It Not "Just Recess" Anymore!

Teachers often heave a sigh of relief when they take their students out to recess. Finally! The children can burn off the pent up energy they had been accruing for the past few hours indoors. But what if we change our outlook on outdoor play time? What if we create an outdoor environment that offered all of the learning opportunities that one would typically find indoors? What if children could run out to a well-planned play yard to find experiences in math, science, nature, dramatic play, water, building and construction, sensory activities, physical development, art and music? What if they play yard developed critical thinking, discovery, problem solving, and cooperative skills? The result would be that we wouldn't have "just recess" anymore. We would have The Outdoor Classroom!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Must Haves" in the Outdoor Classroom

I was honored to write a guest post for Abbie at Greening Sam and Avery while she enjoys the sun and surf on vacation! Please stop by her site to see the post and learn about the absolute necessities (in my opinion, anyway!) in making your Outdoor Classroom a magical place for the children to play and learn.

Click HERE to see the post! Happy travels :-)

Adding a water source to your sand area offers stability to the sand AND encourages creativity and scientific discovery!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Edublog Awards

Click Here To Visit the Edublog Awards Site

I am new to the blogging scene, but over the past few months, I have been inspired by so many fantastic bloggers. These bloggers are all educators who share the common desire to help fuel their own passion for education and inspire that passion in others. Truly, there are so many blogs that should make the list and I regret not being able to mention every person that has inspired and encouraged me.

Unfortunately, we can only name one blog per category, so here are the blogs that have stood out in my experience thus far and who share the passion for childhood learning both indoors AND out!

Best Teacher Blog: Let The Children Play
Jennifer's blog oozes with creativity, passion and dedication. She has an undeniable passion for encouraging play both indoors and out. With as many followers as she has, she manages to make personal contact through comments on her site and on the sites of others.

Best Group Blog: Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning
This dynamic duo share oodles and oodles of fun, creative, and play based ideas on their blog. Their site offers dozens of links and resources, hundreds of creative play ideas and gorgeous photos to inspire every educator in the field of Early Childhood.

Best Ed Tech/Resource Sharing Blog: I'm a Teacher, Get Me OUTSIDE, Here!
Juliet has a wealth of resources to share on her blog. She has a dramatic desire to share the passion of teaching outdoors and she is very active in the blogging scene. Her dedication extends through her site and into the sites of others as she comments, encourages and praises fellow bloggers. She is always quick to share ideas and shares fabulous posts and photos to inspire and encourage. Her blog truly defends the case for outdoor learning and she is a definite leader in the field.

Most Influential Blog Post: Teacher Tom - Spoiled Brats
Tom is an outstanding educator, blogger and spokesperson for the field of Early Childhood. He is one of the most influential bloggers and his posts always have value and voice.

Best Individual Blog: Happy Hooligans
Lessons, Ideas and Blogs, OH MY! There isn't a day that goes by without one, two or even three posts from Jackie. Jackie offers posts that cover the spectrum of creativity - from art to outdoor play!

Best New Blog: Learning for Life
It is hard to believe that Kierna has only been on the blogging scene since January! When I first started my site in October, she was one of the first to jump on board and offer comments, resources and encouragement to me. Her own site does the same! Gorgeous photos, loads of informational posts, and a passion for learning outdoors....gotta love it!

Thanks to ALL of you fantastic bloggers and to the others out there who are equally fantastic. And to a few of my other faves...Mama Pea Pod, Greening Sam and Avery, I Work 4 Kids, The Outdoor Preschool, and Make and Play all ROCK! Thanks for being such inspirations in the field!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Many Thanks!

I was so honored to receive a Nice Blog award from Vera at Make and Play. It is always such a treat to have a mention from another fabulous blogger :-). Thanks, Vera!

This award has 2 rules: specify 3 songs that are important to you and tell what you dreamed about. I am also to pass on the award to other "Nice Blogs!" (check below to see my top picks for the Nice Blog award!)

To be honest, I don't listen to music a lot. I do, however, LOVE children's songs. For some reason, singing children's songs brings me straight back to childhood. Here are my top three outdoor songs for children (I chose the outdoor theme since this is the nature of my blog ;-)). I don't usually remember my night dreams, so here is a hope and dream of mine: I dream that children will once again reclaim their right and desire to play outside; and that their parents will take the same initiative.

1. I love "Over in the Meadow" because it has such a beautiful folky tune. It is calm and peaceful and brings back childhood memories of scampering through the forests, streams and meadows of the Canadian Rockies and seeing such an abundance of wildlife.

