Outdoor education must be fun and must be safe. Here’s how to marry the two.
You’ve probably heard the age-old saying, “Think outside the box.” It insinuates that creativity, curiosity and imagination should be limitless, should transcend boundaries. And that’s a good thing when it comes to education; children of all ages should learn that when it comes to dreaming, their imaginations should be allowed to roam, unfettered.
The only place this credo isn’t true? The outdoor classroom. Well, sort of. Let me explain…
Boundaries are a form of security, of placing limits on children – especially little ones! – who might wander into unsafe experiences. Consider an elementary school playground situated next to a busy road. A strong, sturdy boundary will prevent children and objects from crossing the street or dodging traffic. In this case, a barrier’s primary function is practicality and safety. And that’s a good thing.
But that’s not the only way to think about the enclosures around outdoor play and learning spaces. As a designer of landscape and outdoor classrooms, I try to reimagine boundaries in new and different ways. That means finding opportunities to make every surface – even the secure boundary, like fences and walls – part of the outdoor learning environment. If the boundary is the literal box, I like to think inside it, to dream up ways to transform it to become an intentional part of the space, a part of the outdoor classroom with which students can engage, discover and delight.
How do you marry these two seemingly disparate concepts in your outdoor classroom? You must make it part of the learning environment – and better yet, part of the curriculum – itself. The key is to encourage children to engage with nature, make sense of the world around them, explore their individual interests and learn through play, without sacrificing safety. By turning your boundaries into sensory experiences, you can open a whole new world of discovery, creativity and functional fun. Here are five possibilities to consider.
Encourage Artistic Endeavors
Children love to create through art. Encourage their artistic side by building it into your boundaries! Sub wooden slats for a solid panel treated with chalkboard paint, and you’ll turn your playground fence lines into a beautiful space to create. A smooth piece tile backing board, chalkboard paint and a collection of colorful chalk are all that is needed to transform a wall into an easel.
Let Your Garden Grow
Many outdoor classrooms include garden spaces that teach students about where our food comes from. Why limit all those beautiful tastes, fragrances, colors and textures to a planters and beds when you can grow up – literally. Turn your boundary into a living garden and watch the wonder bloom! Imagine how beautiful a curtain of green raspberry, squash or peas will look as the plants begin to sprout in the spring and early summer, all while offering opportunities to track the plants’ progress from seed to fruit.
Make a Little Music
What do you get when you mix little people, a wooden mallet and a cookie tin? A symphony? possibly. Consider attaching a variety of large and small, traditional and non-traditional “musical instruments” to a section of your boundary to create an instant music room. Test the sound quality with the children of each piece as a way to engage them in learning the musically qualities of sounds. Kids will love the clash of skillet cymbals, the musicality of muffin tins and the pounding of their PVC pipe drumsticks on plastic pickle tub drums.
Engage the Senses
Your outdoor learning environment engages all five senses at once: touch, taste, feel, smell, sight. And you can direct sensory exploration even further by creating a fun and engaging experience into the perimeter of your playground. The use of different textures, materials, cubby holes and accessories will give little hands space to roam, discover, play and learn. Bonus points if you make your sensory wall part of your outdoor learning curriculum, like this water wall does. Research is showing that the fine motor outdoor skills most often contain science learning.
Platforms + Play
Maybe you’ve noticed how quickly a bench or platform can suddenly transform into a stage or gathering space. The joining of two walls makes for a perfect stage platform and backdrop, or for a series of step-up/step-down benches for teaching an outdoor class. Just be sure to select the appropriate elevation for child ages when building a bench into your barrier, or you’ll run the risk of encouraging an escape artist! I like seat height of 12 to 18 inches for preschoolers and wide enough to lay on and watch the sky.
There are lots of ways to make walls, fences and barriers an intrinsic, aesthetically pleasing and overwhelmingly safe addition to an outdoor learning environment. In what ways have you been inspired to reimagine boundaries in your outdoor classrooms? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter at @elmstudio.