Early Childhood

What is the Outdoor Classroom by Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson’s new book, Cultivating Outdoor Classrooms, clarifies the vision of the outdoor classroom, and explains simply and clearly how it addresses the needs of today’s children. He kindly agreed to share some extracts with Collage readers. I hope these selections encourage you to get and read this excellent book.

The Outdoor Classroom: Fulfilling a Vision for Childhood

The Outdoor Classroom’s vision is simple: children benefit from spending more time outdoors, especially in natural places. Its goal is equally simple: to increase the quantity, quality, and benefit of outdoor experience for children. Here is an overview of the key features of the Outdoor Classroom:
• The Outdoors is a Primary Environment for Children The outdoors is an important learning
environment. Learning takes place outdoors that doesn’t occur indoors. It is important, then, that outdoor environments be as richly and thoughtfully equipped as indoor ones. Children should be able to move seamlessly between indoors and outdoors; their play and learning should be as easy in one place as the other. Adults should not treat one location as more educational than the other.

• Freedom for Children to Play on Their Own A fundamental principle of the Outdoor Classroom is
children’s right to initiate their own activities. Children need to explore, imagine, try new things, and learn alone or with friends. Ultimately, what any of us learns most deeply is what we have explored “by ourselves.”

• Learning Takes Time Too many adults who work with children try to hurry them. Pressuring
children to hurry up inhibits rather than accelerates learning. Like almost everyone else, children learn best when they are relaxed and have open-ended time in which to create their own activities. They need time to refine and anchor new skills. The Outdoor Classroom encourages children to spend as much time as they want outdoors. The time children have is often directly related to the freedom they have.

• Children Need Physical Activity Physical activity is necessary for children’s development and health.
Open space offers children opportunities for big movement, vigorous social play, and explorations big and small. Their activities help them refine motor skills and teach them how the world works.

• A Full Range of Activities The Outdoor Classroom believes, “Everything you can do indoors, you can
do outdoors, and even more!” Part of the Outdoor Classroom’s vision is that indoor and outdoor spaces constitute a single learning environment.

• Comprehensive, Holistic, Emergent Curriculum Curriculum is one of the trickiest elements in ECE.
How do we support children’s development instead of imposing our own adult agendas on them? In the Outdoor Classroom, we view curriculum as more than the adult-designed course of study or activities. Instead, it is everything that happens during a child’s day, everything that a child comes in contact with. Adults observe and respond to children’s needs and interests, taking this expanded understanding of the curriculum into account.

• Engaged Children and Engaged Teachers Engagement is key to learning. Real learning occurs only
when children become engaged with the environment and the people in it, usually through activities that they themselves initiate. Paradoxically, in ECE settings, this means that truly engaged teachers are often in the background, observing and responding rather than leading. Engaged teachers support children who are initiating their own learning.

• Developmentally Appropriate Activities The term “developmentally appropriate” in the Outdoor
Classroom means that activities always lie within children’s capacity to handle them and are never forced on children. Developmentally appropriate practices are fundamental to effective learning and to the well-being of children.

Moving Beyond This Year’s Hot Topic

To the uninformed eye, the Outdoor Classroom may look like nothing more than children playing outside, as children always have. But play in the Outdoor Classroom means something much deeper. And that something is not just the next hot topic, the next new thing. Rather, it is a return to a very old thing: child-centered learning. The Outdoor Classroom shifts ECE from a primarily indoor, teacher-initiated model to one that embraces outdoor, child-initiated play as critical to children’s well-being. By moving children and their activities outdoors, the character and type of what they do are transformed. Children regain control over their activities and become responsible for their own learning and growth, supported by attentive adults who ensure their safety and stimulation. Teachers relinquish control to become observers and supporters.

The Silent Emergency

The changes we have wrought in childhood in order to protect children from danger constitute a silent emergency. I call it an emergency because of the rapidly escalating negative effects it is having on children and society at large. I call it silent because the combined impact of several unintended consequences make it so damaging, yet the collective impact of these consequences is rarely discussed or addressed. I believe that the Outdoor Classroom can help early childhood educators address this emergency.

