Intentional Outside

Last week, I went with a one word title for my professional blog post. This week is a follow-up one, and it’s going to be two words. πŸ™‚ I have to give credit to Doug Peterson and Stephen Hurley for inspiring this post. On Wednesday evening, they spoke about my Intention post on their VoicEd Radio Show (beginning around the 42 minute and 19 second mark). During their conversation, Doug pointed out what was missing from this post: a conversation around the outdoors. There was the expected assumption that we set-up our outdoor space in the kindergarten pen area, but as I mentioned in my tweet, we actually choose to use a different area for this outdoor time.

I promised a blog post to explain more, as discussing anything in 240 characters or less is hard, so this is that post.

My teaching partner, Paula, and I have vacillated on using or not using the pen area, both this year and in previous ones … as well as even at another school. Sometimes we set-up the space and begin in this enclosed area. You can see and hear our thinking about using this space in the video below, which we recorded two years ago.

While we were intentional in the playground design and the inclusion of gross motor and sensory options, there are a few limitations with regards to this space.

  • There’s one blacktop and a sandbox space. There’s no grass in this pen area. This makes it less safe for running, and many children want/need to begin their day with a big run. We considered alternative gross motor options, with the inclusion of the tires, but children were still looking for the run.
  • There are hidden areas in this pen space. With the shed located where it is, it’s hard to see on the other side of the shed. We want children to have room to move, but there could be safety risks with hidden pockets of space.
  • The pen is small. For the past couple of years, our Board has reduced class sizes as part of its response to COVID. This meant that we had about 20 students, so the size of the pen was not a concern. This year, we have almost 30 students. Now this pen size matters more, as some students benefit from quiet areas and more places to move.

We could split up, and have some students stay in the pen space with one of us and some students go to the primary playground space with the other person, but we like to be together outside. The same is true in the classroom. Then we can reflect on learning as it happens, share observations and reconsider the space as a team, and support each other and the students together. We really need to restrict spacing in the primary playground area if it’s just one of us taking the students out there, so that’s why we decided to go out to this area together. There are some intentional considerations that helped us make this decision.

  • We start the day outside, and very few classes are out at this time. This means that we can safely have a bigger area for children to connect and play together. We always look back at some documentation from the day before we go out to help inspire learning outside. We also share a provocation or two, which connects to topics of interest. Taking the time to do this inside first, allows all of the other students in the school to enter safely, and helps provide purpose for the play in the outdoor space.
An example from last year.
  • There’s a large field space. This is perfect for the big runs that so many of our students seek out at the beginning of the day. We know that children can run safely on the grass, and with more space, there are fewer injuries.
  • The playground is divided into zones, which really helps us restrict areas outside, but also choose the best area(s) for the learning that day. The world’s smallest forest is perfect for creating animal habitats and fairy houses. Students have already returned to the broken tree from last year, and they are tying vines around it to make a fairy house. One child even made a sign inside for the fairy house. Will the fairies then return this year?

This area is also great for creating habitats. Worms, ants, and spiders love this space, and many children have made various habitats here over the years.

Then there is the picnic table space, which we view as a portable mud kitchen. Students write recipes here, and use combinations of chalk, mud, and water to create everything from cupcakes to soups and salads. This provides a wonderful opportunity to learn new vocabulary, discuss healthy and unhealthy foods, read and write, measure and count, and connect with peers. There’s always a dramatic play element to this play. We also try to reuse plastic water bottles by refilling them for water use in this space. This sensory play is incredibly calming for so many of our kids!

The field space is great for running as well as for garbage collection. In fact, with so many people using this playground space over the course of the day, there’s always litter to consider somewhere outside. This often leads to us discussing the environment and caring for the earth. Children also create signs for “no garbage,” which provides a wonderful reading, writing, and media connection to this play.

We also can’t forget the “mountain space.” While we haven’t made it up to the mountain yet this year, conversations about the Fairies of Dundas might lead us up there soon. There’s the fairy tree on this mountain top, as well as lots of mud, sticks, leaves, grass, and rocks, which are perfect for building fairy houses and creating signs.

This was from last year on the mountain.

As students start to explore the different spaces outside, they can work with us to set limitations for the day.

  • It’s a blank canvas. There is no playground equipment outside and all kinds of empty areas. We love this, as it’s often when there are less materials available and more time to play that children become the most creative. So much inquiry happens when students have the time and space to think and explore with less. There’s a lot more settled play outside, as there are fewer places and materials to utilize.
  • The space is close enough for us to bring with us what we need, and for children to return to the classroom as needed. Instead of leaving out the back door of our room to go to the pen, we leave out the front door and exit the door at the end of the hallway. It’s close enough for students to go back in partners to go to the bathroom if needed. Children can also easily help us carry materials outside and back in again. They love to help! While we store all of the outdoor materials in a big Rubbermaid bin, children carry some items outside — from chalk to clipboards to buckets to garbage bags to bottles of water. The big bucket of water also provides some wonderful heavy lifting for a couple of kids that might benefit from this option: a calming one for some.
A little heavy lifting from last year.

Whether choosing the pen or the playground, just as we plan for our indoor space, we need to consider our outdoor one. Doug and Stephen reminded us of this on their radio show. What are your intentional considerations for the outdoors? How might this outdoor space provide reading, writing, oral language, and math opportunities, as well as opportunities to connect with others? Yes, the play outside is “free, but it’s not without thought, and we think this matters.


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