2. Another beautiful folktune - "The Rainbow Connection"

3. Tradition and fun - "Five Little Ducks"

And the Nice Blog award goes to:

I Work 4 Kids for inspiring me to write my own blog.
I'm a Teacher, Get Me Outside Here!  and Learning for Life - For sharing the passion of outdoor learning.

Feel free to copy and paste the Award into your blog. And don't forget to pass it on!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Dramatic Play Ideas - Outdoors!

Kids love dramatic play. Whether it is in the classroom, in the woods, or in the play yard, dramatic play is always one of the most popular centers in which the children congregate. Dramatic play allows children to make sense of the adult world in a child-friendly setting. Dramatic play also develops necessary skills in cooperation, language, role-play, and leadership.  
Children love to play in a dramatic play setting that has been designed around a theme. Providing ample props engages the children in the theme and allows them to make believe their own scenarios. The key to a successful dramatic environment is providing enough props for several children to avoid conflict. 

The benefit of providing dramatic play outdoors is that the children can use more of the environment to enhance their play. They can also let loose a bit as they can use more of their body to engage in play. They can be louder, busier, and even incorporate the structure, bikes, or sandbox!

Here are a few of the dramatic play ideas we have used in our Outdoor Classroom over the past few months:

Our younger pod enjoyed the small scale Country Kitchen (crossed with the Mud Kitchen approach). The teachers put the kitchen near the sandbox to encourage the children to use the sand and other natural items they had set out.

Mixin' up the soup!

Farmer's Market - We set out four shopping carts, several shopping bags, purses, several cash registers, and play money. We added labeled bins and shelves filled with fruits, vegetables, bread and dairy products.

Western Cook Out - Cowboy hats, flannel shirts, bandanas, plastic plates and utensils,  and aluminum cookware with LOADS of plastic camp food made this theme a big success. The kids really enjoyed the giant ham and steak!

Every week, we add a few special items to add interest to the theme. This time, we added a campfire and tripod. The kids had a great time cooking the ham and hot dogs over the fire.  
We even added a hanging lantern for effect.

Fire, Fire! During the summer, teachers inspired a fire house theme. They added yellow boots, fire hats, cut-up garden hoses, plastic fire extinguishers, and plastic fire coats.

The children were allowed to take the gear all over the playground to extinguish fires (they just had to bring it all back at the end of their play time). They even made the tricycles into fire engines!
Dino Dig - Here we added a table filled with sand, dinosaur skeletons, hand-made fossils, and paint brushes for brushing off their treasures.

Paleontology Lab - Directly beside the dino dig, we place another table filled with laboratory gear such as goggles, beakers, and magnifying glasses.
Adding photos and language around the yard inspires curiosity in Language and Literacy. 

Teddy Bear Picnic - The children enjoyed LOADS of teddies and stuffies. We added pitchers, cups, plates, baskets, and a quilt to make the perfect picnic setting. 
Post Office - This theme features mail boxes, US Mail Tricycles, newspaper, paper, cards, envelopes, stickers, stamps, clipboards, tape, and hole punchers.  You name it - if it was good for writing or posting, we provided it!

Other ideas include: Play House, Police, Bakery, Pumpkin Patch, Garden, Weather Station, TV Station, Rock and Roll Stage, Nautical or Pirate Boat, Castle, or Shoe Shop.

Have any other great ideas for Outdoor Dramatic Play? Mention them here and provide a link if you have one!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Outdoor Ideas from Across the Globe

This is a blog hop that I came across on Child Central Station. Click the link to more of her fabulous blog hops. The code is at the bottom if you'd like to post it onto your own site.

Please add your own wonderful ideas for exploring the outdoors with children! The only rule: Your link should be family friendly and related to Outdoor Play with children.

Let's Go Outside!

There has been a misconception over the last century that learning must take place indoors. Years ago, students would diligently go to school and “learn.”

 But, they would also be able to roam free and explore their world once the school bell rang. 

They would run about, play tag, build forts, climb trees, explore streams, and use their creative ingenuity to transform natural objects into playthings.

Unfortunately, we have experienced a shift over the last few generations where parents work more hours (indoors); consequently, young students are forced to attend more formalized institutions to bide their time waiting for their parents return. 

With the best of intentions, many of these institutions have developed structured programs that offer every option from cooking and crafts to structured sports and pre-math for the preschool child. 

 Most of them will also offer a “recess” time, but this time would be limited so as not to “waste” time. With this shift, children seem to have lost their ability to play outside for hours on end as we once did. 

 According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, children have become disconnected with nature. In fact, Louv went as far as coining the term “nature deficit disorder” when it comes to the youth of today. 

