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One Week Outdoor Play Challenge

Getting kids outside in the cold and wet weather can be a challenge, we know.  But doctors and teachers agree that kids need lots of time outside for a variety of reasons. Playing outside sparks imagination, improves motor skills and balance, provides a setting to learn about the natural world, boosts Vitamin D and promotes a healthy lifestyle that decreases obesity.

I thought I’d share a little more with you today about C’s new outdoor preschool. The photos here are all from his first day but they give a nice sense of the grounds the children are free to explore each day.  Of course, this time of year we’re heavily employing our 5 Steps for Dressing Kids for Rain and Cold.


I think the first thing everyone wants to know about outdoor preschool (and I was no exception), is where do the kids go if the weather gets really bad? Our school has a rather large, 18′ teepee that provides shelter when the weather is bad and the kids need to rest, or snack, or read a story.  It’s a little hard to tell from this photo but it really is big.  On orientation day all 12 kids plus their families and 3 teachers easily fit inside.


The day begins with dropping off a lunch box as well as extra hats and mittens in the teepee. Because the kids are so active for 3 1/2 hours, they’re allowed to eat whenever they’re hungry, instead of only at a designated “lunch time”.  C revels in the freedom of choosing what to eat and when all morning long.


Once the parents have all said goodbye, the kids typically gather around on a large circle of logs (sometimes there’s a campfire burning in the center) and sing their welcome song.  Then, as I understand it, they discuss what the kids might like to do with their day.  The teachers come prepared with songs, games, and lots of information about the nature surrounding them but not necessarily with a daily lesson plan.


That’s the thing I love about the program, that it’s very child-led and the teachers try to give each of the children the chance to be the leader on their adventures.  They have a system that evolved between the students and teachers called “give me five”.  Basically, if a child has a question or an idea about something she’d like to explore, she holds up the number five.  The teachers acknowledge that the child wants everyone to give her five and all the students hold up their hands and give that student their attention.


Through play, children have the opportunity to learn about the natural environment, how to handle risks and, most importantly, how to use their own initiative to solve problems and cooperate with others.


The grounds of the preschool consist of 5 wooded acres and on any given day the students may choose to tend to their garden (the pumpkins were recently picked and the tulip bulbs will go in soon) play in the fields, hike, visit the stream…


…or play in the “teepee tree”.  This is my favorite part of the grounds.  Last year the students gave this mammoth tree it’s name because the leaves arch up and all the way back down to the ground, effectively creating a natural teepee structure.  It is the fort of all forts and nearly the entire class can disappear into it at one time.


The teepee tree is the closest thing to a play structure you’ll find at the preschool.  You see, a distinctive feature of Forest Preschools is an emphasis on play using items found or fashioned from objects in nature, rather than commercial toys. When I picked up C from school today, for instance, he couldn’t wait to show me the house he and his friend had spent most of the day building out of logs.


At the end of the day, when the kids’ adventures are through, everyone gathers back at the circle (or in the teepee) for a story and a few more songs.  The age range of the kids is 3 – 5 years old and they attend twice a week for 3 1/2 hours each day.


For more information on what outdoor preschools are all about, check out this New York Times article and for more info. on the “nature-deficit” problem facing our kids (as well as what we can do about it) read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.


This is how we kicked off our week of making everyday a play day – how will you spend yours?
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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel O. November 6, 2012 at 2:49 am

I would love to hear any suggestions on how to get more outdoors into my children’s lives. We live in a small city in an arid third-world country. There are no parks, no forests, no grass. We have just our flat rooftop as our “own” outdoors for kids aged 4.5, 3.5, and 1. We’ve tried to encourage them to play outside by setting up our own “playground” with a rocking toy, slide, sandbox, and tricycles. Any other ideas for the rooftop? Or for outdoor play where there is no trees or grass, just rocks and sand?


