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How to Teach Preschool Outside During COVID

Oregon’s Early Learning Division and the federal CDC both encourage childcare facilities to spend as much time outside as possible, leaving many preschools wondering how to make the transition. The truth is that transitioning from an indoor program to an outdoor one is not complicated. Pretty much anything that schools can do inside can be done outside. Morning meeting, story time, art, music, science inquiry, lunch and snack can all easily move outside with very little adaptation from what would normally be done inside.

During a Natural Start Panel discussion dedicated to helping PreK – 12 classes think about outdoor learning, pediatrician Andy Russ outlined the health benefits to making the change. According to Dr. Russ, it is impossible to eliminate risk completely, but holding school outside dramatically reduces the risk of coronavirus. An outside environment provides the best possible “air exchange” ratio, and the likelihood of the virus transmitting through touching rocks, stumps, or other natural growth outside is thought to be low. He also talked about the emotional benefits to spending time in nature, which are important at a time when children (as well as adults) may be carrying trauma, grief or anxiety due to COVID-19.

Outdoor Classroom Set Up and Routines

For an outdoor classroom set up, it helps to think about “zones” outside and set them up the same way you would create areas inside the classroom for different domains of development. In addition to traditional indoor centers, like dramatic play and blocks, outdoor classrooms provide the freedom to create “zones” that are messy, loud or take up a large space. An outdoor classroom can be the perfect spot for a mud kitchen, large scale building materials, a music wall, a garden, or a treehouse. To avoid contamination during sensory play, each child could have their own individual planter tray for water, sand and other sensory items. If the outdoor yard is small and space is a concern, the zones could rotate throughout the week. For example, Monday could be messy art and play day, while Tuesday is set aside for large scale building with loose parts.

Just as classroom set up can mimic traditional indoor “centers,” daily routines and rhythms can also hew closely to traditional indoor procedures. People often ask if it is difficult for the children to pay attention in circle time with the “outdoors” as competition. I have found that starting with a physical activity (an action song, yoga, dancing or simply jumping over and around sticks in different ways) helps to get the children interested and excited about circle time and serves to “get the wiggles out” before they sit down to listen. Sometimes children pick grass while they listen to a story, but their comments and exclamations at the characters’ exploits show that they are still engaged. The bottom line is that if the morning meeting, story time or other activity is fun and exciting, then the children will be engaged.

Protection from Outside Elements

Practical matters like weather, storage and cleaning may be more difficult to tackle than curricula and routines. One thing to think about is protection from harsh elements. While children generally are not bothered by rain, it can limit activities and materials, such as books, that cannot get wet. Heat, on the other hand, does bother children. For years, I set up a simple 12 x 12 pop up canopy from Coleman for a small bit of shade and protection from light rain. If there isn’t a large tree or other type of shelter in the yard, a tarp connected to a fence or side of a building or a series of tents can provide a break from the sun. Unfortunately, I have not found a good temporary solution to shelter from heavy rain and wind.

Storing Toys and Materials Outside

Outdoor supplies that can get wet, I keep in ceramic planters with holes in the bottom for drainage. For supplies that cannot get wet, I purchased an outdoor container/shelving unit from Suncast. It has kept paper dry through four very wet, rainy and snowy Portland winters.

Cleaning the Outdoor Classroom

Surprisingly, cleaning the “outdoor classroom” is easier than cleaning inside. The CDC does not recommend attempting to sanitize outdoor ground surfaces like grass, cement, moss, mulch. Unlike an indoor classroom, outdoor ones do not need to be vacuumed or mopped. Likewise, natural found materials, like leaves, sticks and rocks, used for art or building can just be thrown back into the forest in exchange for newly found objects the following day. Any toys, blocks or other hard objects we use get thrown into a large basin of soapy water at the end of each day. After they are scrubbed and rinsed, they are dunked into a bleach solution with the same one to two teaspoons bleach per gallon of water concentration recommended for sanitizing cooking utensils. I do limit children’s use of items that need to be sanitized each day to what is manageable for us to clean.

The bottom line is that transitioning to more time outside is relatively easy once practical matters are given some thought. Larger programs may need to consider how to rotate or partition the outside yard to accommodate multiple groups of children. However, once the children are outside, programming, routines, fun and learning happens just as easily as it does inside.


Link to Natural Start Conference panel on outdoor learning

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