Saturday, November 26, 2011

Moving the Play Outside

As far back as I can remember, spending time outdoors has been a big part of my life. Some of my favorite childhood memories happened outdoors. In the warmer months it meant playing baseball on the front lawn with the whole family and neighbors, riding bikes in the woods on the hilly trails, running around on my cousin's farm, feeding the cows as they milked and swinging in the tree swing he made for us. In the winter, it meant sled riding in the back yard, seeing how high we could fly over the ramp on out inner tubes and staying outside until our toes and fingers felt like icicles.  Every family vacation involved some kind of outdoor activity, no matter how hot it was outside.  These memories and more influence my desire to spend as much time outdoors with my class as possible.

Now that we have younger toddlers, it means we no longer share outdoor space with the preschool groups.  In the past, we had to be aware of the other groups schedules and try to go outside only during our scheduled times so that each group had some time on their own to use and explore the playground.  Having our own outdoor space gives us the flexibility to go outside whenever we chose. It also means we can leave our materials out throughout the day and not have to put everything back into storage each time we came inside. Because of this, we are able to be more flexible in what we take outside.  Since we have learned that children use the same materials differently outside, there is really nothing that is really off-limits for the playground, with the exception of really wet days.

We have the typical outdoor materials available most days: trucks to fill and push, buckets and shovels for digging, bikes and cars to drive and balls of various sizes. But, we do try to add different materials each week for variety.

One of their favorite things to take outside is books. Even if I hadn't planned for it that day, it seems that we have books outside almost every day. The children will ask for certain books or just grab one of our baskets, no matter how heavy, and try to bring it out. Children who rarely sit down inside to read a book can often be found taking a break outside with a book or two. Clip boards, markers, stickers, and other art materials frequently find their way outside.

We bring some dolls out most days and sometimes we even bring out play food, clothes or strollers for the babies. A newer addition is pots and pans with wooden cooking utensils. I brought them out for the main purpose of providing toys to drum on and bang, since they were doing that inside. But they are used in more ways than I could have expected.

We have a special set of tools to bring outside that are frequently used to fix the cars and bikes. Watching the older toddlers learn how to turn the Little Tikes TM cars over safely was a rewarding experience. The first few times, they would just knock the car over by pushing the top or lift the bottom to flip it over. Luckily, no one got hurt and they have discovered safer, quieter ways of turning the cars over.

I enjoy gardening with the children so every year we have grown a variety of flowers and foods. Picking tomatoes and eating them straight from the garden is only second to finding a real pumpkin growing in the garden for the children. The only problem is we no longer have access to our old garden so we will have to start from scratch next spring. The garden area we now have is much smaller so we will have to decide just how we want to use it.

Since we currently have no place to dig (we are waiting for our sand box to be installed) we sometimes bring the sensory table outside.  The last time we did, it was to bathe the dolls that had been outside for a few weeks. Two of the boys who rarely play with dolls spent the rest of the day bathing the dolls, then cleaning the picnic table and anything else they could think of. Hopefully this spring we will have a table built to hold the tub and provide a place for the children to sit their materials as they explore.

We even play outside in the snow. It may seem like it takes forever to get them all bundled up for the snow, but is as much fun for us as it is them.  And since the children that show up on those days have to be there due to their parents work or school schedule, I figure it's the least I can do. By the time they get home with their parents, it will be too dark to play in the snow so why not do it at school or daycare?

One thing I love about the space we were given is that it is all natural grass and dirt. Right in the center is a hill for the children to climb up and down. We weren't sure how the younger toddlers would fare on the hill but they seem to spend more time on the hill than the older toddlers. Even on the muddiest days, you can be sure some of them will manage to reach the peak and then end up sliding about halfway down the muddy path as they descend. Learning how to turn around and sit so without rolling back down the hill is a skill the youngest toddlers have had to learn.

Rather than installing a new climber several years ago, we had some tunnels installed from drainage pipes that the children can crawl and run through. Some of the older toddlers have even managed to climb on top of the small tunnels. The main rule we have for outside is that teachers don't help children with gross motor activities. So, as they work to find a way to climb up on the tunnels, or even the hill, we stand nearby to spot but we won't put them on top or move their body for them. The most we will do is talk them through where to place their feet and hands, although if a teacher is sitting on the tunnel, their leg could become a foot or hand-hold. It's amazing to me, still, how long these toddlers will work at finding a way to climb to the top. Some of them will spend days working on this one activity until they figure it out. And then practice for days and weeks until the have completely mastered the skill.

Since we have the natural side of the playground and no concrete, it can be challenging during the wettest part of the spring and fall. The bottom of the hill can become a soppy, slippery mess that even teachers have a hard time with. The tunnels can hold small rivers of water after several days of rain and it usually takes a couple of days for those rivers to dry up. Even though we have no problems with playing outside on rainy days, these two issues can keep us cooped up inside.

One potential solution is to put fake grass on our side. It's certainly not my favorite solution at this point in time. If that happens, I am going to do my best to keep some of the grass along the fence so we will have some real grass or be able to use that for gardening. I am also working on a mini-grant to get some storage built outside so we don't have to take the toys and loose parts outside each morning and to build two smaller picnic tables for our toddlers since the one we currently have was built for preschoolers.  In an ideal world, we would also have some structures built to provide some shade. It's in the works but there is no telling which budget year that may happen in at this point. And, I am still looking for grants or other resources that would allow me to buy rain gear for the children so that when it is a muddy mess, they can still play outside. After all, some of my fondest childhood memories involve playing in the rain and puddle jumping. Why shouldn't these children have that same opportunity?

It's Playtime at hands on : as we growOverall, I am very happy with the playground and outdoor space that we currently have. I have visited many centers that have little to no natural materials or surfacing on their playgrounds. I certainly don't miss the big climber that took up so much space. The children have found more creative ways to practice their climbing skills, and ones that require more thinking, problem solving and risk assessment than many of the commercial climbing structures. The storage is an issue but hopefully that problem will be solved soon. I do have big dreams of what the outdoor play space can look like one day. Having a permanent dramatic play area, more shade structures, a cozy seating area for reading and, perhaps most of all, rain gear, would make the space extra-ordinary. Check out more great outdoor ideas here:


  1. Your space looks very inviting! What type of tubes are those and where can you purchase them? They look like a wonderful addition to the Outdoor Classroom since they provide a cozy place for the children to play!

  2. Shelley - what an amazing play space & I found that we have so much in common in our approach, we too believe that if a child can get up on their own they usually get down with a little encouragment and it's only when adult lift children into places that they tend to get stuck. Thanks so much for linking up & I can't wait to start following your blog. Good luck with the grants for the rain gear, it really does make the difference.

  3. The tubes look like plastic drainage pipe tubes to me - go to a builder's yard and have a look around :)

  4. They are drainage pipes. We got them installed when they were building a new arena on campus. As a matter of fact, the dirt to make the hill also came from the arena site. One benefit of being on a growing campus:)

  5. Awww, wonderful play! So inspirational!
    Your newest follower/fan here.
    Love your blog. Hope you get a chance to follow/fan back:

  6. What a lovely outdoor play space! And those pipes look so fun, I bet they are a big attraction! My older daughter loves tunnels, and I'm sure she'd have a ball with those!

    Thanks for linking up with us at the Outdoor Play party! If you could post our button and link it back to the party, your readers would be able to find more outdoor play related posts.