Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom

children playing in schoolyard

The First School's Nature Explore Outdoor Playground Classroom was planned collaboratively by Key School faculty, Dimensions Education Research Foundation and the National Arbor Day Foundation. The concept design for this outdoor learning environment promotes connecting children with nature and supporting the cognitive, social, emotional and physical development of each student. Foundations for reading and mathematics occur with skill development in visual-spatial awareness. The concept design for Key's playground was developed based on field-tested, research-based principles for creating effective spaces for young children to play in and learn about the natural world.

The Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is divided into ten delineated activity areas, providing a variety of activities so that young children with a variety of developmental needs and learning styles are engaged. Props and materials in each “area” are changed with the natural occurrence of seasons throughout the school year.

In December 2012, Key's Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom earned the national designation of a Certified Nature Explore Classroom from the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.

Enjoyed by Key’s youngest children during recess each day, the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is regularly utilized to support science classes as well as myriad interdisciplinary curricular projects throughout the year.

Nature Explore Classroom Areas

Active Area

young boys playing game outside

The open lawn area is the largest open area in the Nature Explore Classroom and allows for full-body, gross motor activities like running, jumping, throwing balls, and playing active games.

The Active Area:

  • Fosters coordination, balance, spatial awareness, strength, knowledge of stability
  • Develops muscle memory/concepts cemented with repeat experiences
  • Develops critical thinking & problem solving by acquiring strategies for ball games
  • Supports learning cooperation and teamwork
  • Gains self-confidence and competence known as physical literacy
  • Promotes social skills – executive functioning, waiting, taking turns
  • Provides outlet for stress-reduction, relaxing and healing

Building Area

The surfacing for this area comprises a natural “tree cookie” flooring. Children can build with both organic blocks and geometric blocks made from a variety of types of woods.

The Building Area fosters:

  • Problem solving
  • Imagination
  • Self-expression
  • Mathematical thinking – blocks strengthen concepts of length, measurement and comparison, number estimation, symmetry, and balance
  • Scienctific thinking – blocks offer opportunities to test, hypothesize, and build and rebuild
  • Engagement with technology, engineering, mathematical and scientific concepts
    • Building ramps with cove molding encourages experimentation with balls, cars, etc. to see how structures built move the objects in interesting ways.
    • Children are thereby engaged with elements of physics, technology, and engineering as they design ramps to achieve desired results, and mathematical reasoning as they work with space, shapes, patterns and number reasoning
  • Spatial sense and motor ability
  • Creativity – building blocks and other loose parts can be moved freely by children combined and re-ordered in countless ways
  • Development of problem-solving skills
  • Collaboration – children cooperate with others/ learn to take turns, share materials, develop friendships, increase attention span
  • Abstract thinking – strengthen visual spatial thinking
  • Self-esteem – children discover they can bring ideas to life by creating structures

Climbing and Crawling Areas

young girls playing in climbing area

A large piece of equipment, specially designed for children who are three to six years of age, is located in the Climbing and Crawling Area, which is defined by wooden beams and includes a deep mulch ground covering for safety. Kindergarten students are also allowed to play on a larger piece of equipment (located near the Lower School) that is specially designed for children who are five to twelve years of age.

The Climbing and Crawling Area offers opportunities for vigorous play:

  • Stretching – increasing and maintaining flexibility
  • Pulling up with hands and arms while climbing builds upper body, grip and arm strength
  • Apparatus climbing – develops leg strength/ motor coordination

Gathering Area

Platforms at three different levels inspire children to create and experience different structures. Sometimes fabric is draped over the railings to create and recreate different places of the children’s imaginations. Other times a basket of gourds may be used for a farmer’s market. Creative movement using scarves is another activity regularly seen taking place in this area.

The Gathering Area fosters:

  • Enhanced dramatic play
  • Whole body engagement in creative play
  • Skill development: cooperation, language, role play, leadership, negotiation, respecting others, communication
  • Inventiveness - Ample props allow children to invent increasingly complex scenarios
  • Self-expression
  • Emotional communication: Children can verbalize, through toys and play, feelings that they may not be able to express in other contexts
  • Growth - This space fulfills children’s basic need for freedom, adventure, experimentation, and risk-taking
  • Dramatic play by requiring children to impose details, information and meaning into their play

Pollinator Gardens

young boys playing in gardenEach grade level in First School has it's own garden. Children plant and care for a variety annuals and native perennials. Teachers select plants with a diversity of textures, colors and shapes and that attract butterflies and insects. The Butterfly Garden, enclosed by willow fencing, provides an inspiring pathway across the playground.

In the Pollinator Gardens, children:

  • learn about animal pollinators such as bees, birds, butterflies, and their relationship to the reproduction of flowering plants;
  • learn what attracts various insects to flowers;
  • observe pollination take place up close while learning about it;
  • experience wonder of plant growth through hands on exploration;
  • become inspired to love nature;
  • learn about our dependence on plants.

Music Area

young boys playing music outsideIn the Music Area, a stage invites children to express themselves through singing, creative movement and dance.

  • Children learn about sound, pitch, rhythm and tonality on their own as they manipulate a variety of nature based musical instruments and express musical concepts by moving their bodies to music;
  • An Amadinda provides a link to other cultures of the world. It gives children the opportunity to create their own music, rhythms and harmonies in ways that are always easy on the ears.
  • Other instruments such as rain sticks and gourds are introduced throughout the school year , allowing children to make beautiful music together.

Nature Art Area

boy making art from natural materials

The Nature Art Area includes a nature art table able to hold a variety of natural materials from the space (such as pine cones and seed pods) that can be used to create patterns and mosaics as temporary works of art. There is also a picnic table that serves as either a place to enjoy a healthy snack or to sketch or sculpt the flowers, trees, birds, and butterflies observed in the space.

As children work with natural materials arranging them in patterns or mosaic like pictures, they develop a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and strengthen skills in classification and close observation.

Messy Materials Area

students building fort outside

This area is bordered by shrubbery with mulch surfacing. It includes sections of cut trees for seating, small pieces of driftwood for children to manipulate, a large tree trunk for climbing and jumping, and a raised planter bed filled with dirt for digging. Wheel barrows, hoes, rakes, and spades are equipment and tools the children work with in the area.

Messy Materials Area encourages children to use their imagination, experiment with a variety of natural objects, and gain confidence and personal mastery over their environment as they practice moving and transporting objects

Sand Area

students playing in sandbox

An L-shaped sandbox allows many children to work and play at one time. Buckets and myriad age-appropriate tools are available to the children in a nearby wooden storage unit.

Working with sand provides a direct tactile experience that is different from working with soil or dirt. The Sand Area provides an ideal setting for positive social interaction and promotes physical development in large muscle skills, as children dig, pour, sift and scoop, and small muscle control, as children learn to manipulate the sand with tools provided.

Swing Area

students playing on swings

The Swing Area is defined by wooden beams and provides deep mulch ground covering for the safety of children.

There are myriad benefits of swinging for young children:

  • it strengthens their core, helps with development of balance, and builds coordinated movement;
  • the rocking motion stimulates the brain and helps with focus, while the actual movement of swinging helps develop perceptual skills and sensory integration;
  • it encourages social interaction and inter-personal development;
  • develops fine motor skills, grip strength, and hand, arm and finger coordination;
  • And, develops gross motor skills through pumping legs.