Bring A Leaf To School … And Then Make It So Much More Than That!

Sometimes it amazes me what inspires me. If you told me that I would wake up this morning and write a blog post inspired by falling leaves, I wouldn’t have believed you, but all it took was a great conversation on Doug Peterson‘s morning post to act as the inspiration for this one. 

As I mentioned in my reply to Doug, our time outside in our forest space definitely leads to “leaf games.” Students make piles of leaves, jump in leaves, and even create art with leaves. So much imaginative and creative play comes from falling leaves. 

Doug pushed my thinking even more though when he tweeted me back and replied to my comment on his blog

Yes, we’re very lucky to have a forest space. We have one of the nicest outdoor spaces that I have ever seen, and it really does provide everything that anyone could ever want in an outdoor learning environment. But Doug’s reply reminded me that even for those that do not have this kind of outdoor area, there are things that they can do. I know, as I’ve taught in these kinds of spaces before, and I realize that in retrospect, I could have done a lot more. 

My final comment on Doug’s post implied that I would be writing a post of my own, and this is that post. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what could be done in schools that don’t have access to forest spaces. What about those schools that don’t even have grass? I know about those schools. I used to teach at one. At the time, we made our outdoor play time largely about the use of the bicycles, the scooters, the playground equipment, and the sidewalk additions, such as the tracks and games painted on the sidewalks. I’ve seen a lot of this sidewalk painting recently. I used to love these numbers, letters, and words spread across the black top, but now I wonder if the money used on these additions could be better used for a more open-ended play space. 

While we often talk about, videotape, and photograph our time in the forest, we also have a wonderful classroom just outside our doors. Here’s a look at the outdoor classroom space that my teaching partner, Paula, and I revamped before school started.

Let’s think a bit about those schools that do not have grassy areas, trees, and forest spaces. How might you create an outdoor classroom there?

  • Tires are versatile, outdoor loose parts that can be used for creative play, gross motor play, and even as seats for reading and writing. We’ve collected a ton of tires to use in our outdoor classroom, and they’re all free. Most mechanics want to get rid of old tires, as it costs them to recycle them. Talk to your local mechanic and see what you can get. You’d be amazed!
  • Wooden blocks, of various sizes, are great for building and creating outside. One of the previous kindergarten teachers at our school, Janet, collected and brought in many of these wood pieces for us to use. I wonder at your school if there might be parents or educators with some old pieces of wood. They can be all different sizes. Even starting with a few is wonderful, and then you can collect more as they become available. 

  • The mud kitchen might be my favourite addition to this outdoor classroom. Students that rarely engage in dramatic play in the classroom, engage in it outside around this mud kitchen. I love how it includes both boys and girls. So much oral language, math, science, and literacy comes from this space. We happen to have some berries hanging from trees near our mud kitchen, and collecting and creating with these berries have been very popular lately. Students use sticks and wood chips much like kitchen instruments, and as they create, there are so many wonderful conversations. Even adding some leaves in here, along with weeds, would create some new conversations in this area. This year, we used a couple of old workbenches as the foundation for this mud kitchen. If you don’t have access to these, a few tires with some wood could act as a kitchen. Maybe even an old picnic table would work. We bought some pots and pans at Value Village and Dollarama, and used old buckets to contain the mud. We also got the canteens from Home Hardware and Dollarama at very low prices. This ensures that we can keep enough water outside for this mud kitchen play. The mud piece is key! 🙂 

  • A dig pit helps with the mud component, but also with the sensory play (and the oral language that comes from this kind of play). Students often use the mud in addition to the blocks for building opportunities, which also gets students thinking about construction and cement. What a great chance to develop vocabulary skills! If you don’t have a dig pit area, what about an old sandbox or a long, low Rubbermaid container for some sand? We bought bags of play sand for $5 each at the end of the year, and they get very well-used before we need to purchase more.
  • Stumps work well for gross motor play, but are also wonderful places to sit, eat, and talk. A few stumps with some wood pieces could also act as a foundation for the mud kitchen, if the tire and wood options don’t work well for you. I know that Janet, a previous Kindergarten teacher at our school, found a lot of these wood stumps. Look for them! They are often along the roads or maybe even in a teacher or parent’s backyard after doing some tree cutting. Ask around! You’d be surprised what people have around that they are willing to give you, especially if you can go and pick them up. Just like the tires, these stumps work as wonderful loose parts in our outdoor learning space, and are so versatile. 

  • No doubt about it: the outdoor chalkboard is a wonderful addition to our space, but there are alternatives. A parent made this chalkboard many years ago, and maybe there is a parent in your neighbourhood that could make one. Maybe the money that you save on painting sidewalks or fixing bicycles could be used for a chalkboard instead. If not, some sidewalk chalk on wood pieces, logs, or tree stumps work wonderfully. We had some old doors from a shed, and students love chalking on them. They’ve also been great for painting outside. We’ve brought out water colour paints, but wondered if some of the natural berry paints might be nice to add too. If none of these options work, bring out some clipboards, special pens or markers, and even small notebooks for writing. Placing these around the outdoor space help make them easily accessible, and then kids tend to write more. We find the same thing inside the classroom.

  • Don’t forget about the books! This year, we took the doors off an old shed, and created a wonderful little space for reading and/or dramatic play. Every day, we pull out a box of books, and the kids just love sitting in this space, reading, and talking with each other. Often an adult joins them, and as kids walk by, more stop to listen to and enjoy a story. If you don’t have an old shed space, a tarp, or even an open tent might work well for this kind of reading area. Children also love to sit in tires to read, so a comfy tire space might also work. 

In the end, this blog post is about a lot more than leaves. It is about creating a space where kids can get creative, expand their schema, apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in another area, and develop their social and academic skills through open-ended learning opportunities. When I was at my last school, I never made enough use of the outdoor space that we had. I thought that we were limited due to the lack of grass and the inability to keep items outside overnight. But what if the bikes in the shed were replaced with some natural materials? What if items were locked down? (We did this with our mud kitchen this year.) I know that if I went back to a school that didn’t have our kind of outdoor space, I might shed some initial tears 🙂 , but then I would explore what could be done. For when we create these play opportunities — rich in oral language, creativity, and the development of new vocabulary — the social and academic benefits are huge. Just like leaves are everywhere, can wonderful outdoor play be everywhere too? How do you make this possible? Thanks to Doug for reminding me that there is always more we can do!


2 thoughts on “Bring A Leaf To School … And Then Make It So Much More Than That!

  1. Good grief! Our little conversation created a monster of a post. Thanks so much for sharing what you have and sharing alternative ideas for those who aren’t lucky enough to have access to a “forest space”. I like the idea of an outdoor chalkboard! So much more than drawing on blacktop.

    • Thanks Doug! This post kind of took on a life of its own. 🙂 You were quite the inspiration.

      You bring up a great point about the chalkboard. There’s something different about writing on a vertical versus a horizontal surface. We notice this in the classroom too. It’s amazing inside how just adding blank paper to a bulletin board will inspire some non-writers to write. I wonder if others notice this too.


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