Playing outside is a source of joy for children — and an opportunity for early educators to teach amazing lessons.

But many early childhood programs don’t have the information and resources they need to build engaging outdoor play spaces.

A policy brief from New America — Rethinking Outdoor Space for High-Quality Early Learning –addresses this by sharing the many options for creating an engaging “outdoor learning environment” or OLE.

The brief starts with a story about butterflies:

“Tiny monarch caterpillars arrived at the school, not floating through the air, but with the thud of a package on concrete.

“Our postal carrier had no idea how many lessons were going to emerge from that box for the prekindergartners at our public school in Washington, DC. First, we created a mesh net habitat and placed it in the tiny side yard of our concrete school building, which is just a few feet from a busy street known for nightlife, not nature. Within a day, the caterpillars doubled in size and the students watched, fascinated, commenting on the bite marks in the plants and listening closely for crunching.

“Over the next four weeks, children took turns watering the plants in the garden beds and tore off leaves to place in the mesh cage for the very hungry caterpillars.”

This isn’t just a heartwarming story. Outdoor play is, the brief notes, “linked to improved outcomes in children’s social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development as well as academic gains.”

“Improving OLEs in child care centers and homes is a low-cost and high-impact strategy for improving program quality, educator well-being, and children’s learning and health.”

Scroll down near the end of the brief, and there’s a tool that provides a three-dimensional view of an engaging outdoor space that illustrates many of the outdoor play design strategies that the brief shares.

Among the early educators featured in the brief is Georgianna Ouellette who “works as an Early Head Start (EHS) director for seven Massachusetts-based EHS-Child Care Partnership programs and has invested in high-quality OLEs for infants and toddlers.”

Ouellette creates spaces that include “clean turf that looks and feels like grass and is easy to grasp; smaller equipment with rounded edges; and small turf mounds with built-in slides” instead of steps with hard surfaces. It’s a softened setting where toddlers who are learning to walk can fall and get up again with ease.

The brief also points to the Little Giants Learning Center in Commerce City, Colo., where “staff members use the Creative Curriculum, a project-based learning curriculum that invites children to explore topics through play. Little Giants teachers have been able to adapt many of their lessons to their outdoor classroom, such as the Trees Study, Balls Study, Clothing Study, and Beginning of the Year Study.”

Other topics in the brief include ideas on creating spaces for children who have disabilities and for children who have experienced trauma. There are also links to more information.

Please check out the brief to learn more. 

As the brief concludes, “The programs featured here show that outdoor learning is possible in diverse communities, even in the smallest of urban spaces or for our youngest children.”

“These OLEs are ever evolving, as they take a whole child approach to creating environments where children can meet their need for movement, sensory play, and interconnected learning. The educators in this brief are exemplars not only of high-quality OLEs but of high-quality early childhood education across the spectrum of child care in the U.S.”