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Purposeful Play and Outdoor Education in Action!

Updated: Apr 7

A Best-Practice Reflection by: Adam Bowering, Geary Elementary School


The purpose of my visit was to observe purposeful play and outdoor education in a learning environment that engages in these practices. This goes along with my school’s improvement plan goal where we are targeting the improvement of critical thinking amongst our student population. My questions before I went were: how does it work? Are there any challenges associated with this approach in comparison to a more “traditional” approach? As the day went on, I would not be disappointed to see how well the students had adapted and how meaningful the learning was to them.


The students entered the classroom and had a choice between centers, activities, or play items. This choice allowed the children to take charge of their own learning! Each of the centers were carefully planned with the curriculum in mind. The best part was that the students did not even know this! Here is an example of one of the challenges that were set up in connection with a book read the day before.


Here is an example of one of the challenges that were set up in connection with a book read the day before.

Students enjoyed the challenge that the teacher had set up for them. This allowed them to work on speaking and listening, teamwork and many other skills associated with the curriculum. There was no shortage of manipulatives and items for children to use. A short list includes: tape, clothespins, scissors, paper, post-its, stamps, markers, paper towel rolls and the list goes on. This really allowed students to be creative and to stretch their thinking.


Here is a picture of the challenge in action.

Each center or play item allowed students to have autonomy while working on skills associated with their learning goals.


Here are some more of the students exploring more of the options around the classroom.

Here is another station.

After their purposeful play time and a story, students got ready to go outside and into their outdoor classroom. Many of the students were so excited to share this space with me! One of the students said “You are going to love our outdoor classroom! We have so many things to show you!” I could tell from the general comments and excitement that this was a special time of learning for the group.


I was introduced to their outdoor space in a meeting area that was situated just outside the outdoor classroom.


Here is a picture of their communal area that they use to meet together before they entered the classroom.

There were logs laid down to form benches and stumps set up as seats for them to sit on. The teacher led them through a mindfulness exercise and got them to thank the trees and natural environment before entering. This allowed the students to take a moment to reflect on how special this space is to them and gave them a purpose for being out in the environment.


The teacher had also gathered many tools for the students to use while in this space.

Here is a picture that shows the variety of tools students were able to choose from.

Next, I noticed that the teacher had a chalkboard set up for her to use so that she could start to put words and other materials on it to make this space an outdoor “classroom”.


An interesting thing the teacher told me was that she never used the language of “can’t” for boundaries for the outdoor space. If she did, she would cite a safety concern so that the students were aware of the reason. She told me that she only pointed out the areas that the students could go. There were many natural barriers for students to know that they were maybe wandering too far.


Here is the outdoor chalkboard.

I saw many examples of creative and self-directed play while in the outdoor space. One example was that students came to me to show that they made a map out of bark that had fallen on the ground. They were working cooperatively to show the other students what their map meant and where to find the “items” that were hidden all over the outdoor classroom! Other students showed me that they made a “hotel” for worms out of a rotted tree stump.

The curiosity and wonder that the outdoor classroom created was endless. This also served as a source of inspiration for me to want to bring the ideas I saw back to my school! I could go on about the many wonderful things I was able to see while I was visiting. One thing I loved was how I was able to see the many connections to my school’s improvement plan goal.

As our time together ended, the teacher I was visiting gave me several resource ideas so that I could start to plan my own purposeful play and outdoor classroom at my school. Many of my questions were answered and I believe this approach will further improve my teaching practice as I strive to find new and better ways to increase critical thinking and global competencies in my students.

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