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Best in Class #3: The Outdoor Classroom

Categories: Best in Class

Our expert this month is Layne F. Polakoff. Layne is currently a Curriculum Supervisor for School Readiness with Broward County Public Schools. He spent 20 years in early childhood education in the private, non-profit and public worlds.

At a Glance

  • Because an outdoor environment invites the use of all learning modalities, everything you can do inside, you can do outside, and more.
  • It is important to create an environment that is conducive to exploration and discovery. In most cases, the teachers learn right along with the students.
  • Teachers should be careful to not over-plan outdoor activities, but to provide children with access to the materials, supplies and the time to explore.

What should you include in an Outdoor Classroom?

January’s blog talked about the VAKT (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Tactile) approach to teaching young children. This month we will move the VAKT approach to the outdoors, in an Outdoor Classroom environment.

Centers for Different Learning Styles

  • Several open-ended learning areas should be included to stimulate each child’s learning styles. The value of an outdoor classroom is giving young children the ability to explore and learn on their own as they explore and discover.

A Chance to Roam and Get Dirty

  • It is important to note that the outdoor learning classrooms often invite children to get dirty or wet. This is a great joy for many children. For others, dirty may not be so much fun. Areas for smock storage, towels, clean-up materials, etc. should be nearby and easily accessible by the students.
  • Parents’ current need to keep children safe while at home means that more and more, parents do not give their children time to roam and play freely as was done years ago. Understandably so. Because of this, outside time when children are home fill up with organized sports, afterschool programs, and summer camps, under the watchful eye of an adult.

How to Incorporate VAKT into the Outdoor Classroom

Mud Kitchen

A mud kitchen is the perfect place for the VAKT approach to learning. Children spend an amazing amount of time in this area.

  • Children not only love to make mud, but they can also mix in things found throughout the outside space.
  • By adding resources as bowls, spatulas, ice trays, plastic jars, pots and pans, scales, and kitchen utensils, children can use their imagination to make cakes, potions and anything else they dream up.
  • This is a great place to use recycled materials, as students will learn the importance of reusing many items.
  • Social skills abound here as students play and discover together.

Music & Movement

The outdoor music area is a fun place for children. Little Mozarts use this shared space to learn about different sounds, the science of vibration, and movement.

During early childhood brain development, music affects the way a brain processes information, and actually enhances a child’s ability to communicate.

Outside music areas allow children to play with zeal, without having to worry about the volume.

Being able to discern different sounds is the foundation for learning to speak and read. Don’t forget to move it, move it, move it, in this area.

Dramatic Play

The outdoor dramatic play area can take on many faces. (Pun intended.) Children can freely pretend anything outside: butcher, baker, firefighter, police, etc.

At one preschool, I observed the children wearing capes playing superheroes. I was amazed as I watched them play for 45 minutes as they flew around the outdoor area. They never tired. They just flew.

The conversation I had with several students afterwards told me they were flying all over to save people, or go to theme parks.

Outdoor dramatic play areas are where their imagination truly soars (another pun). Grocery stores, outdoor cafes, and stages make fun, creative outdoor dramatic play areas.

Scavenger Hunt/Nature Walk

Nature walks, even in an environment with minimal outdoor space, provide rich opportunities for young children’s vocabulary, social skills practice and imagination.

  • Encourage children to wander and find different natural objects, such as rocks, leaves, tree bark, or twigs.
  • Charts with pictures of natural objects will assist children in locating and identifying objects found in nature.
  • Another fun way for children to explore is for students to work in small groups in designated areas to find objects.
  • Collective learning allows children to negotiate, discuss, and make predictions as well as develop vocabulary and investigative skills.
  • A “sound” scavenger hunt allows children to lay on the ground to listen to identify outdoor sounds.

Why the Outdoor Classroom Matters

The goal of an outdoor classroom is to increase the learning opportunities for all children throughout the day. Children of all abilities benefit from learning through visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile modalities.

Each child will benefit from making the decisions of how he/she learns best in this environment.

Through continuous observations and conversations with students, the astute teacher will guide children’s learning by allowing them the freedom to explore, while providing extension activities to scaffold learning throughout the school day.

Additional Photos Courtesy of BB International Preschool.

About the Author

Layne F. Polakoff is a currently a Curriculum Supervisor for School Readiness with Broward County Public Schools. He spent 10 years as an elementary, middle and high school teacher for students with special needs. He was an elementary school assistant principal when he left the public schools to open a preschool with his wife. Layne has spent 20 years in early childhood education in the private, non-profit and public worlds. Recently, Layne was part of a team that redeveloped a closed down middle school into “Gulfstream Early Childhood Center (GELC).” GELC is an early childhood center providing comprehensive services, including a preschool, early childhood professional development, ESOL and GED classes, as well as a host of family support programs. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Early Childhood Education at Broward College.


This Best in Class blog shares simple-to-do best practices straight from early learning educators. We hope these tips are useful for educators and parents who want to use best teaching practices with their children.