Sunday, April 16, 2017

Questions and Answers for Using an Outdoor Classroom

I recently worked with a great group of educators in a beautiful outdoor space. We worked on cultivating our own sense of wonder, mapmaking of the space, and briefly looked at planning for the use of the Outdoor Classroom. They sent me these questions before our time together. I'd love to hear how you might answer these questions as well, as there are always many "right" answers for a situation. I like seeing a variety of perspectives. 

There are many approaches to any of these scenarios. These are some sample thoughts and considerations. Ultimately, you all will find what works best for you with your personalities, the children in your care, and the current state of the space. Try to say yes as often as possible, being aware of safety concerns and ways to support the children in their play and learning.

1.             How do we keep children engaged while doing a lesson outside? What should we do with bikes? The sandbox?
Think about what is developmentally appropriate for this age group. Choice is optimal for them and they will most likely not sit still for long periods of time, as you know. Try a blanket to define the space you want them on and/or use your gathering area before sending children out to more free choice time. Also, try a more “informal” approach to lessons, working with smaller groups around the space rather than with all students together.  Keep the trikes up and sandbox covered during this "instructional" time, if needed.
2.             How can we develop a protocol for children to gather and come in?
Choose a signal that works for you, just as you would in the indoor classroom. It may be a bell, song, birdcall, or a horn that is blown. Train children to pick up some needed items before heading in. You may consider making this a unique call for this special time to gather and come in.
3.             How do you manage different age groups using building materials? (particularly after school care)
Make sure there are enough spaces and materials for all. It seems as though building is happening outside this area, which gives more space. The children will interact differently with the materials. The biggest issue I usually see is the destruction of what others have made. Perhaps have a class meeting if this is happening with the afterschool care to look at options of how to use this space without destroying work done by others. What are you experiencing?
4.             What are some good guidelines for outdoor activities? (using existing hill, sandbox, dry creek bed)
The areas are designed specifically for use with the children. There are a few safety concerns, such as riding a trike down the hill or throwing sand, but otherwise the area should be a place where children can learn and take appropriate risks. What safety concerns are you noting that need to be addressed? Can they be dealt with on an individual level with the child and/or is it a bigger issue that should be addressed with the larger group in a class meeting setting.
5.             What are some good rules on the use of the property? How do we best teach these guidelines?
My typical inclination is to say yes as often as possible; however, there are safety concerns in any space. As educators, we need to provide for that safety. Will the action harm the child or the materials? Use language to redirect and help children think through the consequences and cautions of the activity. Some specific rules and/or parameters may need to be made, such as how you put the logs as bumpers for the hill and the walk leading back to the building.
6.             How do we strike a balance between enforcing guidelines and allowing freedom of use? (trikes, tires)
Obviously the trikes have some safety guidelines, such as going in the same direction, watching for people crossing the path (and vice versa), and not going down the hill. Some “guidelines” may be less enforced depending on the amount of children and activity level in the outdoor classroom at the time. Keep safety in mind, yet realize that many of the risks they take with these materials is developmentally appropriate play.
7.             What are good rules for use of the slides?
What makes sense for you all? Does there need to be a rule? In general, in larger groups children go down the slide with no one at the bottom of the slide. With smaller groups near the slide, it may be safe to use the slides in a different manner. Teach children how to navigate the risk.
8.             What should we do if children try to eat our crabapples or other fruits in the outdoor space?
See Question 15. Are there pesticides applied to the fruit that needs washed off first? Would you like the children to wait until the fruit is ready to eat?  Otherwise, children will be trying to eat earlier in the season. I like the idea of eating from the garden/orchard with supervision so adults are aware of what children are eating in case there are issues. This doesn’t mean there can never be any eating, but that it’s a judgment call of the adult. While I try to say yes as often as possible, there may be times when it will not be an appropriate time to eat from the orchard.
9.             What is too much of a mess? How to manage clean up of messy materials?
Are there designated spaces for messy materials? Give a signal for clean up time with some children needing more time than others. Procedures you use for cleaning up in the classroom should also work outside, though something that makes more noise to get the children’s attention may be helpful.
10.         How can we best enforce “put away” method so that it works all day long with repeated use in the outdoor space?
Perhaps try for extended periods outside as much as possible so there are fewer “put away” times needed throughout the day.
11.         Who is going to be (or will there be) and outdoor environment coordinator?
Having an outdoor environment coordinator can be a great way to manage the space, realizing that everyone on the team has responsibilities for and investment in the outdoor space.
12.         Do dishes, soccer items, etc. get returned to the storage room after each class is finished?
I am not opposed to leaving things out; however, what does this say to the children about cleaning up? Perhaps they bring things to the central location for all soccer items (wagon?) so there is some gathering of supplies and they are ready for the next group. If you have large times between your groups and are having issues with outsiders (though I know it is closed), you may consider putting the items away between groups.
13.         Is sledding allowed on the building side (SW) hill?
I suggest no as it goes so close to the building; however, if it seems like the group can do it safely, it shouldn’t be an issue. It's great you already have a designated space you already use would be helpful.
14.         Who should oversee weeds in the butterfly garden or garden spaces?
Can the children be trained in weeds of these areas and it becomes a class stewardship project? Do you have a group that volunteers with the church and/or master gardeners that may help with this? Will a teacher take on this as a responsibility and host a family weeding afternoon? Often a few minutes a day while already outside can make a huge difference. 
15.         Are children allowed to eat food out of the garden?
What a great connection to food! Any allergies to be aware of? Are you hoping to have a large “harvest”? Maybe make it a “with permission” type of policy, having children ask you if it’s okay first so there is some oversight of the use of garden food; however, children will learn over time when it is okay to eat out of the garden.
16.         Does sand stay in the sandbox or can it get carried in buckets across the playground and dumped behind the house?
It sounds like this has happened. It’s nice to keep sand where it “belongs” but neat to see the natural tendency to transport. Are there other things they might transport?
17.         Do building materials stay in the building area?
For the most part, yes, but occasional use outside of the area shouldn’t be of concern. Is there another area that needs more materials outside of the building area? If children are naturally using materials in a different space, consider following their lead and having the materials available in that area.
1.             How do we handle bees?
If there is a known allergy, have an epipen handy. There are many insects beyond bees which may sting, but generally they only sting when agitated. If there are wasp nests right where children play, these may need to be removed. For the most part, if children (and adults) can be calm when they encounter a bee, there are few issues. If there is a bee sting, provide proper first aid, scraping the stinger off near the skin rather than plucking it out.

