If you want to expand your classroom beyond the standard four walls, then we have got you covered with these outdoor classroom ideas. Here’s how to create your outdoor classroom.
Are you a teacher who is looking to adapt and make use of your outdoor space at school? Or maybe you’re a parent, grandparent, or caregiver who wants to transform their garden into a place of fun outdoor learning. Don’t worry if you have limited green space at home. Some outdoor classroom ideas can be applied on the go or even in local parks.
We are excited to share these outdoor classroom ideas with you to get children learning outside! We believe that some of the most valuable learning experiences come from spending time outdoors. Research shows that children who spend quality time outdoors exploring nature will learn and develop simultaneously. Here’s how to create an outdoor classroom.
1. Incorporate gardening into your outdoor classroom
You don’t have to be a superstar gardener for this either; whether you have a considerable garden, a small yard, or a window ledge, there are plenty of ways to use your space effectively. Gardens are a great way to connect children with nature. They will have to plant their tiny seed, tend to it correctly, and watch the process of it growing into a flower, plant, fruit, or vegetable. Will all their hard work pay off? It’s an excellent way for children to learn without too much specific or prior planning. Gardens are a place of awe and wonder, and this is a great way to introduce ‘farm to table’ to children from a young age so they can learn about where their food comes from and the effort that goes into growing produce.
What to plant?
We have one rule regarding what to plant, and that’s anything you want to! Don’t be scared about failing; that’s all part of the learning process and is essential for children to see. A good start is simply with good pollinators such as lavender; you’ll attract beneficial wildlife to your garden, and you can teach children about the importance of pollination at the same time. You could also try planting fruits or vegetables. Growing your fruits and vegetables (especially ones your children won’t eat normally) can encourage them to try them.
If you don’t have an outdoor space, you could grow a small tomato plant, strawberries, or herbs easily on your window ledge. Or create a snipping garden with a selection of miniature/inexpensive plants, flowers, or herbs that can be cut and harvested for mud pies, fairy potions, and other very important uses.
There are plenty of online gardening resources, ideas, and books available for that extra bit of inspiration. We love The Kew Gardens Children’s Cookbook: Plant, Cook, Eat. It’s got step-by-step guides on how to grow your chosen produce, then simple and tasty recipes to use your produce in, taking your child from planting to the plate.
2. Encourage outdoor play in your outdoor classroom
It doesn’t need to cost you much to have an effective outdoor learning space. There are plenty of ways to encourage outdoor play without breaking the bank. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t automatically take to outdoor play either; if it’s new to them, it can take time. We have chosen a few play ideas to incorporate into your outdoor classroom to get their imaginations going.
Mud, glorious mud, create your own mud kitchen
Getting muddy and playing in the dirt is an instinct for kids. Make a ‘messy mud play’ designated area. You could buy a mud kitchen or make your own from scrap material. Even supply some old pots and pans and a spoon for mixing. Make sure you have dirt and access to a water source. Children will get super messy, but the physical and emotional benefits of playing in the mud outweigh the mess!
There are some great tutorials on how to build your own mud kitchen. Ket children involved making one with you. Or you could buy one ready-made; they’re an excellent investment for your outdoor learning space.
Design a fairy garden
A lot of thought, attention, and imagination goes into building a fairy house. If you want to encourage fairies to live in your garden, then, of course, you need to make it extra special. A good way to collect materials for your fairy house is to start with a scavenger hunt. This could be as simple as a quick search around the garden for items children are drawn to or go one step further and visit the beach for shells and other pretty materials. We have a scavenger hunt download available here, which might also help you. Do you have limited outdoor space? Or bad weather? Bring the outdoors indoors and create a fairy garden in a plant pot.
Make magical woodland potions
Continuing the magical theme, we have created a Magical Woodland Potion printable download for you to enjoy. Follow the steps and make your magic potions; what will you wish for? This is a fun alternative to a standard scavenger hunt and promotes imaginative play. Best of all, it’s free and can be completed in any green space.
3. Introduce outdoor art to your outdoor classroom
Nature is a great inspiration for budding artists, and art surrounds you in your outdoor classroom. From painting to photography, remember that pretty much anything you would do/teach inside can be brought outdoors and adapted.
Think about providing different working surfaces that can be used outside, such as portable easels for vertical work, clipboards, and sketchbooks for artists on the go; take photos at different times of the day and encourage children to take them home to sketch if your outdoor space is limited.
Get messy and make giant masterpieces
Save rolls of old wallpaper because outdoors, you have lots of space. You could try:
- Foot and hand painting.
- Using water guns filled with paint, see what patterns you can create.
- Creating abstract art with water balloons.
Get creative with natural materials
Using natural materials can be a great way to be creative outdoors. Try ditching the paintbrushes for some nature-made ones; you could use cut flowers, fruits or vegetables, pine cones or exciting leaves and branches.
Use your art pieces to decorate your outdoor space or give children a real sense of pride and bring them indoors and brighten up your home.
4. Bring literacy outdoors
Reading and writing don’t have to be indoor activities. Being outside in nature can spark great stories and prompt imaginative thinking. We have plenty of ways you can encourage reading and writing outdoors.
Make a reading space
Teepees or dens in your outdoor classroom are a great addition and make lovely reading areas. Children can help you make these and decorate them so they become an exciting place they will enjoy spending time in. We have written about den kits and how to make your own den here with a simple step-by-step guide. Encourage children to take books outside and read outdoors.
