Outdoor Classroom iLEAD Schools


Author: | Category: Play-Based Learning



Lisa Latimer and Aidan Bybee


Each week we introduce a new concept at the nature table. The learners utilize all 5 senses while exploring concepts such as bees, flora and fauna, habitats, taste a variety of home grown vegetables and fruits, honey and so much more. 

Each day there is a read aloud so the learners can build from prior knowledge, compare and contrast, practice writing skills and learn new vocabulary words. The learners love to immerse themselves in the aesthetically pleasing and hands-on learning table.


Art is an activity that can employ all the senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste—depending on the activity. Children’s brain synapses fire away as they experiment and create. Creativity is the ability to think outside the box, to string two unrelated ideas together in a new way. Solutions to major problems and breakthroughs of all kinds are linked to creativity and the ability to be creative is vital to the success of our children.

Everyday, our learners have the opportunity to create. Whether it’s painting with pine needles or fruit or making 3-D sculptures with loose parts, we want our learners to tap into their talents and blossom.


A little dirt never hurts!!! Our mud kitchen is not only filled with messy and endless joy, but has very significant benefits! We started with a small hole in the ground, filled with wet, messy mud. Learners first jumped in the puddle, excited to create the splash and laughing as the dirt and water flung into the air. Next, shovels were placed near the pit, and learn

ers began digging and discovered worms. This created an obsession with worm hunting. We found worms, learned about them, and created habitats for our worms. And just like that, our mud kitchen was born! Our learners have become so immersed in creating mud pies, cakes, and cookies. And while a lot of joy has taken place, this has not been the only benefit. Dirt contains a microscopic bacteria, Mycobacterium Vaccae, which strengthens the immune system. It also increases the levels of serotonin in the brain, which in turn helps you relax. The exposure primes the immune system to prevent allergies. The health benefits are not the only thing that occurs while a child is elbow deep in mud. Learners are able to express themselves creatively, while practicing fine motor skills. When working around a mud countertop, learners are practicing social skills and conflict resolution. They are learning how to work collaboratively in a shared space with shared materials. Math vocabulary is used frequently, as they practice making comparisons, measuring, and counting ingredients for their mud pies. Learners develop a sense of responsibility as they wash their dishes. The mud kitchen also develops and encourages a love for nature. Our learners are exposed to the beauties that occur outside and many lessons stem from flowers, rocks, and bugs they are exposed to in the kitchen.


SPLISH, SPLASH! Water play provides an endless amount of pleasure for our learners regardless of the weather. Water play encourages learning in all developmental areas. Just from splashing about in the water tables, children learn concepts in math:

more/less, empty/full, before/after, greater than/less than, and much more. At a water table, a child can manipulate objects to understand how things happen, such as floating/sinking, volume and fluidity. Learners are also strengthening critical thinking skills, physical and emotional development, problem-solving skills, language development, and creativity. Children are further developing fine motor skills through pouring, scrubbing, stirring, squeezing, and squirting. In our water cascade table, children can explore building rivers and dams and experience the laws of physics and hydrology.



Loose parts provide a limitless amount of learning possibilities. The items can be used to the learner’s imagination. Our loose parts center is comprised of the following: rocks, sticks, alphabet tiles, dominoes, sea shells, buttons, dry pasta, marbles, beans, pinecones, corks, dice, flowers, spices, wood blocks, wood discs, and so much more! Loose parts foster problem solving, engineering, creativity, concentration, hand-eye coordination, fine motor development, gross motor development, language and vocabulary building, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking and literacy, social/emotional development.



Our learners have ample resources and time to build. Our two outdoor sheds are jam packed with building blocks. The blocks

include wheels, ramps, and connectors. The blocks have a locking mechanism so that learners can practice sturdy building. The blocks are made from wood, and provide learners with excitement and helps to develop their engineering skills and build simple machines while learning about forces of motion. Learners must work collaboratively to carry and put blocks together as they are heavy, which encourages effective communication with one another.

Also found in our sheds, are wheelbarrows (which have been used to push friends, blocks, water, and dirt around) and shovels, rakes, and different gardening tools.