Kris November 6, 2012 at 9:16 am

I would try tents and draped sheets if you can Rachel! Your kids are the perfect age for forts so any materials you might be able to rummage for that purpose could get them outside more often. Cardboard boxes also work well *but* if it’s really hot every month of the year where you are then they’ll probably get too hot inside. Also, I would suggest bubbles as they are all the perfect age for bubbles. Lastly, I would suggest getting creative with water and ice if you possibly can. Examples: freeze small plastic toys or items in bowls of water and then set them out on baking sheets. You can then spray or squirt the ice blocks with salt water to melt out the toys. Bring out a box of bowls, spoons, and pots and set up an outdoor kitchen and have them make soup with sand and rocks and water. Bring up dish soap and they can do the same with lots of bubbly water. Have them set up a store outside with whatever items they are most interested in. Is there a surface they could “paint” with water out there? There is a product in the states called “Orbeez” that are spheres that expand in water to squishable little orbs and then dry back out again into little specks. I put them in bowls and they play with them outside for hours. I’m sure they’d be hard to find there but if you can order online or have a stateside friend send them they aren’t too pricey and are reusable. Bubbles, water, and forts. I hope this helps!


mpmk November 6, 2012 at 12:24 pm

What a great response Kris!

I too was going to suggest water play. You can make a water table with a large container, filled half way with water. Add pouring and scooping utensils. You can also play “what sinks and what floats?” with different objects for a little bit of a science lesson.

Also, maybe a play garden? If the temperature doesn’t allow for real gardening, you could still use real gardening tools to plant fake flowers, etc. Here’s a roundup of play gardens that we did a while back:


Lastly, don’t forget about art and music. I’ve seen lots of stuff around pinterest with kids squirting paint out of spray bottles onto canvases or sheets. Also, you can use chimes, pots and pans, or other materials to set up a “banging wall” for making all sorts of sounds.

Hope that helps!


Susan November 6, 2012 at 10:07 am

My living situation is similar to yours…what I’ve done for my 1 year old is to ask all family members for memory gifts. From just a few gifts, we have family passes to the zoo, the biopark, aquarium, the pool, etc. Since our entrance to these places is free, I can take my little one to the zoo, for example, and just spend the time letting her guide me around. She takes such small steps and looks at everything from the elephants to the fallen leaves on the ground that we really spent a good part of the day outside. I don’t mind if we don’t get any further than the front door because I didn’t spend any money and we can just go back the next day.
I prefer these places to our backyard and local outdoor “parks” because, like you, most of the landscape around us is gravel, sand, and thorn bushes. However, there are a few community parks in our city and I’ve found that the city website is great about posting any events.
In addition, I’ve really researched how to make our backyard into a fun outdoor environment for kids. My little one isn’t quite old enough to roam the backyard by herself, but maybe one day. This is a great website for getting outdoor play ideas http://progressiveearlychildhoodeducation.blogspot.com/


Katie November 9, 2012 at 10:37 pm

We lived in a similar climate until very recently, though we did have a small backyard with “grass” (read, dry dirt and prickers). My kids spent a lot of time digging in the dirt. We played treasure hunting all the time in metal tubs filled with sand. I would just get some of their toys from the house (legos, small plastic animals, cars, etc) and would bury them in the sand. We occasionally used some of our collection of foreign coins too if my littlest wasn’t around. Water play was always great – get a collection of pipes, scoops, cups, ice cube trays, etc to make it more fun. Here’s a post I wrote a while back about games you can play using just a rope – most of them are better played outside: http://mommyrepeat.blogspot.com/2012/03/some-simple-games-to-play-with-rope.html. But honestly, even though it we were mostly surrounded by concrete and dirt, taking walks was still endlessly entertaining for my boys. Their enthusiasm even helped me to appreciate things that I would have never noticed in a space I considered to be nothing but ugly.


janelle weems November 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm

i love this! i wish there was an outdoor preschool in our area!!! im so going to join in this challenge! i love this blog i just found you through pinterest and you have the best ideas and inspiration for parents!


adrienne November 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I was wondering about sick days, do you keep them in or dress them for the weather and still take them out (I’m thinking light cold)?


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