These are the seven most critical issues facing children today that we will discuss here:
1. Lack of exercise
2. Preoccupation with electronic media
3. Perception of outdoors as an unsafe place to play
4. Isolation from and fear of nature
5. Lack of engagement in and connection to the world, including nature
6. Reductive approaches to ECE
7. Epidemic use of behavior-modifying drugs on young children

The Outdoor Classroom helps to restore the traditional benefits of childhood while addressing these challenges:
1. Getting children outside and more active
2. Involving children in hands-on, loose-parts outdoor play
3. Creating opportunities to learn how to handle outdoor risks safely
4. Connecting children to nature in ways that encourage them to connect more deeply
5. Teaching children about cause and effect through outdoor and interpersonal activities
6. Providing children with a wide range of activities that support their holistic development

From Cultivating Outdoor Classrooms: Designing and Implementing
Child-Centered Learning Environments by
Eric M. Nelson. © 2012 by Eric M. Nelson. Reprinted with permission of
Redleaf Press, St. Paul, MN;


About the Author

Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson
co-founded the Child Educational Center, Caltech/JPL Community near Pasadena, CA, in 1979. As the Director of Consulting and Educational Services, he manages the Outdoor Classroom Project. An adjunct professor since 1977, Eric developed a course on outdoor classrooms, which evolved into a series of outdoor classroom specialist trainings. He presents on a broad range of topics related to outdoor classrooms and consults on the design of play yards. Eric’s understanding of the value of the outdoors is grounded in a lifetime of hiking his beloved Sierra Nevada Mountains in California since he was a young child.

What is the Outdoor Classroom by Eric Nelson.


Open the Door and Just Go Out… by Johanna Booth-Miner

As the first snow was falling and I was walking mid-day, snowflakes were sticking to my eyelashes. This made me hum “a few of my favorite things” from The Sound of Music. Being outdoors and connecting children to nature daily is definitely one of my favorite things. Having a certified outdoor classroom allows teaching to occur naturally and helps each teacher find their favorite things to share and enrich children’s lives.

At Live & Learn Early Learning Center we believe that curriculum is a living, changing medium of learning that grows and transforms with the seasons, children’s wonder, nature cycles and the community’s needs. We believe that it is vital to children’s learning to reflect the world that is immediately around them. This medium is a negotiated curriculum taking the children’s wonders and mixing them with the teacher’s passion. We take the results of that investigation and implement them in a natural foundation with open ended activities and play. Our nature-based play curriculum and environment expose children daily to the natural world right outside the back door. Children and teachers can delight in hands-on exploration and investigations as a vehicle for learning.

At Live & Learn, for all children ages 6 weeks to 60 years, we believe in the fundamental importance of children’s ongoing experience in nature as the foundation for creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Our belief that play is learning creates an atmosphere that ultimately works towards creating a cohesive community. We have taken to heart the writings of Richard Louv‘s Last Child in the Woods, and made “nature deficit disorder” extinct at Live & Learn. Children express interests and ideas, explore nature and curriculum materials in playful ways. They can reflect on their experiences and form conclusions. Through this process, children develop confidence and independence with encouragement from families, teachers and community members.

Our certified outdoor classroom allows children and teachers to explore and dive into the world around them. Sometimes this involves bringing the outdoors in and then the indoors out. We incorporate both indoor and outdoor classrooms alike for all the areas of development to be reached. They create worm bins, fairy houses, stone walls and animal habitats. Outdoors, children observe plants, animals, trees, the weather and the hundreds of other things that capture their interests. Teachers set the scene daily to encourage the children’s minds. We add “loose parts” to areas of the outdoor classroom that may include tree blocks, pumpkins, gourds, flowers, laminated books, and sticks. Teachers observe, participate in, and document children’s experiences in order to make thoughtful decisions about how to continue to develop and enhance curriculum.

