Teaching Beyond the Four Walls
By Carolyn Tomlin

More and more teachers are learning that much of the curriculum learned indoors can be expanded through outdoor play. Art, language, science, math, and more can all be taught outdoors. Look at your own curriculum and think of innovative ways to use the natural environment as an instrument for teaching young children. The following ideas will help you create an outdoor classroom full of learning possibilities.

Art Rubbings – Using lightweight paper and a charcoal pencil or crayon, make rubbings of bark on trees. Place blades of grass between two sheets of paper and lightly color over to reveal the plant’s form. Back in the classroom, position the art on larger pieces of colored construction paper. Display on a bulletin board with the caption, “Outdoor Learning is Fun!”

Sand Prints – Is it possible for young children to enjoy sand play without making a mess? Yes, if it’s outdoors. On a level, outdoor space, place a shower curtain and a large container of sand. Pour enough water on the sand to make it moist. Provide an assortment of cookie cutters, plastic forks, spoons, and knives for making designs and patterns for building math concepts.

Animal Read-Along – Ask each child to bring a favorite stuffed toy animal to school. Place carpet squares outside for seating. Select an age-appropriate book, such as Bert Kitchen’s book, Animal Alphabet (Dial, 1984), or the favorite children’s poem “Over in the Meadow.” Gather the children around and read books about animals. Afterward, hide several toy animals outdoors. Go on a safari to locate the missing animals. 

Instant Gardening – Jean Piaget (1896-1980) believed that young children did not understand time and space. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow are difficult concepts for young children to comprehend. You can help children understand time and space concepts by planting a garden. Waiting for a flower garden to bloom can take a long time – that is, unless you plant an instant garden. Place a 20 to 40 pound plastic bag of top soil in a sunny location. Using a knife, punch holes in the bottom for drainage. Cut small plus signs in the top for setting young plants, such as dwarf marigolds, zinnias, and petunias. Water as needed. Take photographs of the garden each day or every few days. Then create a classroom bulletin board showing the plants’ growth. Make sure you date the photographs so children can see the progression of the garden.

Visual Perception – Make an outdoor search for the alphabet. Can you see an “A” in the support of a swing set? What letter looks like a car tire? Does a tree branch resemble a “W”? Is there a “K” in a sidewalk crack? Photograph your findings and display as an interest center.

Sidewalk Drawings – Promote cooperative play by inviting the children to use the sidewalk to create a chalk mural. Sharing materials, taking turns, and talking with peers help children work and play together.

Carolyn Ross Tomlin, Jackson, TN, contributes to early childhood education publications.

Related Readings
Parten, M.L. (1932). Social participation among pre-school children. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 27: 243-269.

Piaget, J. (1964). Cognitive development in children. In Piaget Rediscovered. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.