2.             What are some ways to identify natural objects within the Outdoor Classroom? How do we share them with children? Should information be posted?
Use guidebooks and identification groups for help learning what they are. Not everything needs to be named. Set up a “nature center” area where children are the collectors and curators. Minilessons and informal information can be used to help discuss and notice nature in the space. Information can be posted, if desired. 
3.             How do we use the seasons to expand outdoor activities and help children learn nature more fully throughout the year?
Seasonal celebrations (equinoxes), full moons, nature related holidays listed in Growing Up Wild, etc.
Free roaming outdoor time is good! It may take some time to practice having more direct or inquiry based lessons outside. Lessons do not have to include the whole group.
4.             What is the plan for the structure that is the worm farm? We noticed kids were piling rocks and climbing in it.
If it’s not being used as a worm farm, could it be used for something else, such as mud? Maybe it becomes an outdoor sensory bin? 
5.             What trees are on our playground?
Let’s make a map and use leaves, a tree dichotomy (ID key), field guides, bark, and branch structure to get to know our trees better!
6.             What insects are native to our area?
Lots! You don’t have to know all the insects right now. As the children find various insects, use field guides and Insect ID groups in Facebook to learn more about them. It’s okay to not know everything about them right now. Build knowledge as the insectsare encountered.
7.             What is the best way to care for and utilize the butterfly garden?
It sounds like it is being redone. Choose plants suited for the soil in that area that are native to the area.
8.             How can our wagons and wheelbarrow be incorporated in the outdoor classroom?
Children naturally transport items as part of play. Are these available for moving building materials?
9.             Can children bring nature in? They want to bring in sticks, rocks, acorns to bring home.
Children have a natural tendency to collect “treasures”. This will need to be something you decide as a group; however, replenishing nature enough to have a little extra allows children to follow their natural tendencies to some degree. If you choose not to allow children to bring treasures inside consider having a collection spot or basket near the gate before you leave the space for items children may be bringing back with them.

10.         What kind of loose parts do we need to more fully use the space?
You have a great base in your area with water, sand, natural vegetation, and building materials. Think of seasonal items that might be included throughout the year, such as pumpkins, cornstalks, etc. Observe how children are using the space. What loose parts do they need to support the play they are engaged in?
11.         What are some good resources for us to be able to plan for the outdoor space better?
Map your space and plan your outdoor area just as you might your indoor areas while planning through your emergent curriculum. Think of the natural rhythms of the space as nature progresses through the year. What might children be interested in as the seasons change? What seasonal items might be a part of your natural learning? Regularly review maintenance plans and evaluate how the space is being used to guide decisions and inform practice.
12.         How can we include families in events and workshops that have to do with nature?
Consider a family nature club, a “linger-longer” after school, create special events to include families, invite mom or dad to the outdoor classroom for the day, invite families to stay for a program with naturalists, etc. Build regular time into the year to meet needs. Workshops can be built around practical themes to include children and the families, such as gardening. Consider partnering with Unity Gardens and other area resources for additional resources.
13.         How about celebrations, like International Mud Day? How do we do this?
These special celebrations could be outside of the school day as a special time to celebrate with families. Water and soil are the two main components needed for International Mud Day; however, there are special activities that could be used in each area.
14.         What is lacking to more fully support nature play with our outdoor classroom?
Do teachers and children have access to needed tools? Field guides, magnifying glasses, collecting jars, etc. can help explore nature more fully.

How is the maintenance schedule working? What needs refreshed and renewed?