When I first started working with children in a childcare setting, I was eighteen years old and worked with toddlers. I learned a lot from that experience. First, toddlers climb on anything like monkeys. Second, never turn your back on a group of toddlers, or even one lone toddler. They move faster than monkeys. Finally, as much as I like watching monkeys, I'm really not a toddler person. They don't carry on good conversation and need a lot of redirection. And did I mention they move faster than monkeys?
Our saving grace was outside play. Even at the ripe old age of eighteen, I figured out that toddlers LOVE their outside play. Peekaboo, chalk, sliding, and swinging are a joy to little ones. As I moved through my career, the love of outside time has been universal, regardless of age. My six- and seven- year old first graders loved climbing and running as much as my toddlers loved their wagons and swings. It wasn't until I began teaching at a lab school that I realized the power of the outdoors.
An outdoor curriculum can be a strong motivator for most children, regardless of age. Outdoor curriculums rely on the teacher's ability to teach typical lessons in an atypical environment. To do so, teachers have to think outside of the box and consider ways children will explore and learn from the outdoors.
Most progressive programs now attempt to plan and implement a "natural" or "green" playground. These playgrounds utilize natural environments to encourage children to explore and build knowledge and appreciation of nature. These programs may focus on a variety of different natural elements for children to use, including gardens, dirt pits for digging, sand pits for building and digging, large tree logs for climbing, tree stumps for hopping, compost piles for creating rich soil to help the variety of gardens grow. Some have elements of water as well for children to explore the movement and properties of water outside.
Key to the success of any outdoor curriculum is the ability to manipulate certain aspects of the playground. This means that a variety of surfaces, including mulch, grass, sand, and concrete may be part of the playground. This enables teachers to plan a variety of activities outside.
If you're thinking of spending some fun time with either your class or your child outside, here's some ideas for different surfaces (all tried and true winners):
Concrete--sidewalk chalk, sidewalk paint, any type of manipulative your child/ren enjoy, art projects (I like to use trays to contain items), photographic paper (leaves sun reflections), painting with water on the sidewalk
Mulch--climbing, running, sliding, swinging, creating three dimensional sculptures, collecting and sorting pieces of mulch by size or shape, counting pieces of mulch, using magnifiers to dig and look for insects residing in the mulch, measuring mulch in measuring cups, using mulch to measure items nearby (a pencil may be three pieces long, a person may be thirty pieces, etc.)
Sand--building, experimenting with properties of sand and water, painting with sand, sifting sand, experimenting with funnels, writing letters in the sand with fingers or other objects
Grass--active group games (duck duck goose, mother may I), reading books together, building with PVC pipes or cardboard, painting large projects, sketching items on the playground, lying flat and watching the clouds, building a tent from extra fabric stabilized to a fence (or using a product such as Cranium's superfort), using magnifying glasses to search for ladybugs (or any other bug that fascinates your child)
If you're an outdoor lover, nothing beats having a children's garden or a family garden. You may choose to plant flowers or vegetables, or a mixture of both. For schools, I recommend multiple gardens, including an herb garden, a butterfly garden (do some research about the types of plants that attract butterflies in your area), a flower garden, and a vegetable garden. Regardless of whether you have a tiny flower garden or multiple gardens in your space, children can help to pull weeds, water plants, and pick vegetables and herbs. Utilizing vegetables and herbs you have grown with children helps them make the connection of food being grown to ending up on their table.
Spring is a great time to spend outside and teach children lessons about nature. Take the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine and get your kids outside--for learning or for fun!