As you get started in the outdoor classroom, look for what you already have that can be repurposed or used for the area. For example, at Woodlawn Nature Center, we already had a water feature. Many volunteers and donations helped with that in the past, though upkeep and maintenance takes time and some money. It's a great place for children to watch the fish, observe animals drinking, and to look for other habitat signs. We added a few benches made from wood on the property. A chainsaw artist who grew up in the area made them when he was home visiting. Additionally, there was already a campfire area with logs for sitting. This became our gathering area. What spaces do you already have that might be repurposed into an area in your outdoor classroom?
We also started looking through the basement and other areas of the nature center to see what might be used or repurposed. We found this low open table with sides. It is slightly slanted, but okay enough to be a building base. We put it behind our building under the overhang. It doesn't need as much protection being under the overhang.
We also found many loose parts throughout the center that could be repurposed for outdoors. We gathered baskets, pinecones, sweet gum balls, etc. for use in the outdoor classroom. We store much of it in our "Loose Parts Play" area inside and then take outside as needed. I also helped a friend nearby get ready for her certification. She has a beautiful outdoor area that just needed a few more pieces for a music and movement area as she didn't have official built in pieces outside. She had a great open space for it though. Going through her indoor storage areas she had great scarves, hula hoops, and smaller musical instruments. These could easily be gathered in a large basket to have the available in this area. What can go outside that you have inside?
My children were part of a Pay It Forward 4-H club. I love how they focus on teaching service and connecting with others. They toured the nature center and decided they would like to help with a music wall. The children brought in items that might be used for music, such as old xylophones and other metal items. They put in the upright poles, added collected branches from the area, and screwed in the items to explore. Thanks PIF 4-H! As mentioned above, a chainsaw artist, Mark Harris, helped with some benches. Additionally, we received a grant as the nature center to buy a chainsaw to make other benches.
We received funds from local Optimist clubs and then the New Paris boy scouts group came in and put together our boxes. Girl Scouts helped clean up the area and added new seasonal plants.
My husband knows that one way I feel love is through acts of service and spending quality time together. He has "given" me a few mornings of his time as birthday presents the last couple of years. His help might include using a post hole digger to add poles, building an art easel, sawing legs off a table, etc. I try not to abuse it, but his help comes in very handy when I have a vision of what I'd like to see done.
I LOVE seeing various ideas for outdoor play area. In particular, I love the kodokids.com, natureexplore.org, the Adventurous Child Playgrounds, and Natural Playgrounds. I also pour over websites, such as Pinterest, for other ideas. Check out some of the boards I have to start your search. I have boards specifically on Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom "areas" as well as lots of boards on Loose Parts Play--infants and toddlers, storage, natural items, etc. My main board for outdoor classroom ideas is WNC Natural Playscape.
I cannot generally afford all the items I would love from these catalogs (though buy select items I can't get otherwise); however, I can use them as inspiration for safe DIY versions of the items. For example, I usually see the clear easels for around $1000 with additional shipping. We had some grant money and were able to build our version for just around $250. It took a morning with my husband, plus some time figuring out what we would need and finding places for supplies. Here is a basic tutorial we based our plans off. We chose to make our easel longer as that was the size of acrylic we could find easily at our local home improvement store.
I also LOVED the ramps I was finding various places for exploring in our messy materials area. These were $250-300 for a set. My friend has a handy husband. I showed them to him and he thought they were something he could make. For about $30 (plus a willing helper who has lots of tools), we had at least two larger sets of the ramps only, using pieces of logs and tree cookies to help position the ramps during play. Find our tutorial here. These have added a great dimension of engineering, math, and STEM concepts in our outdoor classroom.
We keep our ramps inside in a crate near the back door. We can easily bring them outside when we want to use them.
