Exploring in the outdoor classroom

One of the best things about my preschool is when we get to open back up the outdoor classroom.  Because there is no heat in the outdoor classroom, we can only use it during warm weather but we took a day last week to sneak out there and give it a go…

The outdoor classroom is basically a screened in porch on our property. It sits off by itself and has wooden floors and large screened in windows all the way around…

The outdoor classroom is primarily used for science, nature, and sensory play. When it comes to sand and water, clean-up time is a little easier out here then it is in our indoor classroom because most of the sand can be swept through the slats on the floor and the water can drain through the slats on the floor as well.  As a general rule, we do not bring food items out to the outdoor classroom but we do bring out many other kinds of materials….

The main pieces of equipment kept at all times in the outdoor classroom include a water/sensory table, a window easel, a painting/chalkboard easel, a sand/tinker table and several small sets of tables and chairs. The room is set up into centers so the children can freely move about and choose what interests them during our time in the outdoor classroom…

I use the tables to change up activities we can do outdoors. For example, we may set up one table as a playdough center but on another day, we will change it to a colored sand center…

I also switch out what is in each of the sensory tables very often. How often depends on the overall planning I have in mind for any given week. Today, the children found seashells buried down in the sand and spent time digging them up…

In the water table, the children explored a new kind of water bead (at least new to us) which I will share more about on another day…

I also change up the easels very often – almost daily. The children may find paint, chalk, crayons, markers, shave cream, sponges, and any thing else I can think of set up at the easels.  I want to keep the children coming back to explore the easels as often as I can…

The children are given time to choose where they want to play and they can rotate from one area to the next as they wish. Sometimes you will find a child enjoying a moment alone in an area…

And other times, you will find the entire class all hovering around one activity. I have learned not to worry when the children get to crowded because it doesn’t take long for a few of the children to decide they would rather just find something else to do and come back later. The children have learned to regulate their own time and their own choices extremely well throughout this school year…

But part of helping children to develop that ability to self-regulate is understanding how the classroom time and set-up is managed.  The children need to trust that they will have time to come back and visit a center or they will be upset that they missed out or highly stressed that they might miss out. Even if we have to stay a little longer than originally planned, I make sure the children have had the opportunity to explore every center that was important to them that day…

I also make sure that each of the centers are equally inviting (to the best I can).  What I mean by “equally inviting” is that each center is set up to be different but as equally interesting and engaging as the other (where possible). If only one center looked really cool and fun then the children would tend to all gravitate to that center alone and ignore the others which creates stress.  So I make sure that each center has its own appeal to spark their interest and will allow them plenty of freedom to explore in a way that will interest them….

Creating a well balanced and equally inviting classroom environment is not always easy and there are days when I don’t get it exactly right.  For example, I only had a few takers on my sticky easel today – the other centers were far more interesting than this today but on another day – the sticky easel may be the favorite. One off day doesn’t mean an idea is never a good idea…

Today was our first day to be able to go back out to the outdoor classroom but now that the weather is warming up, we will be able to integrate outdoor classroom time back into our daily schedule again. The children are very excited about this and so am I. It is super nice to be able to get out of our indoor classroom and the added time spent in sensory play is very soothing and relaxing to the children…

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By |2012-04-17T07:00:09+00:00April 17th, 2012|

About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. Leeanne A April 17, 2012 at 7:09 am - Reply

    You are blessed to have this space! It’s a great place to do all your messy activities and to get fresh air daily! Awesome!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. April 18, 2012 at 2:00 am - Reply

      I agree and feel very blessed for sure Leeanne:)

  2. [email protected] April 17, 2012 at 8:22 am - Reply

    How lucky you are to have such a nice outdoor area and screened in. We used to have a screened in porch and for some reason in Spring time it was a whole new world to the kids. Love that window easel – is that store bought or homemade?

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. April 18, 2012 at 2:00 am - Reply

      The window easel is homemade Margaret:) It is like a whole new world to our kids too!

  3. JDaniel4's Mom April 17, 2012 at 8:43 am - Reply

    This is such an amazing learning space!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. April 18, 2012 at 1:59 am - Reply

      Thank you so much:) We love it!

  4. School Sparks Renee April 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    That looks like a fantastic learning space. It’s so bright and colorful. Do you share this space with other classes? Can you leave your materials and stations for awhile? Renee

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. April 18, 2012 at 1:58 am - Reply

      Hi Renee,
      No we do not share the space but we sometimes split the children into two different groups and go to the outdoor classroom at two different times on the same day. The materials are easy to leave out and use by different groups in this setting.

  5. Mommy With Selective Memory April 17, 2012 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    I love this outdoor classroom!! I bet the kids are thrilled! I don’t envy you getting all the kids cleaned up after the sand though!! 😉

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. April 18, 2012 at 1:55 am - Reply

      You would be surprised how little sand they actually get on them:) I think because it is up on a table and not like a sandbox where they are sitting in it:)

  6. Susan April 18, 2012 at 1:12 am - Reply

    I just read your interview from the Sitcom and hopped over here. Wow! What a great space for a classroom. I love how you said you want each station to be equally inviting…they all looked so fun, I wouldn’t know where to start first! Thanks for sharing all your great ideas!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. April 18, 2012 at 1:56 am - Reply

      Thank you for stopping by Susan:) I hope you will come back and visit again.

  7. Sheila April 18, 2012 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    This is gorgeous!! I’m working on an article for the next issue of Together Magazine about great learning spaces at home – this is a cool example of how to use an enclosed porch.

  8. Rita April 18, 2012 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    I would LOVE to have that camera to use with my 4 and 5 year olds!!! I teach head start here in Wyoming and we have had a couple of tough years budget wise~~~

  9. Katherine August 19, 2012 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    What an amazing classroom! Thank you for sharing these great ideas!

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