Natural materials make outdoor classrooms more fun. Whether sticks or stones, flowers or fruit trees, there are seemingly countless ways to integrate natural materials into outdoor education. Here are a few ways to keep the “outdoor” in outdoor learning.
When a big storm blows through town and rattles loose branches and twigs from the trees, very often, I find grounds keeping and maintenance teams want to collect and dispose of the sticks. But why, when they are so effective at helping children construct their own stories?! Fat sticks and thin sticks, long stick and short sticks, straight sticks and gnarled sticks—when every tiny twig is viewed as practical, beautiful or both, the opportunities for creating are endless.
Keep in mind, we don’t recommend sticks as swords; part of having natural materials available to children is teaching them how not to swing. But other lessons—in engineering, art and math, to name a few—are just as valuable.
For instance, sticks can be effective tools for teaching basic mathematics and engineering concepts: measurement (the stick is taller than me, shorter than me and so on…), counting and building. Adventure and nature schools use sticks in their fire pits—and yes, fire pits can be organized, rather than willy-nilly!
Sticks are also used to create art projects, to help children “see” the world around them in a different way. They can be used to understand the nuance and interplay of sunlight, shadows and shapes. And they can be used to create art; haven’t we all, at times, used a stick to draw a proverbial line in the sand, play tic-tack-toe in the mud or sketch an idea in clay?
… and stones
Like sticks, small stones are great as accompaniments to art and for use in games. You could paint them for use as checkerboard or chess pieces. Ask children to collect them and paint them as paperweights or mementos for parent; even better, use them as a tool for texture painting.
Depending on the age range, stones provide great opportunities for outdoor learning. Imagine understanding the concepts of smoothness, roughness and coarseness from the rocks right outside your classroom! In many parts of the country, limestone hides a wealth of fossils, which are awesome for all-aged children. Stones tell a story of a place: history collected and carried through the years.
Stones can be used in the design of your outdoor classroom, as well. Boulders make for great borders, natural retaining walls and even furniture. If your school is lucky enough to have large, native stones on campus, you can use them to create outdoor classroom seating. (It’s likely that’s how our ancestors started out: seated on stones around a fire pit in conversation, sharing information and stories.)
Take our project at Ridgemont K-12 School, for example. Our master site plan had long called for the addition of an amphitheater to the campus, and when we discovered native boulders on-site, we repurposed the stones to create seating.
Wigwams, teepees and tunnels
I love using natural materials to create structures on a school’s playground or outdoor classroom site. Some are alive—a tunnel sculpted from the graceful bows of weeping willows, for example. For some schools, we’ve created a building area, a pseudo-construction zone with a variety of sizes of sticks, logs, rocks and other natural materials children can use to create their own play zones. In addition to allowing children to build something tangible with their own two hands, these areas encourage collaboration and problem-solving, as two (or more!) children pitch in to move and manipulate materials into place.
Hopefully, I’ve shown you there are many ways sticks and stones can be used in outdoor classroom design and curriculum. What are some of your favorites? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or email me at EMelvin@shp.com.