I’m nearly 39 weeks pregnant, with an energy level on the low side and the knowledge that every day could be our last day of school. While most of the children in our little school are pretty resilient, I wanted to make sure we had an official end to the school year for those who are especially sensitive to routine and might be really thrown to wake up and hear, “Miss Melissa had her baby, so there’s no school today. You’ll see your friends in September!” What I decided to do was to continue as usual until I reached 38 weeks, and then to have an official last work time together and a simple picnic to mark the end of the school year. Then, those who wanted to keep coming would be more than welcome to do so until baby-time, but I wanted to change it up a bit – both to make things obviously different from the school year routine, and to give myself a bit less cleaning work in the evenings during this busy time, I decided the solution was to have outdoor school.
For many weeks now, I’ve been pinning ideas, gathering supplies, and making plans for our “outdoor classroom,” and today was our first official day of it (well, Friday was supposed to be, but it was pouring rain!). It was awesome. Everyone seemed to enjoy it so much that I’m seriously considering making it a regular thing in the late Spring (and perhaps early fall, too), when there is so much to discover outdoors and the weather is so delightful. I thought I’d share some photos of our set-up with you. It took me about 15 minutes to get everything outside and ready this morning, and about the same to put it back in for the day, so it’s really not any more time intensive than prepping the indoor classroom in the morning, and there is no vacuuming, mopping, or dusting waiting for me – a beautiful thing!
Can you believe I scored this like new cloth washing stand on craigslist? I was thrilled! It’s beautiful, and the children loved this work today! Underneath, just to protect the grass from soap and define a space for this work I used the faux wood chair mat that used to protect the carpet beneath our easel. It’s a completely unnecessary addition, but it was nice to have. The drying rack is a handmade gift, created for Annabelle way back when we lived on Guam. We are so lucky to have met some talented and generous people there! The washboard, baskets, pitcher, and bucket are all from Montessori Services. They sell a complete set of materials for this activity, but you can also use the link to buy just the items you need, which is what I did. I prefer bar soap for cloth washing, because the act of rubbing the bar against a cloth to form a lather is so very satisfying. They also sell the stand (though a couple of basins on a regular table would do just fine if that suits your budget) and a drying rack that looks identical to ours. I do love the bucket that comes with their set. It’s a perfect size, and it’s lightweight and easy for children to carry.
I wanted to find a way to transport and store some of our Montessori materials outdoors as well, and this indoor/outdoor shelf, complete with cover and washable baskets, was the best option I could find. It’s on wheels, which makes moving it fairly easy, and I love that it comes with baskets the children can use for carrying their work to a rug or table.
I tried to choose activities from every area, and to focus on things I could think of ways to connect with the outdoors, so that they’re not just done the same old way, but can be extended to include natural materials discovered outside. There are a few exceptions, like the first basket, which holds Dressing Frames and another basket, which holds some of our early readers. These just seemed like great, easy to transport options that are well-suited to our current group of children.
So, from top to bottom, left to right, we have: dressing frames, drawing, and story writing (I used the basket that would go here for the books we’ve been enjoying in the reading corner, which are over near the picnic table, and I used the empty space that basket left to store clipboards that open and close and have space for paper and art supplies inside). The next shelf holds some nature exploration items: a thermometer, a magnifying glass, binoculars, our bug catcher and bug box (which we also use for other small items found in nature such as plant parts), and a booklet about worms, which have been a topic of special interest and a favorite thing to examine since we started working in the garden together. Next, on the middle of the second shelf, we have our Sandpaper Letters, which children can use in the traditional way. They can also hunt for objects in the outdoor environment that begin with sounds they’re working on, and bring these objects to the rug to be paired with the corresponding sound. We didn’t do any of this today, but it would be great fun for a child who was interested. We’ll see if there are any takers! The next basket holds a small selection of early readers (Bob Books, Miss Rhonda’s Readers, and some from a Montessori teacher and etsy seller).
