For many years, we had a red and yellow plastic and metal playground in a plot of mulch on a large lawn bordered on three sides by campus buildings. There was a magnolia tree that dropped feather-shaped leaves all year long and a sycamore tree that shed its bark and, in the Fall, leaves so big a child could hide behind them. There were flowering bushes at the corners of the buildings and along the fourth side of the square. All of the trees dropped sticks, big and little, and some dropped seed pods or stickery balls with fluffy inner cores. Some of the trees had little nooks and crannies in their bark or between exposed roots. Once, a large limb fell, and we convinced the grounds staff to leave it for us to climb on and explore for a while. Year after year, we observed that the children engaged with the static equipment for the first weeks of school. And they continued to use it as a hit-and-run prop for imaginary play. But most of the children's engagement centered around changing gifts of nature that the space provided.
The children built fairy houses with sticks they'd collected. They planted "gardens" in the spaces where grass would not grow beside the buildings by pushing sticks into the ground and topping them with flower petals. They made masks and hats and clothes for the chipmunks with sycamore and magnolia leaves. They lured creatures, real and imaginary, to traps made in hollows of trees. Magnolia pods were babies. Mud plus flowers and dead grass was soup. Narratives were born from imaginary play.
As the children collected gifts of nature, I collected observations and; as the children constructed mental playscapes, I imagined an Outdoor Classroom, closer to our indoor classroom than this rich space was but equal in its invitations for exploration, discovery, research, and imagination. We did have a very small outdoor space connected to our classroom, too small for running or for trees. With a rich collection of loose parts, it was the best we could do. I continued to dream.
Then, one day in early August 2010, a large limb fell from a tree in a summer storm. The limb flattened part of the playground equipment and badly damaged the rest. It could not be saved (nor did I want it to be, if truth be told). The school had plans to expand one of the space's boundary buildings, so our days in that play space were numbered anyway. And so the stars aligned, and for the first time, the possibilities for the outdoor space I'd imagined were real. We would have our Outdoor Classroom!
To be continued....