Creating varied and experientially rich outdoor classrooms is a heavily debated issue. Each setting is unique and has its own obstacles to overcome. There may be small sloping, empty patches of tarmac or extensive areas with woods and a water feature. One may be more aesthetic but it is also harder to maintain.
The benefits of quality, outdoor provision are acknowledged but how to achieve them with limited budgets, space, time and resources can be daunting.
Now is a good time to ‘Spring Clean’ your outdoor area. Step back and reflect how resources and zones are being utilised. Have a bold clear out if necessary. Try to view the potential in those dull, damp areas. Can the water-logged grass zone, only used in summer, become a vegetable or mud pie patch?
Consider this as way of revitalising an area. Resourcefulness and creativity as well as practicality are prerequisites. You may not like the resources you have but you need to make the best of them. Perhaps they may need a re-vamp or a re-location. Consider the overall layout and if bikes dominate. Is there a hierarchy of resources? Try zoning learning areas with planters, crates or tyres.
Can the children access their own resources and develop the strands of play how they would like? Hang trowels, buckets, magnifying glasses from hooks on fences and railings. Utilise outdoor themed boxes, eg, dress up, mark-making, maths etc. A box brimming with ribbon, string, tape, wood and fabric is useful in numerous situations.
Reflect upon how the children see the spaces and their relationship to it. Is it inviting and accessible? Is there wonder, opportunity, challenge and adventure? (obviously all risk assessed!)
Has the child got a sense of freedom to experiment and explore? Ensure there are clear guidelines as to what is acceptable. Crouch down and see the world from their height. Remember they spend a lot of time on the floor and are inquisitive as to what is in those nooks and crannies. Involve them and give them a sense of ownership. Convey to the wider community what you are trying to achieve. Is there an insistence on everything being neat and orderly or can that cherished, albeit a little ramshackle den stay for a while?
Consider the need to be able to draw children together as well as being able to run freely and be loud and jubilant. There must be room for spontaneity and child initiated learning as well as more structured tasks. Plan for inclusivity and accessing the learning, through all the senses. Surround them with stimuli, some that is constant, some ever changing.
Consider the value messages that are being conveyed. Is the same care and attention given to the outdoor as well as the indoor? Do you greet the opportunity to experience the blustery cold, wind and rain? Children pick up on reticence and attach negative associations.
Even with limitations there are a kaleidoscope of opportunities that will hold in hearts and memories for ever. Recognise the challenges, and try to find innovative ways of unlocking the wonderful potential. Your hard work and being out in all weathers really will pay off!