Inquiry-Based Learning

Self-Guided Learning in Outdoor Play Areas

Pre-K teachers can create outdoor play areas that serve as an extension of the classroom and foster social and emotional learning.

February 12, 2024
StockPlanets / iStock

Pre-K students are navigating social skills and developing the independence to engage with preferred and new peers daily. Our playgrounds and outdoor school spaces can be extensions of our indoor classrooms and are optimal environments in which to practice these skills—skills that will enhance learning and future collaboration with nature and build confidence for social interactions. 

Outdoor play areas are often equipped with sandboxes, slides, and monkey bars, and while all these large elements are fun and safe for children as they engage in outdoor play, additional materials are typically required for enhanced creativity in the form of sand toys, shovels, jump ropes, or balls.

One of the benefits of play without a lot of structure is that it encourages children  to think for themselves and come up with creative ideas. Installing strategically placed signage, activity areas, standalone centers, small gardens, game stations, magnet boards, and art corners on playgrounds and outdoor spaces can allow students to engage on their own, help them discover what interests them, and support self-motivated and self-guided learning. 

Getting started

The first step to open this world of possibilities for exploration, fun, and learning is to investigate the areas in the outdoor spaces for nooks and crannies, fences, blank walls, open dirt areas, concrete or brick structures, tree stumps—even staircases are all prime locations. These areas can easily be transformed into cozy spots to ignite and focus children’s minds on thinking outside the box. For instance, to get involved and excited, they could try flower collecting, mud pies, rock painting, bird’s nest observations, tree identification, planting, pressing flowers, making bird feeders, or tree rubbing.

Pre-K educators can benefit by seizing the opportunities for observation and documentation as their students engage in a well-designed outdoor-exploration play space. A wide range of desired outcomes, including year-end pre-K goals, achieved independently or with teacher support, are possible with an alternative organized outdoor-center-focused environment. Specific learning domains at the core of in-place permanent activities may be Cognitive, Social and Emotional, Communication, and Gross and Fine Motor.

Science and Nature, Sensory, Art, and Games can be cultivated on the playground or within an outdoor space. Each of these four areas can play a part in reaching the particular goals that an educator is trying to support in and outside the classroom.

Science and Nature

Learning domain: Cognitive, Communication, Social and Emotional

Classroom goals: Curiosity, making predictions, critical thinking, recall, transfer of knowledge, use of extensive vocabulary, expressing thoughts and ideas, being observant, drawing conclusions, and describing similarities and differences

  • Animal, insect, and plant posters in waterproof frames 
  • Small planter pots for herbs or flowers
  • Tree stumps and wood “cookies”
  • Clock, thermometer, rain gauge, wind chimes, wind vane

Resources: Etsy is a wonderful website for small and uniquely created materials. Posters in an outdoor space provide interest, conversations, and wonder among students. Ideas include alphabet, animals, shapes, colors, and sign language posters, along with appropriate outdoor waterproof frames that can be mounted to wood fences or hung with wire on metal fences if allowed.


Learning domain: Social and Emotional, Communication

Classroom goals: Expresses feelings, sustains cooperative play, waits turn, enjoys special activities, uses play materials constructively, focuses on tasks, manages frustration appropriately, recalls information, and is observant

  • Sound center (metal pans and spoons, wooden spoons, or PVC tubing)
  • Keys on a ring

Resources: Sound center items are available inexpensively at thrift stores or through donations. Plywood to attach metal items can be purchased or donated from any hardware store and painted or left natural. If there’s a wooden fence on your playground, it can be ideal for hanging with screws, if permitted. Metal or wooden items like large spoons can be attached to the board with screws or with simple chains of a length for students to reach.  

Attach old, loose keys to a large ring, and hang with a zip tie for student manipulation. Keys are fun, and teacher-led conversation can include questions like these: “What do you think this key unlocks?” or “What are keys used for?”


Learning domain: Social and Emotional, Communication

Classroom goal: Follows three- to four-step directions, expresses thoughts and ideas, is willing to try new activities, curiosity, focuses on tasks 

  • Chalkboard paint (for blank walls or sidewalks)
  • Plexiglass, mounted (for painting or dry erase marker projects)

Resources: Chalkboard paint can be purchased from any local paint or hardware store to use on a ground surface area or a blank wall. Plexiglass is inexpensive and can be mounted on a fence or propped on a wall. 


Learning domain: Cognitive, Communication, Social and Emotional

Classroom goal: Recalls information, follows three- to four-step directions, expresses thoughts and ideas, describes similarities and differences, draws conclusions, makes predictions, focuses on tasks, manages frustration

  • Use outdoor paint to make a hopscotch board 
  • Create tic-tac-toe boards (stones or shells for game pieces)

An information kiosk, if space and regulations permit, can provide a central location for pre-K educators to receive valuable tips, future ideas and plans, and a sounding board for research and documentation. Photographs are a wonderful way to show the adventures of the outdoor space and track the children’s joy of play and social interactions.  

An oversized, laminated monthly calendar is another way to include not just one class, but other early learners in a grade-wide nature adventure where each day of the month, students can do a different fun outdoor activity, depending upon the students’ interest, the seasons, school traditions, school themes, special events, or current classroom curricula. 

The mix of nature and permanent exploratory areas is critical in creating outdoor play spaces that supply visual interest, repeat visits, and sustained play. This in turn can provide research ideas and a multilayered, deep-dive curriculum rich with the thoughts and questions directly from students.

Challenge yourself, and create a new adventure for your students; enlist the help of your coworkers, families, your community, and of course your students to design permanent areas in your outdoor spaces to enrich the lives of everyone, creating opportunities for enrichment, camaraderie, kindness, and discovery. Children will learn independence, become inquisitive, and take hold of their thinking as they transfer imaginary play into learned life lessons.

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Filed Under

  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Environmental Education
  • Student Engagement
  • Pre-K

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