The Outdoor Classroom Project was formed in 2003. It is an initiative of the Child Educational Center (CEC) in La Cañada, California, a nationally accredited program of early care and education that has cultivated the concept and practice of the Outdoor Classroom since 1979. Through the support of an initial five-year $1,000,000 grant from First 5 LA, which completed in 2008, the Outdoor Classroom Project reached more than 630 child care centers and 3,000 early childhood educators in Los Angeles County. Throughout California and beyond, an additional 3,900 centers and 10,100 educators have been benefiting from the Outdoor Classroom Project’s consulting and educational services.
Since 2009, the Outdoor Classroom Project has been working with centers in Santa Barbara County, conducting a county-wide initiative funded by the Orfalea Foundation. For information on this initiative, please visit the Orfalea Foundation’s website. In addition, the Outdoor Classroom Project has created the Demonstration Site Network, an alliance of child care centers throughout California that are committed to the implementation of the Outdoor Classroom, and is partnering with Nature Explore to provide trainings and conduct research projects.
The Outdoor Classroom Project continues to expand into new areas and partnerships with the goal to disseminate the philosophy and practice of outdoor programming and environments as critical elements of a quality program of early care and education.
The Development of the Outdoor Classroom at the CEC
From the CEC’s early beginnings, we developed the concept of the Outdoor Classroom through close observations of children’s interests and natural desire to be outdoors. Our program, co-founded by Eric and Elyssa Nelson in 1979, was started in classrooms that were part of a former elementary school. The facility wasn’t designed to serve young children and had little amenities, but all of its rooms opened directly onto a spacious, mostly undeveloped yard. We weren’t really aware of it at the time, but we had found the perfect opportunity to create a model “Outdoor Classroom.”
The children loved being outdoors from the start, no matter the weather condition and regardless of the fact that there were only a few pieces of simple equipment. They moved freely inside and out during large portions of the day, played on an old swing set and an old climber, rode trikes on a long strip of old asphalt, dug in sand from a left-over sandbox, and spent hours of dramatic play in a wooden row boat that had been left there. They enjoyed creating their own activities, such as playing “chase,” making up games, and collecting leaves and insects. Teachers learned how to organize themselves to supervise the children outdoors, and began to take traditionally indoor activities outside. Stories were read on blankets on the lawn. Puzzles, table top manipulatives, paints, and crayons were all brought outdoors. Music and even group times started to take place outdoors. Our Outdoor Classroom was evolving quite naturally.
In line with our emergent curriculum approach, a much more flexible activity schedule developed, and new advantages in utilizing the outside were discovered. Children who didn’t nap as long as others were allowed to go outside where they were no longer disruptive to sleepers. Outdoors, snacks, and lunches were very pleasant experiences. Room activities were easier to set up when children were outside, and the rooms were rarely crowded. We also found that giving children more physical space and more opportunity to be active greatly reduced conflict.
All of this occurred fairly quickly, even though it took us almost two decades to accomplish even modest physical improvement of the yards. However, when they eventually came after countless parent participation hours and fundraising efforts, we found that teacher attitudes towards the outdoors were much more important than the changes in the environment. We had created an underlying philosophy and practice of being child-centered, closely observing the children and their reactions to the program and making changes as a result—all of which supported the Outdoor Classroom.
Today, the CEC’s Outdoor Classroom serves as the model site for the Outdoor Classroom Project. Physical improvements occur every year. With the physical changes, there are changes in how the children use the yard. The teachers, in turn, learn from the children. This continuing cycle of change and development keeps the program fresh and interesting to children and teachers alike; the Outdoor Classroom has become a never-ending experiment in discovery and learning, delighting us all.