In the final entry in her series Nurture in Nature, Dr. Rachel Larimore provides easy and, most importantly, fun tips for incorporating outdoor play into the back-to-school, season.
There are so many things to think about at the start of the school year. It can be overwhelming! This list of tips is intended to make it easier to include outdoor learning in your back-to-school routines. These tips build on my previous blog, Nurture in Nature: Getting Started with Nature-based Learning by taking the theory to action.
- Provide families with a list of clothing (BEFORE school starts) they will need to provide for their child to be successful learning outdoors. This may include a separate pair of "indoor" shoes to change into after outdoor play, rain gear, and an extra set of clothes to leave at school in case the child gets wet or muddy.
- Have a lending library of extra clothes and outdoor gear such as rain suits, rain boots, hats, mittens, and coats. After all, puddles are great fun to play in and sometimes water seeps in over the top of rain boots. Which reminds me—be sure to have extra socks on hand, too!
- Create an announcement board by the parent and family sign-in station. On the board share information about the day's upcoming outdoor activities. This keeps families in the loop, sparks conversations between adults and children, and highlights the role outdoor learning plays in your day.
- When it comes to sign-in don't forget about the children! Create a child sign-in that relates to the outdoor activities for the day. For example, if outdoor time will include looking for butterflies, have the children write their name along with their prediction for the number of butterflies they'll find.
- Consider starting your day outdoors. Everyone—children and adults alike—is stressed after the experiencing the COVID-19 crisis. Take advantage of the many benefits of time outdoors by starting the day. Most likely this will lead to more time outdoors than if outdoor play occurred at the end of the day.
- Include lots of loose parts in the outdoor play area! Loose parts are materials, both natural and human-made, that children can use in multiple ways. Buckets, spoons, sticks, and leaves are some examples. The more variety of loose parts, the more imaginative the play will become.
- In addition to loose parts, pack "travel" versions of typical indoor materials that can be taken outside each day (or stored outside permanently). Think of all the activities that occur indoors. What materials do children need to do those same activities outside? Art supplies, dramatic play clothes, and storybooks are a few examples.
- Take advantage of "nice" weather days and stay outside all day!! Yes, you can still follow the normal classroom routines, but the location will be different.
- On a pleasant weather day, have snack outside! Children can wash their hands indoors before going out, or set up an outdoor handwashing station.
- Then, if it's still a really nice day . . . have rest time outside. Yes, you'll need to take the rest mats and blankets outside, but I assure you it's worth it. Many teachers report the children sleep better outside—even with all the outdoor noises.
- When the adults and children are comfortable outside, identify nearby natural spaces beyond the fence that you could visit as a class. This could be a neighborhood park, a courtyard, or a nature center.
- Look for places close enough to walk to and from or those that might require one- or two-way transportation. For example, maybe families drop their children at the park and then the entire class walks to school together after exploring the park.
- Once you've identified a space, be sure to conduct a benefit-risk site assessment for hazards in these nearby spaces. What are the benefits of visiting a space? How might it hurt children? How can you reduce the risk of children being hurt?
- Managing a group of children outdoors can be intimidating. One tip is to have an animal call for gathering the group. This could be your voice or a purchased call such as a duck call or squirrel call. Before you venture outside the fence play a game inside the fence of running to a teacher whenever you hear the call. No need to yell!
- If you're leaving the fenced play area, be sure to have your backpack pre-packed and ready to go. Include a first aid kit, extra hats and gloves, and other safety-related equipment. Also include learning tools such as magnifying glasses, a dry erase board with a marker, and a bug box in case you find an interesting critter to investigate.
- Make a list of what is happening outdoors in your area in the next two months like flowers blooming, pumpkins going from green to orange, etc. Once the list is created, identify potential teacher-led activities and materials to support these events.
- Blur the lines between the outdoors and the indoors by placing bird feeders outside the classroom windows. This way children can observe nature even when the class is indoors.
- On the windowsill inside the classroom add binoculars and bird identification field guides to further children's engagement with the outdoor bird feeders.
- When outside, gather natural materials to be used in art projects such as pine needles, acorn caps, dried corn, etc.
- At the final group meeting for the day have each child share something they noticed or wondered about nature that day.
- Document these noticing and wonderings in an ongoing class journal. This could even become a phenology journal where each day you record changes you noticed about the plants and animals like what plant was blooming or a bird was sitting on a nest.
- Sing songs and read stories that relate to the seasonal events children are experiencing and noticing outside. This will help connect the learning across the inside, outside, and space beyond the fence.
And in honor of the upcoming school year, one final tip . . .
Join the kids in jumping in the puddles! (It's FUN!)
About the Author
Rachel A. Larimore, Ph.D., is an educator, speaker, consultant, and author. She has written three books including Establishing a Nature-Based Preschool and Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning. Her work focuses on the intentional integration of nature into early childhood education for young children's whole development. Rachel is the Chief Visionary of Samara Early Learning, an organization focused on helping early childhood educators launch nature-based schools or integrate nature-based pedagogy into their existing program. Prior to Samara, she worked for 11 years as the founding director of a nature-based preschool in mid-Michigan.