Tips for creating an enriching outdoor learning space

Educare Central Maine wanted more than just a new playground at their school. They wanted to create an outdoor space that would challenge and engage their children. This space would encourage movement, and offer “as many opportunities as possible for children to connect, discover and explore their natural environment more,” said Rhonda Kaiser, school director for Educare Central Maine.

In fall of 2016, Kaiser and staff began working with a licensed landscape architect to develop a plan to ensure the play space was designed to best serve their children and staff.

Now, the children have an enriching outdoor space that gives them a chance to immerse themselves in a sensory-rich environment. The space includes sand and water features, walkways, grass and a mix of flowers and berry bushes. There are also places for children to use their imaginations as they escape into a tunnel or climb the stumps to the top of the hill.

The playground is designed to support optimal learning opportunities for children within the first, essential years of brain development.
“It was amazing to watch the children explore the playground the day we opened it,” said Erica Palmer, supervising master teacher. “They naturally knew what to do, and were thrilled with the ability this new play space gave them to run and dig and climb!”

Want to create an outdoor learning space at your program? Here are some tips from Educare Central Maine:

1. Know the benefits.
Outdoor play is essential to healthy child development. Play areas should offer opportunities to engage children in self-directed play, supporting all areas of children’s development needs. “We know that children who have opportunities to play outside, immersed in nature, are physically and emotionally healthier,” Kaiser said.

2. Review existing conditions and future opportunities.
Look at your current space and see where there are opportunities to expand, make changes or build off of existing elements.

3. Consult with professionals and develop a plan.
Educare Central Maine worked with an architect and consulted with a play specialist to ensure the space best addressed the children’s needs, met building requirements and fixed existing drainage issues.

4. Get buy-in from teachers, staff and parents.
“We met with a committee of teachers and staff to review the schematic design plans and phasing options and to share current research on children’s development,” Kaiser said. “This workshop helped inform teachers about the opportunities for the outdoor environment to enrich children’s learning.”

She would advise including parents deeply in the process, as well.

“Although we provided updates and information to families throughout the process, I would involve families more from the beginning during the initial planning stages next time. It’s important to help families to understand why we do what we do and to get their input from the beginning,” Kaiser said.

5. Be adaptable.
Knowing the children would be unable to use their outdoor play space for months, the Educare teaching staff utilized covered porches outside of their classrooms to extend the children’s learning throughout the remodeling process. Sand tables were brought onto the porches and filled with dirt from the playground and small toy construction vehicles. Allowing children to spend time outside on the porches daily, gave them the experience of watching and listening to their new playground being created.

“This sense of immersion led to the children really taking ownership of what was being built before their eyes,” Palmer said.

6. Use the process as a learning opportunity.
“I would advise other programs to value the disorganization that this may create, and to use the opportunity as a teachable moment for children, families and staff alike,” Palmer said. “We planned ahead and intentionally embedded construction and community jobs into our curriculum and allowed our children to be as much of a part of the process as we could.”

Palmer said they were also lucky to be working with a landscaping crew that made a point to talk to the children about what they were working on every day. The crew let the children explore their machinery, and they used the children to “test out” a new play structure when it was completed.

“As adults, we worried about the children not having a playground for three months, but in the end, they had the best learning experience any of us could have asked for,” Palmer said.

7. Enjoy the results.
The process took a year to complete, but it was worth it!

“We’re seeing children use their imaginations as they move in and out of the play structures,” Palmer said. “We’re seeing them taking care of one another as they help each other learn what is safe and cheer each other on as they conquer new challenges. They are never bored in this new environment, and every time they run out those doors, a new adventure begins!”

Watch a video about the new playground.

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