Learning in an outdoor classroom supports all aspects of an integrated curriculum. It is child-centered and supports an inquiry-based learning model. It naturally encourages wonder. Children can use all of their senses as they observe their environment. The natural materials allow children to sort, classify, count, compare, and examine. The role of the teachers is to guide children to integrate these experiences into cognitive concepts. Teachers should indicate honest interest through their tone of voice and facial expression. Sincerity conveys to children that their responses are important. When you allow time for children to think and respond, you show respect for both the children and their ideas.

In nature we have the opportunity to focus on things in the here and now. Questions that focus on observable events in the children’s immediate environment are more likely to elicit a response than questions about objects or events remote in time or distant from the children. Young children focus on the present rather than the past. They need concrete cues to help them recall the past. Model scientific curiosity by asking questions of yourself and the children; for example, I wonder what ants eat? What do you think they eat? Ideally, questions enhance the child’s experience, not detract from it.

Outdoor classrooms lend themselves to being a conduit of available risk-taking for children.

I strongly believe that children gain and grow through risk-taking and exploration in the natural world. We have set up the outdoor classrooms to include ways to developmentally risk-take appropriately. There are real tools to dig with in the digging area and large sticks and planks to move and build with in the natural building area. We have set up ropes to balance and climb on, as well as rope swings. Our climbing areas are created from large branches from trees. Our preschoolers and kindergarteners can explore a stream by walking in it and exploring with sticks. Our environment is a 25-acre farm with animals that lends itself to daily exploration.

The essential element to all of this requires that we also have the families on board with our approach to risk-taking. Part of our family orientation includes visiting and playing in the outdoor classrooms. The families are the clients and must be comfortable with their children coming home dirty, sometimes with a skinned knee or scrape, but full of new discoveries and adventures. As a learning community we engage in conversations about thoughts and fears that we all own as adults and how we can give children new and acceptable risk-taking opportunities to build fundamental skills.

There are two key ingredients to risk-taking with children; one is the adults and the other is time. We as the adults in early childhood education must model with enthusiasm, both the permission and support, to risk-take. We must slow down to allow time to dream, imagine, touch, feel, and construct. Children, through acceptable risk, build upon their own ideas, feel empowered physically and emotionally and develop a sense of place or belonging in the environment. I do not want to be responsible for raising a generation of children who have been bubble wrapped. What will happen when there is not caution tape or six warnings before the child reaches the edge? Healthy risk-taking prepares us to be observant and make good decisions.

Taking to heart Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder, the teachers of Live & Learn journey daily with their children to enjoy and explore the pleasures of walking in a puddle or stream, digging for salamanders, and learning to appreciate what nature has to teach, and why all of this matters. The enjoyment of childhood and taking time to be a kid is embodied here.

About the Author

Johanna Booth-Miner

Johanna Booth-Miner
is the owner and director of Live & Learn Early Learning Center in Lee, NH. For 39 years she has worked to meet the needs of family and community and to develop an educational partnership among family, community, and the Live & Learn Early Learning Center to maximize the potential of each child. She has been adjunct faculty in the early childhood program at the New Hampshire Technical College in Stratham, teaching courses on child, family and community and childcare center administration. Johanna has always been active in organizations for early childhood professionals, serving 13 years as president of the Alliance for Better Childcare, and now is the past-president of the New Hampshire Association for the Education of Young Children, (NHAEYC).

Because she believes that the increased training of early childhood providers will lead to better quality care for all children, Johanna travels all over the nation giving workshops on exploring nature, teambuilding, child, family and community; social and emotional development of children, diversity in the classroom and communication. Johanna is an NH Credentialed faculty trainer, mentor and has a BS in early childhood education. Her areas of professional interest and expertise include teacher education, early care and education, social and emotional development, and curriculum.

Open the Door and Just Go Out… by Johanna Booth-Miner.