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How to Build Your Own Nature-Based Outdoor Classroom

A few weeks ago, I made a case for the importance of connecting children to the natural world via Nature Explore outdoor classrooms.


Now I’m going to attempt to arm you with the tools and resources you need to create your own backyard Nature Explore Playscape.

It’s important to note that Nature Explore classrooms are designed around a set of guiding principles, which are based on years of field-testing at multiple research sites. These ideas have been refined for decades and represent some of the most cutting-edge thinking on outdoor education. It would be daunting—if not impossible—to bring all of this research to bear on your backyard project, and so I humbly suggest that your best friend in this endeavor will be the At Home With Nature book, available here. The book distills the essential Nature Explore philosophy into practical suggestions for families seeking to connect more intentionally with the natural world.

Among my favorite ideas:

Embrace “loose parts.”

Architect Simon Nicholson refers to items that are moveable and adaptable as “loose parts,” and encourages educators to provide children with a variety of these materials. He contends, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it.” Sand, water, rocks, and shells provide variability and intrigue, which is why we can play for hours by the seashore. Happily, nature’s loose parts can be found in any region, during any season. If you’re landlocked, search for seedpods, pinecones, sticks, rocks, or flowers.

Install a nature art area.

As children arrange natural materials—sticks, blossoms or leaves—into patterns or mosaic-like pictures, they develop close observation skills, classification skills and a sense of appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. If children are encouraged to sketch things they see outdoors, they notice details they might otherwise miss. When arranging your playscape, provide a flat surface where children can create artwork, and storage space for art materials—from chalks and watercolor paints to feathers and flower petals.

Bring music and movement into your playscape.

Music and movement experiences are vital to children’s healthy development, and outdoor settings are ideal for exploration in these areas. Musical exploration allows children to learn about sound, pitch, rhythm and tonality; instruments made from natural plant materials give children a chance to develop these skills and also learn about the people and cultures globally that use these instruments. Meantime, a designated open space or performance area encourages children to move unselfconsciously in response to the surrounding environment. Children experience outdoor settings as non-judgmental and, in turn, feel freer to express themselves through song and movement. Go-to materials for your music and movement area include scarves, rain sticks, or hand drums.

The creation of a nature-based playscape does not need to be complicated or overly expensive. Even the planning and installation of the space can be an engaging family activity. When it comes to outfitting the playscape, the natural world is your oyster. Pretty much anything you can grow, unearth, carve, harvest, or salvage can play a role in your backyard playscape. A handcrafted weatherproof marimba may not be in every family’s budget, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to make music. With that said, Nature Explore’s Resource Guide is at your disposal if you’re searching for specific items.

Image courtesy of Nature Explore

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