn outdoors, they engage in more creative play, stay healthier, and master skills in self-discipline, decision-making and problem-solving. Exploring and enjoying the outdoors also encourages children to view the world in a way that leads to strong environmental attitudes and civic behaviors.

Learning from The Forest School Approach

While outdoor classrooms are new to many early learning professionals, some programs practice their entire curriculum outside. These outdoor programs can be a source of inspiration and ideas for programs interested in moving more learning outdoors. One of the most popular curriculum models is called the forest school approach

Some forest school core principles can be easily borrowed and tailored to your program’s outdoor learning goals, including…

  • Play-based, child-directed learning: Children learn as they play! Rather than teachers planning lessons for the day, children take the lead and engage in free-play. Teachers and caregivers support children’s natural interests by following their lead, and working alongside the children to support their learning.

  • Hands-on interactions with the environment: Children enjoy interacting with nature! From playing in the mud, to building with sticks, teachers and caregivers encourage children’s opportunities to work with natural materials and connect with the environment.

  • Emphasis on community and collaboration: By playing together, children learn to problem-solve, communicate, share ideas, and learn from each other. Forest schools are inclusive and welcoming to the diverse interests, needs, and backgrounds of their community members.

Learning & Play

Creating an outdoor classroom might sound like a big task, but there are ways that you can conveniently shift parts of your day outside.

Circle Time & Story Time

If you typically do circle time indoors, you might consider shifting it to outside. All you will need to bring outside are items (such as a large tarp, towels, blankets, etc.) to form a circle for children to sit in, and a few books that work well for reading aloud. Doing this activity outside will also allow children to spread out more than they would be able to indoors.

Children’s favorite books and stories can easily be brought outdoors for individual enjoyment.  You might select a few books from your library to bring outside, or you can bring a few new books outside every morning and return them to the classroom at night.

Natural Materials

One of the best parts about being outdoors is that nature offers so many great materials for children to work with. From flowers and leaves to sticks and rocks, children will often find plenty of items outside that create opportunities for play.

Larger items like tree stumps can invite children to engage in play that encourages gross motor skill development, such as practicing balance and jumping.


Do you have a big box of legos, magna-tiles, or other manipulatives in your classroom? These can also easily be brought outdoors. You might lay out a big blanket for children to sit on while they work with them, or spread them out onto a table. If you are doing individual bags of materials to avoid spreading germs, these bags can also be brought outside!

Art Projects

To encourage creative expression in the outdoors, bring markers, crayons, pencils, and paper outside.  For a fun prompt, you might set out a variety of flowers and leaves and encourage children to draw the items that they see.

Quick Tips

  • Go shoe-free! If your outdoor area is safe and if children are interested, encourage them to take off their shoes and enjoy the feeling of the ground beneath their toes. This provides extra sensory stimulation and an additional kind of connection with nature.

  • Set up outdoor storage. From shoes and jackets to muddy clothing, being outdoors can get messy and children will likely need a place to store their items. You might consider setting up cubbies or hooks with children’s names by the door so that they have designated places to keep their items, to avoid things getting lost.

  • Make sure children have water available. Especially in the summer, it can get hot and children need to stay hydrated. Make sure that you have plenty of water that children can access outside, without having to go back into the classroom each time they need a drink. This might mean having individual water bottles handy, or a system set up where children can fill up disposable cups when needed.

Extra Resources

Free Forest School brings nature-based learning opportunities to children by empowering parents and caregivers, and by supporting teachers who want to incorporate outdoor learning. Their blog includes a variety of articles and resources about outdoor learning, child development, and activity ideas.

Tinkergarten brings families together in nature for classes where children learn through play. The classes and activities are designed to help children develop life skills while enjoying healthy, fun, engaging experiences in local green spaces. Tinkergarten’s website shares a variety of outdoor activity ideas, broken down by age group and developmental skill.

Rocking and Rolling. Fresh Air, Fun, and Exploration: Why Outdoor Play Is Essential for Healthy Development is an article from NAEYC that describes the many benefits of outdoor learning and play. The article also includes guiding questions for reflective practice to help educators brainstorm and plan ways to make outdoor learning work in their classroom or program.

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