Lab coats and goggles from this point required! Learners are experimenting daily! Our science lab center is fully stocked with beakers, measuring cups, pipettes, funnels, syringes, and beakers. Primary color water is put in the lab everyday and learners are able to concoct their own experiments. Different items are also placed out weekly, a fan favorite being color vinegar and baking soda. At the lab, learners are exposed to different concepts such as color mixing, measuring, and physical and chemical reactions. Learners can use magnifying glasses to observe a variety of items in the center. We also have different types of rocks, sea shells, flowers, and plants around our lab to explore.


Our cozy cottage is the home for all our dramatic play. Inside you’ll find a small kitchen, a cash register, an old telephone, seating, dress up clothes, art supplies, and so many books. The learners use the cottage as a book nook or a dramatic play house. Learners can be seen playing many wonderful imaginative and creative games, taking on different roles. Our cottage has been a place for veterinarians, families, a bakery, and a puppet theater. During their time in the cottage, their play fosters emotional and social development as children communicate their feelings and establish roles. Learners are exposed and practice the following: make believe, conflict resolution skills, sharing/turn taking, constructing, social skills, role playing, cooperation, and imagination, which are all important concepts for early literacy.



The wishing tree is full of ribbons from our learners wishes. At first learners were prompted to make a wish that would help our school community. After, learners were able to make their own wish. It serves as a calm place for learners to go when they’re feeling any sort of emotion. Under the wishing tree is a tic tac toe log. Learners can be found playing a game under the tree almost daily. In the tree branches are chimes, hummingbird feeders, and bird houses. This is truly a magical spot for our learners, creating a safe spot of wonder and magic.



CARROT LANE: the home to Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter

Classroom pets create a sense of responsibility with children. In addition, it fosters empathy and serves to provide emotional support when needed. Our learners care and tend to our two outdoor bunnies daily. Learners also play in the pen with them, feed and water them, and help clean their hutch. Learners love to read, play and interact with the bunnies and our other classroom pets.


Our learners have started their own succulent garden. Learners planted the succulents into pots, and take care of them daily (by watering and removing them from inclement weather). This helps to facilitate a sense of responsibility and foster a love for other living things.




Musical Movements


Incorporating music into daily routine is incredibly important. Music encourages movement, ignites thinking and inspires creativity. Music improves language skills and self esteem. Music can help learners sharpen math skills, as well as listening skills. It also stimulates the brain to work harder and relieves stress. Our Music Wall allows our learners to express their individual creativity and flourish in collaborative spaces. Musical memory is the first thing to enter our souls and the last thing we forget, so it is “magic” in our program.








About the Authors

Meet  Lisa Latimer 

Lisa has over 30 years experience in education. She began her career as a preschool teacher and preschool director, then went on to teach elementary school before becoming a K-8th grade Director. Lisa has experience in both the private and public school spectrum and has seen the benefits that come with allowing children to explore, experiment, and discover on their own.   She is an advocate for a child’s right to play and has attended numerous trainings on developing an Outdoor Classroom and implementing “Play” into the TK/K program. Since Play and connecting with nature is integral to the academic environment, the iLEAD Agua Dulce Outdoor Classroom was created. Lisa values and whole-heartedly agrees with the research that has been conducted on Play and connecting children with the outdoors, and how essential it is for educational and social and emotional well-being.


Meet Aidan Bybee

Aidan Bybee is the Outdoor Classroom Facilitator at iLEAD Agua Dulce. With her creative mind and understanding of the components needed for healthy brain development, Aidan has turned the Outdoor Classroom into a magical place for our learners. Aidan is trained in outdoor development/curriculum and play. She is a true warrior for ensuring that our TK-5th grade learners develop an appreciation for the outdoors and connect with nature. Above all she loves when the learners immerse themselves in messy fun!




Grant-Related Opportunities

EPA Funding Opportunities
Conserving the Nature of America: Grants


Grant Opportunities for School and Youth Garden Programs


Being Makers

Being Makers

Being Makers is a team of change-making leaders from Maker Learning Network and iLEAD Schools focused on project-based learning and social-emotional growth.
Being Makers

Being Makers

Being Makers is a team of change-making leaders from Maker Learning Network and iLEAD Schools focused on project-based learning and social-emotional growth.
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