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Everything can be taught outside!


by Ron King, Natural Playgrounds Company

Head Start uses 40 thematic units to teach kids about a number of topics, and over half of them are about nature. Below are the units having to do with the outdoors and nature:

  • Animal Studies 
  • Apples
  • Bears
  • Birds
  • Clocks/Telling Time (SunTime)
  • Dinosaur
  • Endangered Species
  • Explorers
  • Farm
  • Map Skills
  • Measurement
  • Native American
  • Oceans
  • Penguins
  • Rocks & Minerals
  • Snow
  • Spiders
  • Water
  • Weather
  • Wild Animals
  • Whales

I couldn’t figure out how teachers get children inside a classroom to really understand about snow, or farming, or map skills, or weather, or water, or about birds and bears, and apples, and spiders.

Wouldn't it be a lot easier for children to understand how apples grow by actually going to an orchard and seeing the bees pollinating the blossoms, or in the fall picking an apple off a tree? Or even better, by planting an apple tree in the schoolyard, watching it grow, blossom, get pollinated, and make an apple?

Wouldn't it be a whole lot easier to understand spiders by discovering a web spun between two stalks of weeds and watching a spider catching insects? Or understand the weather by actually being outside witnessing the wind, sun, clouds, temperature variations, and watching the clouds roll by?

I couldn't understand how you can really teach about water without seeing it in its natural setting. How would you understand that a rivulet is creating its meandering path only in response to gravity's pull and the softness of the materials around it? Or how would you understand time without seeing a shadow move in response to the earth changing its position with the sun?

Wouldn't it make a teacher's job easier if we could just create various outdoor settings that provided opportunities where these units could be more easily taught?Then all teachers would have to do, is find ways to make kids curious so they’d practically teach themselves!

That’s when we realized how easy it was to create outdoor learning (and play) environments that immersed kids in the process of integrated learning.

In addition to the obvious outdoor units listed above, features and elements in Natural Playgrounds could make the following units much more easy to teach:

  • Division Skills
  • Electricity
  • Fraction Attractions
  • Multiplication Skills
  • Planets and Space
  • Simple Machines

Math outside, with things to measure, count, find patterns, distances, angles, and so on, becomes easier for children to “see.”

Simple machines, such as a lever (think seesaw), can easily be play features. Or on one playground behind an elementary school was a huge boulder mostly buried in the ground, but that became the sun, and at the appropriately scaled distances away, smaller boulders representing the planets were placed in their proper positions.

Unfortunately, it's way too easy to stay inside. After all, as Richard Louv quotes a child in his book "Last Child in the Woods," all the electrical outlets are inside, and there is a place for everything. Shelves for books, cabinets for supplies and resources, desks where things can be easily put out of sight, the reading corner with a soft, clean carpet, and a comfortable chair for the teacher wanting to get off her feet.

Teachers do a phenomenal job of making their classrooms vibrant learning spaces, and they spend lots of time organizing things just so to make their teaching easier and learning quicker.

But then we step outside, usually to a playground full of wood chips, faded plastic equipment, d tired old play features that got boring to the kids long time ago. All in all, most of the outdoor spaces are pretty depressing, so it’s no wonder teachers haven't seen the potential of their outside space to make both learning and play a lot easier and a whole lot more fun.

But if somehow we can turn this around so teachers start recognizing that nature is really the ultimate teacher, and that almost everything they want for their children can be more easily accomplished outside in the right setting, then we might see a major shift in the design and implementation of playgrounds, and Natural Playgrounds may play a much bigger role in a child's education.

We recently finished a Natural Playground design for a large Head Start facility on a native American reservation in South Dakota. The chief of the tribe had declared a state of emergency for both the Native American language and customs and traditions, and wanted the playground for about 150 children to address the problem.

After speaking at great length to the head start staff (who also completed our very comprehensive questionnaire), talking to village elders, and conducting extensive research, we designed a Natural Playground that accurately reflects historic Native American life, customs, traditions, legends, and spirits.

Medicine wheels, earth houses, sweat houses, tipis, drying racks, Eagle staffs, marshes and lakes, dugout canoes, mountains, rivers and grassy plains (in miniature), statues of grazing buffalo, powwow circle, fire circles, gardens and watch towers, sacred entrances, ceremonial circles, log shinnies, cliffs, winter counts, 12 core values flags in Tate's Valley (Chief of the Winds), and a symbols station are a few of the significant features in this exciting, discovery oriented, natural learning and play environment -- all of which are scaled to young children.

Specially designed signs throughout use Native American words to identify natural and built features.

The possibilities for Natural Playgrounds to be totally involving, outdoor classrooms are endless; our hope is that the community at large embraces the wonderful potential for nature to play a prominent role in the education of young children. 

You really can teach everything outside, and if you create the right setting, teaching  and learning outdoors will be a whole lot more fun!!

The Natural Playgrounds Company, headquartered in Concord, NH, designs Natural Playgrounds throughout the US., and manufacturers natural play and learning elements that go in them. The company can be reached by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or by toll free phone 888-290-8405. Their new store offers numerous and unusual Natural Playground elements.

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