Campfire stories are a fun way to incorporate reading and storytelling into your outdoor classroom. Use logs to make seats and circle space for a cosy campfire after a long day of playing and learning.
Make signposts or laminated signage for your outdoor classroom. This is a great way to explore letters with younger learners. Even pre-readers will appreciate labels and signs in print, mainly if you include pictures. Get children involved in making the signage with you.
Chalk is perfect for practising writing. Keep some chalk in a tightly sealed box, and collect a variety of sizes and colours ready for outdoor learning. It can be used on pavements, walls, fences, and chalkboards. Best of all, it will wash away with water or in the next rain.
We have a detailed guide on making your story stones in our Ten Fun Outdoor Activities For Toddlers. Hunt for stones in your outdoor classroom, or bring some back from an adventure. Decide what characters you would like in your story. Will it be Princes and Princesses? Bugs and insects?
Anything will work, but it should be something your children are excited about. If you need inspiration, use a story from your child’s favourite book, The Tiger Who Came To Tea or The Gruffalo; these work well. There should be a mixture of objects, places, and characters for the stones to work. Draw out the outline of each picture onto the pebbles using a black Sharpie. Colour them in and use them to tell stories together.
We love this easy way for children to explore narrative voices for their favourite stories. They can even explore writing poems and prose from an early age.
Make a garden observation centre
This can be as simple as a dry-erase or chalkboard outside for children; this allows them to write about and record the wildlife they have seen, the weather, plants growing progress, and just anything that interests them outdoors. It’s a fantastic way for children to reflect and appreciate their surroundings.
This activity would do best long-term in an area with some overhead coverage and protection from weathering. Chalkboards and dry erase boards can be bought inexpensively. You can also buy magnetic ones, this is great place to use magnetic letters or words for magnetic poetry and prose as well.
5. Bring math outdoors
Maths? Outside? How?
Math is simple to bring outside. Nature is messy and abundant in loose parts and manipulatives, which are brilliant for counting, grouping, weighing, measuring, creating geometric shapes, and more.
Plastic rulers and tape measures can be made great use of for measuring plant growth, the circumference of a tree trunk, or the area of a garden bed, for example. Make sure children record them in the garden observation centre.
Bring some balance scales outdoors to compare the weights of different items you find in the garden. You’ll find that with small prompts like these, children will begin problem-solving by themselves. There are so many opportunities for sorting or comparison, fractions, estimation, measurement, math operations, and patterns everywhere you look in nature.
Some ideas to get you problem-solving outdoors:
- Help children to use sticks as a tool of measurement and measure how tall they and their friends are in comparison.
- Design a flower bed/garden with children and encourage using shapes and pattern recognition.
- Plant seeds and encourage children to count them out by twos.
- Can children sort their scavenger hunt items into the order of size? For example, a pile of pine cones by size from small to large?
6. Make an ‘outdoor classroom in a box’
If you don’t have much access to outdoor space, the time or space to make an outdoor classroom or limited accessibility but still want the little ones around you to have fun outdoors and explore nature, create an outdoor classroom…in a box. These can be prepared and ready to take to the park, the woods, the beach or the back garden.
Either keep it really small and straightforward and store items simply inside a pencil case, or go a little larger with a backpack, bucket or storage box.
Here is some suggestion for items to include:
- A small notepad, clipboard, scrap paper, or a fancy nature journal and pen or pencil.
- Crayons for tree bark or leaf rubbings.
- Strong tape or just some double-sided tape for sticking on those tiny treasures to your paper or journal.
- A washable inkpad, great for making nature stamps out of leaves and other small textured items you might find on a scavenger hunt.
- A small tub of playdough or play clay for making nature prints or sculptures with naturally found materials.
- A magnifying glass or binoculars for close-up inspections.
- Containers with ventilation for collecting and observing bugs and critters you might find.
7. Most importantly, constantly adapt and follow children’s lead!
Children are naturally curious and will ask you hundreds of questions. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer, and then venture off to the library or online to learn more. If your children are particularly interested in something, adopt a section of the classroom to explore that, then encourage local trips or further learning with books and online resources. The most beneficial outdoor classrooms are the ones that are constantly changing.
Keep in mind the children’s sensory experience when making your outdoor classroom. Most outdoor experiences might be full of warnings to keep off the grass or not touch the plants, but your outdoor classroom can be a safe place that encourages a hands-on experience for your little explorers to get stuck in.
8. Cover or create a shelter for your outdoor classroom
Creating a shelter or cover for your outdoor classroom can be a great way to ensure everyone stays comfortable and safe while they learn. Whether a simple canopy or a more elaborate structure, a shelter can protect from the elements and make it easier to focus on the lesson.
There are many different options to choose from, depending on your budget and the specific needs of your classroom. Some popular choices include tents, gazebos, and tarps. We think the Unigear Tent Tarp is a great option. Whatever you choose, ensure it is sturdy enough to withstand wind and other weather conditions and provides ample shade and ventilation. With suitable shelter, you can create a comfortable and inspiring learning environment for your students, no matter what the weather is like outside.
We hope that these ideas help you well on your way to creating your own outdoor classroom. Let us know in the comments whether you are a teacher, parent, or guardian and if you have any outdoor classroom ideas we haven’t listed!