The outdoor classroom

Ideas for inspiration for your outdoor learning environment!

In my previous post, I shared with you the setup of our indoor classroom and this is a little overview of our outdoor classroom…

Our outdoor classroom is set up inside a screened-in porch and is generally used for all “messy” types of sensory play such as sand and water…

Water Table

On one end of the room is our water table. The water table is sitting closest to the door so we can easily bring buckets of water in to fill up the water bins or dump out the water after play each day…

We change the color of water or what tools are available to play in the water each week and sometimes daily depending on the interests of the children or what unit or process we are exploring. The water table is always open and ready for play every single day…

Sensory Window

Next to our water table is the sensory window. The sensory window is also open for play every day and we change up the tools and materials used there to invite continued interest in play and exploration…

The children prefer to use our spray bottles (filled with clean water), shave cream, paint brushes, and window squeegees on the sensory window more than any other tool for play we offer…

There is easily room for four children to play at the sensory window but we do not limit the number of children. The children naturally begin to regulate their own time, use, and space for play throughout the entire outdoor classroom environment…

Sand Table

The sand table is at the opposite end of the room and near our back door. We keep it stocked with plenty of play sand that I purchase from Walmart. Some weeks the sand is dry and on other weeks the children add water for wet sand play….

We will add more sand as needed and we rotate the types of tools that the children can select to use for play in the sand. Sometimes we put the sand in a tub with edges and other times on a flat surface such as it is now…


On the other side of the outdoor classroom, you will find our easel and discovery table. We provide fresh paint at the easel every day for the children to work with. At the beginning of the year, we have lots of group painting going on which naturally keeps the focus on the experience rather than on “making something to take home.”

As time goes by, and depending on the day or age of the child, we will begin to see more intentional types of painting going on…

Discovery Center

Our newest addition to our classroom is our discovery center. This is one long table with shelves on the back so we can set out a variety of materials tools and supplies for the children to explore and discover…

Because the discovery table is brand new, I will be talking lots more about it. However, for now, let me just say that this piece of furniture brings a new level of complex play and exploration to our outdoor learning environment that is beyond measure…

Center Table

And the final area to our classroom is the center table. The center table is changed every day depending on what we are exploring or what new process or materials I would like to introduce to the children…

Sometimes, the children will have a special request such as in the photo below. The children wanted to make necklaces so I quickly grabbed my basket of straws and string and added it to our center table…

About the Outdoor Classroom

As you can hopefully see, the outdoor classroom is filled with many different kinds of hands-on experiences for the children to explore. Unfortunately, once the weather gets too bitter cold, we have to shut down the outdoor classroom. We wait and do that when we know that it is absolutely necessary and then open it back up as soon as the weather begins to warm back up.

The Furnishings

All the wooden furniture in the outdoor classroom was custom built by my husband (except the easel) over the past three years. I hope to have him build me an easel next although the easel we are currently using is excellent. When we do build something, I design what I think will fit well in the classroom by drawing it out on a piece of paper then my husband and I sit down together to talk about what the purpose of the furniture is for, how it will be used, where it will actually fit inside the classroom and then we begin to measure the space and make plans for constructing the furniture.


I do not have any plans or blueprints for the furniture we make to share as each piece is simply something we invent and modify to fit the spaces in my classroom and my husband (who is a carpenter by trade) tends to do lots of the work by sight rather than print.

Clean Up

The outdoor classroom is a major undertaking for us as teachers. To provide the kinds of opportunities I hope to give my students, it is worthwhile to me but it isn’t a low maintenance process. I would say that my assistants and I spend three times as much time setting up, cleaning, covering, wiping down, sweeping, and so on the outdoor classroom as we ever have to do in our indoor classroom. But again – it is extremely worthwhile in the overall learning experience that I can provide to my students.

Kids Clothing

My parents are the most dedicated and profoundly accepting group of parents I could ever ask for. I do provide aprons for the children to wear when they play in the outdoor classroom, but I do not insist they wear them UNLESS I know that it is absolutely necessary. My parents know that they need to send their children in old play clothing so the children will feel free to explore their environment without the constant worry that they will get wet, sandy, or messy. Over time, we do teach the children to have an awareness of when they might want to grab an apron and put it on so they can learn to take care of their own things, but it is done naturally and without pressure so that we do not detract from their natural joy in play and exploration.

Ideas for Inspiration

I write about my outdoor classroom in hopes that you will be inspired to try new things, too. The experiences, equipment and materials do not have to look the same as they do in my classroom rather they can be modified to fit your own classroom or outdoor space. Sometimes just seeing what others are doing helps bring us all a new understanding of how children learn; ideas for how to present the materials; motivation to try something or make something new for the classroom; and inspiration that keeps us excited about teaching young children!

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Deborah J Stewart

Deborah J Stewart

Every time I think I know everything I need to know about teaching young children, God says, "Hold on a minute!" and gives me a new challenge.

Let me tell ya...

With each new challenge that you overcome, you will find yourself better equipped and more passionate about teaching young children.

God didn't call wimps to lead, teach, or care for His children. Nope, he has high expectations, so get ready. You will have to give your very best but after teaching for over 30 years, I can tell you that it is a wonderful and rewarding journey.

Whenever your calling feels hard, just remember, 'He who began a good work in you (and in the children you serve) will be faithful to complete it.'

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