As we know, this over abundance of time spent indoors has, in fact, caused a disconnect with nature. This lack of time spent outside has also contributed to a host of other problems such as obesity, ADHD, physical deficits, and lack of confidence in physical abilities

I need to ask, why did the idea of learning outside become a threat to our children's development? When did studying plants and nature in their natural habitat become underscored by watching a nature program on TV or You Tube? Why is the concept of "play" better understood indoors as it is outdoors?

 To counteract these deficits and misconceptions, many programs for young children have discovered the value of the Outdoor Classroom. These programs are adding natural elements, gardens, and green spaces. They have taken the components from inside their classroom and brought them outside. Forward-thinking teachers are bringing their students outside to learn in an environment that has been designed with the development of the child in mind. 

I send out a huge congratulations to those programs who have stepped up against this absurd anti-recess revolution that seems to spreading like wildfire across our nation. I congratulate teachers and parents who have taken learning outdoors to once again connect our youth with the world in which they live!

 The Outdoor Classroom is a great place to start, but we must all take steps to get our children back OUTSIDE!

Take a hike, visit a nature center, go on a walk, splash in a stream, fish in the lake, smell the flowers, make a leaf rubbing, build a snowman, go birdwatching, dig for worms, search for bugs, go on an outdoor alphabet scavenger hunt, have a family picnic in your backyard, sit under the stars, visit a farm, go berry picking, or simply find the green area in your local park. Nothing is too small.

Let's ALL get outside and get LEARNING!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Nurturing Nature?!?!?

The Story (scroll down for The Science!)

My 5 year old son brought to my attention the other day that an adult's idea of a creepy critter is another child's idea of a "pet!" It all came about when the 2's teacher thrust a bucket at me and proclaimed, "YOU are the Outdoor Curriculum YOU deal with this!" A bucket? Okay...take it to the sandbox. It wasn't until I looked IN the bucket that I realized why this particular bucket was being thrust my way. For, in the bucket was the biggest creepy-crawly I had ever seen (well, excluding the rhino beetle that flew into my sister and bruised her leg on a trip to Africa)!

This thing looked similar to a giant ant. It had a bulbous bottom, huge pincers, large eyes, and it appeared to be trying to dig its way out of the bottom of the bucket with great gusto.

 Don't get me wrong, I love nature and I really don't mind most of the insect world. But this topped the charts on the "yick" factor scale (the quarter is in the container to demonstrate the size of the beast)!  By the way, did you check out the pincers?!?!

The 2 year olds were FASCINATED! I couldn't get the bucket away from them! "What was it? Where did it come from? Can we put it back in the sandbox where we found it? What does it eat? Can I hold it? Why not?" Oh, the questions they had! Aside from the teacher saying it was a "Potato Bug," I wasn't exactly sure what it was.

So we pulled out the fancy internet-enabled phone and we Googled it! It was, in fact, a Jerusalem Cricket (also known as a Potato Bug). We found out all sorts of information and the children were so excited to watch the creature kick and squirm in the bucket. However, after their initial interest had waned, I knew the bucket was not an appropriate habitat. So what to do with this horrific little thing? I couldn't let him go on the playground since we learned it has a painful bite. So, I decided to bring it home to my young entomologist! My 5 year old was beyond THRILLED! We researched everything we needed to know about housing his new "pet." Unfortunately, we didn't read as far as keeping a lid on the box, so the critter is now somewhere in my house. Shudder the thought!
This particular critter in the photographs is actually Potato Bug #2 to reside in our house. I found this one hanging out in one of the plastic construction hats that were sitting out in a crate in the play yard (how he got in there is beyond me!). This one has a name ("Crusher"), a lovely terrarium habitat (complete with lid!), and a delectable feast of fruits and veggies set out just for him. He is my son's pride and joy! So, as the saying goes, one man's garbage is another man's treasure!

Here is "Crusher" trying to burrow into his new habitat.

The Reasoning and the Science

Bugs and other critters provide endless hours of fascination for young children.

If we, as teachers, can overcome our own fears, there is a wealth of learning to be had from nurturing nature. Insects are often the easiest to find in your backyard, but other critters such as lizards, snakes, or amphibians would also be welcome guests for your students. 

There are dozens of books and websites that offer practical and easy-to-follow information on caring for insects & backyard animals at the amateur level. Discussing these creatures with the children will increase knowledge and respect for the animals that reside in their own backyard. 

A teacher can easily facilitate a deeper understanding of the animal by providing books and photos for the children to explore. Researching animals with the children allows them to understand the animal's physical appearance, species, habitat, food, predators, sensitivities, life-cycles and habits. Allowing children to watch the animal in a carefully planned and contained environment enables the children to study the animal more carefully and gives them direct experience in providing for the needs of another living creature. They can discuss, observe, predict and record the various behaviors of the animal. 