This is our nature art area. As we put this area together, I found a table on the side of the road. We cut the legs down so it was a shorter table. Our neighbors were having tree work done, so I asked for their stumps. The garden mirror came from a local resale type shop for $2.50, the cork board from a garage sale for $1, and the easels and metal decoration were unused in my garage. By "scrounging" we came up with a basic area that we could add to as needed. Total cost--less than $5 and time gathering items.
I'll share another picture of this concept soon. A friend finds plastic and wooden crates behind a local Mexican grocery store. She understood our concept and shared crates with us. These were perfect for storing loose parts in our outdoor classroom.
Nature is usually free! Our site is on ten acres of woods. Wood abounds! These logs happened to be stacked in the area we used for our outdoor classroom--instant climbing feature! We also have been able to make tree cookies, gather pinecones and sweet gum balls, make log seats, etc.
Nature naturally recycles itself. Natural items can be used for a time and then put out to compost when they no longer serve their purpose in the outdoor classroom. Watch for a picture below with items in crates. A neighbor was getting rid of rough tree cookies, my children collected acorns, my son and I picked up downed pine branches, and children at the nature center gathered sticks to fill our crates. Nature is free! Check with tree trimming places for materials. I also have stopped numerous times when I see downed trees. I knock on the door, let them know what I'm trying to do, and usually am allowed to take whatever I can fit in my van. I put adds in our local free newspaper and let people know what we need! They will often collect and deliver even!
As we looked at what we would like in our outdoor classroom, I knew we couldn't afford all the things we wanted. We received an initial grant from NAI Region 4. In the grant, I explained our vision and what we were trying to do. We couldn't afford the whole Nature Explore set up, but we did select things to buy that would really make an impact in our outdoor area. We bought large pieces of outdoor fabric (though have since also added tulle to this crate and it seems to be doing fine), small garden tools, buckets (love Nature Explore buckets), and materials for our clear easel. Find the items you really want and can't find a less expensive way to make or procure them. As you write grants and look for other funding, use these funds for those items you cannot get otherwise.
We have a great local store called ReStore--it's part of Habitat for Humanity. People donate all kinds of building and other supplies to sell there. I like to browse it once a quarter or so to see what I can find. I have found these garden mirrors for 2 for $5 when they are on sale. I have even called and asked for when they will be on sale so I can get a better deal. I couldn't afford a large entryway; however, I could afford two garden mirrors on posts that I got on sale at our local big box store. They make an impact and say welcome to our area. For our initial certification, I had found poles to post in the ground with a laminated color picture to name our area, and scarves tied around. This was an okay temporary fix, but I'm much happier with our $10 upgrade. We also put these mirrors in our mud kitchen area, as "windows". We are also considering adding them to our wildflower and weaving area for additional artistic elements. One person mentioned the ground was warm from the reflection of the mirrors. I didn't see any warnings on these, but it is something to watch and be aware of.
I have also found domed acrylic mirrors. I put these out in the yard to see our muddy faces on International Mud Day or to watch the trees above our head swaying in the wind. It's great to see children interact with these. I take these in when we are not in the area. I found marine planks for $2/board, too. These made a little table in our mud area and my children use them as a loose part in our log area at home. Get to know the people at the store and let them know what you are trying to do--they may alert you of other materials you hadn't thought of before.
I have also seen utility spools and large tubes sitting outside industry spot in our area. I have stopped by and asked if they were okay to repurpose in our area. I check to make sure they didn't have exposure to various chemicals and look for smooth edges and safety. Are there places in your area that might have items to repurpose? I also found large cardboard flowers after a Vacation Bible School that were going to be discarded. We easily stapled these to the back of our building for some color and added whimsy! Thanks Bristol United Methodist Church for helping with these! They even helped drive them over.
Building stores, salvage shops, and flea markets may be in your area. Browse home improvement stores. What low cost options do they have for engaging play? What is their giving policy? What resources might you check out in your area?
