At Wildwood Nature School, most of our outdoor time is spent in the forest, but we do have a backyard “playground.” When designing the outdoor playground or making additions to it, I strive to keep everything as natural as possible. The inclusion of plants, the incorporation of elements that are supposed to get wet or dry as the weather changes and elements that invite children to manipulate nature gives children an ever-changing environment to explore.
Keeping the outdoor space more natural is cheaper to set up than a traditional playground and easier to maintain since it is meant to “weather” over time. It can also be more easily adaptable for children of all abilities, making an inclusive environment. The children can even add to the nature scape and make it their own.
Grow with the Sun and Rain
A working garden is the most obvious way to make sure an outdoor play area also functions as a natural learning area. Raised beds are easy to construct and maintain, but individual planter pots work as well. Our garden functions both as a place we regularly visit as a group and as a place children can access on their own during free play. They enjoy checking on, watering and taste-testing the plants. The garden also holds small toy dinosaurs, lizards, turtles and frogs ready for use in dramatic play; a basket of books on non-rainy days for a relaxing reading setting, and garden trowels for digging up weeds and worms.
Outside of the garden we also have blueberry and blackberry bushes, an apple tree and a butterfly garden that was proposed and designed by the children one year.
Open Space Means Go Large
Another advantage of an outdoor play area is the space for activities that need a lot of room. The most distinctive aspects of our outdoor space are the lack of a play structure and plenty of trees to climb. The area is also stocked with tree stumps and planks children use to build their own balance obstacles. Our outdoor loose parts are cedar planks, tree cookies and tree limbs. The high winds along our ridge fell a good number of tree limbs in the winter, which are perfect for large scale building projects like lean-tos and forts.
Make Some Joyful Noise
Children love music and raising their voices to communicate. Outside, there is no need to worry about keeping a “quiet” voice, so encourage louder activities. We built a music wall between two trees. Our music wall has a mix of natural items – hanging gourds, shells on strings – and other found objects. We use bamboo sticks to tap, strike or brush keys, metal grates and wind chimes.
Outdoors Means Messy Play
I try to think of the outdoor area in the same way I would an indoor environment – with zones dedicated to different domains of development especially suited to the advantages of being outside. Definitely one of those advantages is the space for messy play.
A water source next to a mud or sand pit allows children to turn the outdoors into their own play kitchen with just a few props – bowls, tins, measuring cups. Our children use sticks as stirrers and utensils, and leaves as plates as well as ingredients, but these items could be purchased as well.
In my experience, children much prefer gathering their own water from puddles or bins to water provided by teachers. I recommend a spigot they have access to or a rain barrel with a spout to increase their sense of independence.
Outdoor Art with Natural Materials
Another possibly opportunity for messy play involves art. Our art area includes both an easel and a table for other types of creation. Our supply cabinet is always stocked with standard indoor art materials – scissors, glue, paper, paint – as well as a supply of natural loose parts – twigs, hay or raffia, small pebbles, and tiny dried flowers for natural “glitter” for art projects. Seasonal items, such as leaves, flowers and berries are included when they are available.
Sometimes the creations are completely child-created. Sometimes I include supplies for a specific project – yarn and cloth to make clothing for “stickmen,” plastic needles and hemp string to string garlands of leaves or flowers, tape to make natural jewelry or clay for sculptures that include foraged materials. Just like our indoor art area, children’s own interpretations are always encouraged, and they are welcome to use the materials at hand for different projects.
Likewise, the easel sometimes just holds regular paint since the outdoor setting inspires different paintings than indoors. Sometimes, though, we mix our own “mud paints” or use large brushes to paint with water directly on the easel’s mirrors. If the rain is light enough, we sprinkle powdered tempera on the paper and let the dripping rain water make our paintings for us or roll rocks dipped in paint down the paper to create designs.
In the fall, I attended a workshop on outdoor learning where the speaker made a distinction between playing in/with nature and playing outside. Her point was that merely getting children outside doesn’t necessarily equate with nature education. Bringing outside whatever the class would normally do inside is certainly a start, but if your goal is to have children interact more with nature, you must be intentional about the design of your school’s outdoor play space.