The Outdoor Space
By Lisa Henderson, B.S. Child Development
As a home daycare provider, you are already aware of many of the things you need to concern yourself about when setting up your outdoor space. These include minimum square feet, safety, fall zones, etc. But have you taken a look at your outdoor space lately? Does it intrigue the children? Does it invite them to explore? Does it draw the children to pretend? This article is devoted to making your outdoor space a place for your children to enhance all the developmental areas. The basic outline of this article comes from my college textbook on playgrounds, but most of the ideas are my own.
Fantasy – One area of your play space should be devoted to fantasy. Children love to imagine themselves as a fairy or a leprechan. Create a flower garden with trees and flowering bushes. Use soft green grass that invites children to sit. Add a concrete bench for yourself and you have a great place to gather the children for an outside fairy tale story! You could even paint a fantasy scene on the fence behind this area.
Reality – Children love to play with real things. Think of the baby who is much more drawn to Daddy’s real keys rather than the plastic keys in the playpen. Your outdoor space should have real items that the children can use, manipulate, and role-play with. Perhaps a small, old boat that is no longer sea-worthy but still has many attached knobs and other things to manipulate. Go through your garage and use your imagination! You may also consider setting up your woodworking center in the outdoor play space. NOTE: See my article “Special Interest Centers” about safety and supervision for woodworking.
Symbolism – Find a way to incorporate universal symbols that are familiar to young children. These symbols include the sun, the moon, the stars, circles, trees, houses, etc. You could paint them on a blank wall. You could hang METAL or ceramic symbols of these signs at the children’s level. You could even make cement stepping stones of these symbols, leading out to the playground areas. Add some novel items to your backyard, such as a totem pole or different lengths of pipes with which the children can pretend to make music.
Boundaries – The playground should have boundaries, but they must be very flexible boundaries. You could use a low fence, a railroad tie, a wooden bench, or even a small row of statues to create the illusion of an area being within a specific place. Do not completely enclose an area in the playground, rather create the atmosphere of free exploration.
Open Ended Play – By having areas that have little or no specific definition, children will naturally stretch their imagination. This can be as simple as leaving an old refrigerator box in the middle of the yard. Do not paint it or cut it. Rather, leave the possibilities open and the children will transform it into things you’ve not even considered. What you saw as a great barn, the children might create a submarine. Rather than the bus you imagined, the children might create a train tunnel.
Nature – Be sure your playground allows children to interact with their natural environment. Gardening, whether it be flowers or vegetables, is a wonderful learning experience and a rewarding task. Your playground should also have a variety of digging materials – sand, dirt, mud, gravel, and a variety of rocks and stones. These areas need not be large areas and you need not include them all. Water play is a recommended necessity. This can be accomplished with small waterfalls, a water table, a bin of water on a picnic table, or a sprinkler. It’s best to have more than one water play option, especially in the hottest months of the summer.
Shapes – Having a variety of shapes in the outdoor area is also important. This can be achieved many ways. Straight lines are likely already incorporated into your playground by means of a fence. Add a winding sidewalk or bike path. Or an arched bridge leading over an imaginary brook to the playhouse. Or add some small grassy “hills”. These ideas need not be big projects; remember most of the children in your backyard are between 1 and 5 years old.
Sensory Experiences – What can you add to your outdoor space to touch each of the five senses? Reach for their sense of sight by adding a rainbow of colors, large and small shapes, and images they are familiar with. Reach for their sense of smell by adding fragrant flower boxes to the patio railings. Reach for their sense of touch by adding cement stepping stones with items embedded within, such as golf balls, marbles, rocks, and other common things. Reach for their sense of hearing by adding windchimes or a bird feeder that invites the natural sounds of birds singing.
Some other ideas that will enrich the children’s outdoor play include: Adding a mysterious hiding place, such as a tunnel or muslin tent. Adding brilliant items such as polished stone, mirrors, shells and marbles. Creating a atmosphere of opposites, such as the sun and moon, happy and sad, light and shadow, and hard and soft. Adding more natural items and raw materials, and removing some of the plastic store bought trinkets and toys. By adding exotic, unfamiliar items such as mosiacs, hieroglyphics, palm trees, and sculptures, you can create connections between past and future, between foreign and familiar.
Ensure you have included areas in your outdoor play space for active play and quiet reflection. Adults often complain that children don’t play outside enough. But many of the backyards I’ve visited look more like deserts than playgrounds. Make your play area a rich, abundant, alive, and inviting area. Don’t overdo it and make it cluttered, but put some planning and effort into the project. Use your imagination and remember what it’s like to lay on a grassy hill and gaze at the clouds. Does your play area have a space for that?