Is your outdoor area more grey than green? Fear not – there are a host of ways to bring nature and creative learning opportunities into even the smallest, hardest playgrounds, says Kirstine Beeley…
Learning in the fresh air has long been advocated as central to good early years practice. But what if when you open the door to the outside world you are greeted with a less-than-inspiring square of concrete or tarmac? Don’t despair! There is much that you can do to brighten up your outdoor learning and bring even the most barren backyard back to life – and you can do it without breaking the bank.
Firstly we have to think about what outdoor learning should be incorporating – or, rather, what it shouldn’t. Outdoor learning most definitely should not be any activity usually set up indoors brought out through the door. It should embrace all that is unique about the outdoors, including space, the elements, the changing seasons and all that nature has to offer. So what can you do in a limited space to encourage nature to join you? Here are a few suggestions…
Even the most barren fence or railing can be turned into a floral backdrop with a little imagination. Old wooden pallets can be lined with weed-suppressant membrane and then planted up against walls and fences (use cable ties to attach to rails), giving a simple, vertical and natural way to soften hard surfaces. Old tin cans and plastic milk bottles all make great planters when hung on vertical surfaces. Pretty much anything can be used to plant flowers: kettles, buckets, drain pipes and even that old, odd welly boot at the bottom of the box!
If you can’t take the children to nature then bring nature to your children. Giving them a wide range of natural materials so that they can explore counting, measuring and imaginative play is both simple and cheap. Collect supplies of bark, moss, shells, pebbles, twigs, conkers, wood, etc. and make them available at child-height. Old tyres are ideal for this: try filling different tyres with different materials – one with gravel, one with pine cones, another with sticks, etc. Tyres are obtainable, usually for free, from local tyre fitters, who have to pay to have them recycled (you are saving them money and helping the environment at the same time). Why not try your local go-kart track as well for smaller tyres, which are great for building and rolling as well as planting and filling.
Tyres can even be filled with compost and planted with grass seed to lend a splash of green to even the darkest of concrete jungles. Why not try adding hanging baskets full of loose parts to the edges of a tuff spot to encourage creativity and small world play?
If you have to remove your outdoor loose parts daily, it’s a good idea to invest in a ‘treasure trolley’ (for example, this option from TTS) or recycle an old sports equipment storage trolley.
On the subject of grass there is no reason why even the smallest of areas can’t have a little patch for children to investigate. Grass seed grows in very shallow soil, meaning you can plant it in just about anything. Welly and gravel trays are ideal, but you could use old cake tins, tea trays or even cat litter trays (unused, of course!). Planting grass in trays means you can move it around and change your outdoor area to constantly enhance it. Don’t forget to water it regularly as shallow soil doesn’t hold much moisture.
Harsh fencing might leave you feeling uninspired, but it actually provides a great backdrop for some colourful weaving that will not only enhance your garden but provide great fine motor and creative experiences. If you have a mesh fence then weave ribbons or natural materials straight onto it. If not then attach some wire mesh or even an old bicycle wheel.
Why not try disguising your fence/wall with a DIY water wall? Some cheap hard board (the kind people have at the back of a shed) with tubes and containers attached with cable ties provides instant interest and lots of physical and mathematical exploration, as well as a starting point for lots of language.
Having a tarmac square doesn’t stop you from creating intimate spaces where children can talk and read… A den-making kit is a must for any outdoor setting. Gather together a tub of canes, string, old pieces of materials and clothes pegs, and you’re off. Stand back and watch as children problem solve as they build, then enjoy the language as they play inside their dens. For even more options add old milk crates or wooden cable drums, both sourced free from local suppliers or scrap stores.
Crates, planks, cable drums and tyres provide excellent, cheap and flexible resources for balancing and climbing – just make sure you risk assess, particularly on wet days when surfaces can be slippery. The joy of these kinds of open-ended resources is that they are not only affordable but can be stacked to one side after use – great for even the smallest of pack-away settings.
Try adding some wood slices (ask your local tree surgeon nicely for a donation). These make excellent, flexible stepping stones and you can add number lines or letters in chalk for children wanting to get physical with their learning. Remember, you don’t have to have bikes and trikes to get active outdoors!
No early years setting should be without a mud kitchen. The amount of language, maths and science exploration that can be gained from mixing and making mud creations together is unlimited. No flower beds or mud patch? Just fill an old tyre with cheap compost and let the children do the rest. Water can be supplied in camping canisters from pound shops and stood on an old crate, so children can turn the tap on and develop their own independent access to the water source. Mud kitchens can be as simple or as complicated as you want them to be and can even be packed up at the end of session needed.
h3>Bugs & Butterflies
Wildlife is easy to attract to any area with a few little additions. Try building a mini bug house – a simple pile of sticks and stones is ideal, and will provide winter protection for lots of wildlife. A roll of bamboo lawn edging makes a great hideaway for bees, ladybirds and wood lice. If you fancy going big then crack out the wooden pallets again and really go to town on a large bug hotel.
Planting in concrete areas tends to focus on annual bedding plants, which provide instant colour and impact. However, hardy shrub planting can provide you with yearlong greenery, and plants such as buddleia will grow virtually anywhere in next to no soil (it’s known as the butterfly bush because of the numerous butterflies that flock to it in summer when it flowers). Larger plants such as bamboo can be easily grown in pots and add height, sound and movement to any outdoor area.
Finally, if you’re stuck with a concrete slab that you can’t change, just embrace it. Chalk numbers and letters on the ground (try marking over them with water and paint brushes or shooting with water pistols to build motor skills). Crushing coloured chalk and add water to make chalk paints – they show up brilliantly on hard surfaces, especially when dry, and wash away with the rain. The same goes for powder paint, which can be used as part of a mixture-making area or just to let children build their motor skills as they paint the floor with patterns.
If it’s rainy weather then try sprinkling powder paint on the ground to make rainbows – mix with mops and brushes to build gross motor skills. Or just add some washing-up liquid to puddles and whisk or brush for lots of physical bubble fun.
Just because you don’t have a country garden or forest school setting doesn’t mean your outdoor area can’t be packed full of nature and all the learning opportunities you can imagine. As Margaret McMillan once said, “The best classroom and the richest cupboard are roofed only by the sky”!
Kirstine Beeley is an independent trainer, author and consultant, with experience of teaching in early years, primary and SEN settings.