I am always on the hunt for other ideas that are low cost. We visited Kalamazoo Nature Center's outdoor playscape and noticed this gate made out of sticks. It seemed simple and inexpensive. We used this concept to carve out a dirt digging area in our outdoor classroom. One guiding principle is to have clearly defined areas. This is an inexpensive way to make a clearly defined area. A couple of cub scout groups came in and put in the wooden stakes (about $20) and gathered the numerous sticks from the woods and yard to fill in our "bird's nest". It makes a great place to dig in the dirt.
Check out Pinterest boards, blogs, and other certified Nature Explore Classrooms for ideas on what you might like in your area.
While allowing for easily accessed storage is one of the guiding principles for Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, we don't always want to leave some of more expensive items outside beyond our open hours. We have items in crates for the various areas that can easily be secured indoors and taken outdoors. We have a basket of scarves and small musical instruments to add to our basic musical area. We also did a mobile concept like this for my friend's music and movement area. In the picture below, you can see crates outside--these items I am comfortable leaving outside.
Other baskets we might have include a fort building kit. We have an area under a tree with lots of long sticks for building. We started our fort building kit from a Christmas present. My brother and sister-in-law gave the boys a set of recycled sheets, ropes, and clothespins. This was a great place to start. We have added more of everything to this to accommodate larger groups. The picture above is from when we set up shop in front of our local library during a program, called Nature Play! It was fun to have a mobile nature spot that could be taken many places.
My final tip is to let others know what you are trying to create. It takes time to explain it and let others see the vision, but it's worth it in gathering resources and finding friends and groups to help with the process. As you read above, this involved families, husbands, friends, service groups, and many more to pull together. It took a leader to see the vision and to help with the organization, with lots of help of other volunteers. I appreciate all the support in getting this done.
I mentioned these crates in various comments above. This was all free! One person donated the crates (and came back with friends and did yard clean up for a total of 16 hours). She also filled up the garden boxes with worm castings. She has an awesome product through RAW Sustainable Living. As people get more involved, see children and families using the space, and understand the need for the areas, they will help! Point them to what you need done. I have been sharing my Pinterest boards lately as inspiration for others who want to contribute to this project. I cannot do all the projects that I would love to see happen, but families and groups can adopt a spot and make it an even more engaging area for our community.
Another family often brings their 4 girls into the nature center. They are working on a fairy garden spot deep in the woods. This is different than one of the guiding Nature Explore principles of having areas visible at all times. However, we wanted this spot to be a little more magical. Our intent is that it will be for older children who might not need as much supervision and for families that include an adult with them so there will be supervision there. Their family owns a custom audio company, Dynamic Audio Design, for cars. They have access to tools, products, and resources that will add to this space. Watch for the Fairy Wings and Wild Things event on May 7 to launch this magical space, including a fairy trail in the woods.
We have another mom in our nature preschool group that has been using nap time for various projects that need done. She is good at free cycling (I think I need to give her a list of what we need!--put those wish lists on the Internet and let people know what you might need) and had access to lots of yarn and fabric. She has made banners (crocheted even!) to help spruce up our area and add whimsy. She cut pieces of fabric that will be perfect for capes and outdoor building. Other moms and interested groups see the potential and vision of this Outdoor Classroom area and are stepping up to offer time, talents, and resources to help make this happen! I offer my skills and time as a volunteer as well--I am not paid for pulling this area together, but want to see a natural play space for my children and the community. I started volunteering at the nature center through the Indiana Master Naturalist program.
In our Loose Parts=Imagination + Creativity workshop, Chris Whitmire from the Early Learning Center in Granger and I developed a worksheet and process for helping find resources in gathering loose parts for our spaces. For me, loose parts need to be a part of any Outdoor Classroom setting. I'd love to see more at playgrounds as well. The principles in our planning sheets for Loose Parts would also work well as you develop your Outdoor Classroom spaces. Also, you might want to check out this post on Natural Playgrounds for additional resources, ideas, and inspiration. Indiana Children & Nature Network also has valuable resources on Natural Play Areas.