Rachel A Larimore, author of Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning, shares simple ways to take learning outside in COVID-19.
In the time of COVID-19, we frequently hear the recommendation that time outdoors is safer than sharing air indoors. The good news is that outdoor play is not only better for preventing the spread of the virus, but it is also better for children’s development.
Experiences with nature support children’s physical, social-emotional, and cognitive development. In other words, outdoor learning shouldn’t be seen as a plan B for learning this year—think of it as plan A!
Take It Outside!
It may sound trite, but truly the first step is simply to go outside. Almost everything that we do in terms of teaching and learning can be done outdoors. This can be as simple as taking the art easel outside to a sidewalk or basketball court, moving the sensory table to the playground, or taking a stack of books outside to peruse while sitting on a blanket under a tree.
We can also think about how to replicate activities outside with different materials. For example, hang paper on vertical surface, such a wall, for painting. Or maybe fill a giant under-bed storage container with water, sand, or another sensory material.
Add Loose Parts
If the first step is heading outside, the next step is providing materials that that might not be practical or possible indoors. Loose parts, those materials with open-ended uses and numerous play possibilities, are common indoors but tend to be small in scale. Outdoor spaces, however, allow for larger-scale loose parts—as well as messier materials.
Outdoor loose parts can be a mix of natural or human-made materials. For example, provide longer sticks for building forts and fairy houses, straw bales for balancing and jumping off, or a simple pile of loose dirt. Human-made loose parts might include buckets, shovels, or PVC pipes for connecting and building. The possibilities are endless, and the greater variety the richer the children’s play will be.
One note about safety: it’s important that these loose parts are kept in an area separate from playground climbing structures. Materials that lend themselves to children’s climbing, such as straw bales, should be set up away from hard surfaces that the children might fall onto or into.
Learning with Nature
While these strategies are mostly about utilizing the outdoors as simply a space for play, eventually teaching and learning can shift to learning with nature. The natural world then becomes another teacher that provides rich opportunities for learning that educators could never stage ahead of time.
Learning with nature means curiosity is piqued and children’s learning is rooted in their own interests rather than that of an adult. For example, insects crawling along the sidewalk might make a child curious about how organisms move. Acorns at the base of an oak tree might inspire a child to see how many they can collect in their bucket—which of course is an opportunity to apply math skills.
Time spent teaching and learning with nature will inevitably lead to curiosity about the world beyond the fenced play area. Whether you’re in an urban, suburban, or rural area, there is a world to explore beyond the fence. This opens up a whole new set of possibilities for learning with nature—not to mention learning about your community.
Venturing beyond the fence might include a walk around the block or exploration of a nearby park. Yes, you’ll need to plan for children’s safety and account for potential hazards (both human and non-human) before venturing out. And once you do go beyond the fence, you’ll realize the magic and power in the possibilities. What will you find? What will be different today than yesterday? Again, nature becomes another teacher providing moments of awe and wonder. The added bonus is teachers will also experience a newfound sense of wonder—something we could all use more of these days.
Find Joy in the Rainy Days!
In late summer in North America, we typically have comfortable weather, particularly in terms of temperature. Yet, we know that eventually the weather will get colder. Many places in the United States will have snow later in the school year. Unless the weather is dangerous, which is rare, we can be outside every day.
The first step to being outside in all weather is having the right clothing. Appropriate clothing for the weather will ensure children don’t get too hot or too cold. This means warm clothes, such as mittens, hats, and heavy coats, in cooler temperatures and waterproof clothing, such as rain suits and rubber boots, for rainy days.
Another important step to embracing play in all weather is a positive attitude. If children are wearing the right clothes, they generally love to play in all weather. Sadly, it’s usually the adults holding children back with statements such as, “No, we can’t go outside. It’s raining.” Imagine the shock and joy children will feel when an adult says, “Yes, you can jump in that puddle!” Really want to blow their minds? Jump in the puddle yourself!
These simple steps—taking learning outside, adding loose parts, learning with nature, and finding joy in rainy days—will not only help teachers and children get through the chaos of COVID-19 but will also help them thrive despite the unusual circumstances. Being outdoors is healthier for us in many ways, and we have a great excuse to begin taking advantage of those benefits.