The bottom shelf holds the Geometric Solids, which I can imagine finding objects in nature to match (thick stick = a cylinder, a rock shaped like an ellipsoid, a ball to match the sphere, etc.), the Color Tablets which could be used for a similar matching/hunting exercise, especially given how many flowers are in bloom right now, the first five number rods, and the Sandpaper Numerals. The Number Rods have recently been used in some exciting measurement extensions inside, so I thought I’d bring some out to see if anyone was inspired to continue this work. In the classroom, they’re kept near the door, so I can also easily send a child inside to get the remaining five if they want to do work with the whole set. Our whole class loves to play The Secret Number Game, and I thought an outdoor version of this might be of interest, too. I also have the Large Movable Alphabet, too large for this shelf, over on a table near the book basket. Rather than bring out any of our language boxes, I have suggested items for the children to collect that they can build corresponding words for (stick, rock, flower, grass), and of course they can build any words they like without suggestions from me, too. For rugs, I went back and forth a bit and asked some wonderful Montessori teachers online for their suggestions and experience, and ultimately decided to try a couple of these bamboo mats and one of these grass ones for larger works. Both seemed to work out pretty well.
Of course we had to bring the easel outside, too, because, why not? There’s slate tile in the area around our shed, so I put the easel here. This way, if there are any spills, the children will easily be able to wipe them up. The area also offers a lovely view as inspiration for our artists. As a bonus, it’s also easy to put away for now. I just moved it into the shed and will bring it right back out in the morning! We use the $15 easel from Ikea, which is a great deal. For all of the work which requires water, I have the garden hose turned on to very low pressure and the spray nozzle attached. This way, the children can simply squeeze it to fill their pitchers. Of course watering the garden is another work choice, and it was a popular one today, so I have two small watering cans hanging nearby. We recently planted tomatoes, kale, green beans, and bell peppers as a class, and the children have enjoyed caring for them while we’re outdoors.
Other options that I didn’t get good pictures of today are hammering (hammer, safety glasses, gloves, and washable basket from Montessori Services) and table scrubbing, and of course a basket of instruments accompanies us outdoors all the time. The children spent much of the morning just running around and playing together, but there was definitely some work happening as well. It was wonderful, and I’m already looking forward to tomorrow, assuming we don’t have a baby tonight!
Of course we need a snack, too, so that’s set up at the picnic table. I stored our regular plates, napkins, and serving containers inside a cake carrier to protect them from pollen and insects, and instead of using glasses like we typically do, every child has been bringing a water bottle to school for use outside. It’s warm enough that everyone needs a drink of water more than once, and with identical glasses, it’s hard to keep track of whose is whose, or to make sure we have enough glasses for everyone to use the same one every time. This has been a good solution for now! We’re also having our brief group times here, with me sitting on the upside-down crate. I highly recommend this picnic set. It has been wonderful. You can read my full review on amazon if you’re interested – I loved it enough that I had to give feedback there.
In the background, you can see the watering can and the hose, plus our rope ladder for climbing fun.
Of course there’s plenty of space to play, and plenty to play on outdoors, too. I struggled for awhile with the decision of whether to buy a large outdoor play structure, or to get a few different things that could be kept in different parts of the yard instead. I ended up opting for the latter, and I have been really happy with that decision. It keeps things open for simply running, since there’s no huge structure taking up a large segment of the yard. I also love that everything we have can be moved by the children at will, allowing them more ownership over their outdoor environment. These climbers were actually a craigslist find, which a wonderful friend, and mama of a child in our class, scored for me right here in our neighborhood. They’re a long term loan, so I’ll have to find a substitute for them eventually, but for now, they’re great! We just put a board across them as a balance beam. The same mama friend also found the seesaw our group adores.
We recently added this Sand Cabana, and it has been wildly popular, both with the preschoolers and their younger siblings, who often hang out and play for a few minutes at drop off and pick-up. This can be used as a water cabana, too, but that doesn’t jive with licensing regulations, so we’ve turned our sand table into a water table to allow for both types of play.
The Jungle Jumparoo has made for tons of gross motor fun this spring, too. Even I like to use it :) Behind it, you can see our wood steps, which are great for balancing on. I want to add several more to make a longer line, but in my current condition I can’t move them myself, so that may have to wait!
I’m sure I’ll have more to share about our outdoor learning, whether we have many more school days out there this spring or not. I’m hoping this will help to cement the idea that our work doesn’t have to be limited to the classroom, and open up the possibility of many connections between nature and the classroom for the children in our bunch. My plan is just to follow their lead and see where that takes us!
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