- Assess what you already have. Your site may already have great attributes. Are there significant trees that work within the space? Is there a natural path already in your play area? Sketch out a map of the unique features you have to work with. As I worked on a Nature Explore classroom, I was lucky to have 10 acres of woods with paths next to our outdoor classroom, as well as trees scattered throughout our space, and a couple of wildflower areas. We didn't need to do much to meet this principle; however, we can always enhance the space and continue to make minor adjustments. Check out the great list of questions to ask from Kids Gardening. Think about your water source as you look at this section.
- Find out the plants that would be good for your soil/area. You might consider getting a soil test through your local extension office. Additionally, you may want to know what hardiness zone you are in. Also look at how much sun and shade you have in your outdoor classroom as it may affect what is planted.
- Explore textures as you plan. Think of the various textures that would appeal to children. Soft, feathery, bumpy, spiky, pointy, etc. Here is an article looking at different options for texture. Additionally, here are some ideas for a sensory garden.
- Go native! I feel this is one of the most important concepts. Native plants will require less maintenance in the long run, will be well suited for your area, and will provide food for the insects and animals in your area. Contact local native plants groups for help in selecting appropriate native plants and for suggestions on where to find native plants locally. Big box stores and most chain gardening centers will not carry native plants. Look for smaller nurseries and call around to see what they might offer. Here is one resource to help find native plants. For help understanding why to plant native plants, I suggest reading Doug Tallamy's book, Bringing Nature Home. Locally, we have great resources with the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society. I have been in a Facebook group for several years and am getting to the point where I can identify many of the plants as they are posted after learning more each year. As we looked at our site, we were able to bring experts out to our site to look at the soil, sun, and give suggestions for appropriate plants.
- Consider safe edibles. You might try planting a garden to have food to harvest. Some outdoor classrooms have planted mini orchards to add to the rich learning experience. Additionally, consider some wild edibles that will continue to produce safe food with minimal effort, like black raspberries, mulberries, etc. Avoid overly toxic plants in an outdoor classroom meant to be explored by children and teach children explicitly about plants to avoid. My three-year-old knows what pokeweed looks like and that it is not a berry to eat through extensive introduction to the plant and reinforcing that it is not safe and will make him sick. Additionally, try to clear out plants that might pose more of a hazard in an outdoor classroom, like poison ivy or berries that would be more poisonous
- Feed the animals. Think about animals that might benefit from your garden/plantings. Consider a pollinator garden. Here is a great timeline and what to expect of one group making a pollinator garden by my friend Steve Sass. Once again, go native!
- Make it fun! Consider making a pizza garden, sensory garden, etc.
- Plant extras to use in nature art and other projects. I like to purposefully have additional plants that I don't mind a bit of nature play with children for projects such as natural weaving, art projects, nature pounding, etc. Also, ask gardens, neighbors, and florists for garden scraps that might be used for projects. Sunflowers are a great addition for exploration and art. Plants can be a GREAT loose part for children's play. Think of cones, seed pods, and more for loose parts play. Identify sources for items such as sweet gum balls, buckeyes, and other unique items for use in nature play. Add herbs near a mud kitchen to invite children to include these in their soupy creations.
- Add whimsy! Speaking of sunflowers, consider making a sunflower or willow fort for a whimsical touch. Make a bean pole tent. Add a fairy garden or recycled art to enhance your space. Add a fountain with water.
- Create a maintenance plan. Hopefully, the plants will not need much work once established. Weeding, watering, and seasonal refreshing may be needed. Create a garden maintenance plan. Many schools have issues over the summer with maintaining a garden. Consider having parent volunteers, a local garden club, and/or paying a teacher for watering and other needed tasks.
- Add a rain barrel. Here are instructions for making your own rain barrel. In our area, our Soil and Water Conservation will help fund a rain barrel and/or a rain garden after going to a class.
- Look for inexpensive places for seeds/plants. I have found plants and seeds for free or low cost in a variety of places, such a seed library in my local library, community supported agriculture groups, on the side of the road (dug up by the owner to share with a free sign), at plant exchanges at the library or environmental groups, in online garage sale groups on Facebook, etc. Additional places to look might be on Freecycle, Craigslist, local gardening groups, the city forester, your local Soil and Water Conservation District, tree alliances, free newspaper ads, through the local extension office, ads in local free newspapers, etc. Additionally, larger orders will be less expensive per plant generally. Check out these tips on getting free plants.
- Apply for a grant! There are lots of gardening and pollinator based grants available for school gardens. Here is a few options: Captain Planet, a long list of options, Jamba Juice, etc.
- Make a map of the plants in your outdoor classroom. Label select plants along the path. Involve children in the process. Have children make their own maps a well. Gather information sheets on the plants in a resource binder for extended learning for both the educators and the children.
The Learning with Nature Idea Book by Nature Explore suggests several hints on using plants in an outdoor classroom:Use a variety of natural materials, including trees and other live plants (p. 5)
Choose elements for durability and low maintenance. (p. 5)
Personalize the design with regional materials, and ideas from children and staff. (p. 5)
Plants Children Love from Nebraska Statewide Arboretum
Kids Gardening: Helping Young Minds Grow