My little "entomologist" holding a stick bug in Florida.
Setting out journals may entice the children to take notes or draw diagrams of the animal. The young scientist will be thrilled by this up-close encounter with nature's wonders. Howard Gardner even recognized "Naturalistic Intelligence" as a recent addition to his list of Multiple Intelligences

Of course, keep in mind that some animals would be better off if released after a few days of observations. Other animals are perfectly happy living in a child-made setting if all of its needs are met. If you live in an area that is habitat to venomous, stinging, or biting insects/critters, it is always best to train students to show the teacher before touching any animal! Safety first!

Here are a list of easy-to-manage insects:
Spiders (choose carefully)
Praying mantids (*requires a LOT of food!)
Caterpillars (great for investigating life cycles)
Mealworms (great for investigating life cycles...turns into Darkling Beetles)
Pill Bugs and Sow Bugs
Stink Bugs

This is a great book for keeping bugs as pets:
Pet Bugs: A Kids' Guide to Keeping Touchable Insects

Following are a few helpful insect websites in setting up your own window-sill science center. You can also just Google "caring for (name of critter)" and see what comes up. Google images is a great way to get some splendid photos of the critters you are hoping to keep.  I hope you find these as interesting as I do!

Amateur Entomologist's Society

Center for Insect Science Education Outreach

Keeping Insects

Getting a close look at a butterfly at the zoo.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Increasing Focus Through Loose Parts (and Tires in the OC)

Teachers are always so eager to engage children and stimulate them with new learning opportunities. We offer activities that span all of the developmental areas, we diligently change out the toys on a weekly basis, and we spend hours planning for the next set of creative activities. Monday morning comes, and the room has been transformed with new offerings for the children to explore. Of course, a well-planned, intentional and creative teacher is a good thing. However, is there a point to which our good intentions of setting out endless amounts of "engaging" activities becomes too much? By offering new toys every week are we in fact limiting their creativity and causing children to flit from one activity to another without being able to engage and focus on one activity/object for extended periods?Are we preventing them from deeply understanding and developing complexity in their play? I am not opposed to change. I love to challenge the children with new activities and I believe children enjoy exploring new materials. They also gain new skills when they are exposed to new experiences. However, I also believe that maintaining a base of familiar experiences (such as blocks, ramps & pathways, and dramatic play) and providing open-ended loose parts is critical to promoting focus, attention, developed complex thinking strategies, imagination, and creativity.

The concept of "loose parts" is not new. Children have been collecting, sorting, manipulating, moving, toting, building, and creating with loose parts for generations. Remember back to your days of playing in the woods. I'm sure you can muster some fond memories of using logs, rocks, pinecones, and other natural objects to create forts, mud kitchens, magic wands, secret treasures and more. Throughout childhood, I'm sure we have all magically "transformed" even manmade items to suit our play. Milk jugs became space ships, paper towel rolls became swords, and brooms became horses.  Items such as these are considered "loose parts." Undefined loose parts can become any object that the child can dream or imagine because they have no definitive element. For example, a plastic pile of spaghetti almost always stays a plastic pile of spaghetti. But a pinecone can become spaghetti, a rocket ship, or a magical fairy-tale carriage.  The creativity of the young mind never ceases to amaze me! Providing loose parts on the playground (and in the classroom) is a way to stimulate creativity, promote discovery, and spark curiosity among children. Loose parts provide a valuable open-ended learning resource.

Our school has a bounty of old tires laying around the playground. The children have endless uses for the tires. To be honest, I found them rather unsightly when I first started working at the school. But perhaps that is because I didn't see that the tires were really boats, ships, construction holes, and crawling tubes!

I hope you enjoy seeing how our children transform these simple objects and work them into their play! As I've shown in some of the photos, when the tires are not used for play, the teachers use them for functional purposes!

This boy drives his truck through a construction blockade made of tires.

These tires divide the sports area from the bike path.

This tire holds the tarp AND the paint!

Tires are often used to hold down tarps. We also cover our tables and furniture with tarps at night. The tires hold the tarps for extra protection!

The children have filled these tires with sand. 

Our younger pod used the tires in an obstacle course.

The boys feel like they are doing army drills!

Cooking over the "tire" (heehee...pun intended!)

These tires have become an outdoor oven.

Tires make great planters!

The 3's teacher set up these tires by digging them into the sand. Each class has enjoyed this immensely! They have kept this structure in place for over a week!

Climbing over the tires provides great gross motor skills. Balance is key!

This 2 year old is singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"

A few of his friends joined in the fun to sing as they cruised down the "river."

I stole one tire to keep the hose in place.

PS - If you have spiders where you live, be sure to paint the inside of the tires white. Since spiders prefer dark spaces, the white color deters them from taking residence!