Friday, February 12, 2010

All Hands On Deck!

I've shared with you about our new and ongoing outdoor Little World play space experiment, but this is just the first baby step in a big, low-cost, all-hands-on-deck playground/courtyard revamp that we're undertaking this month at Woodland Park.

Most adults say that one of the most disappointing things about our school when they first visit, is our small, unadorned outdoor play area:

Look, we even have what appear to be prison bars on one of the window!

Little World now occupies the area just to the right of the boat in this pic.

I think these pictures make it look more grim that it really is, and we transform it each day into a more appealing playspace by the addition of rockers, balls, buckets, trikes, etc. And those three trees (a maple, a magnolia and a pine) are all very beautiful in their seasons. Still, I remember feeling deflated myself the first time I saw it 8 years ago, but the kids have figured out how to make it into a place of joy and it has served us well in spite of its drawbacks.

We have allowed ourselves to be hampered over the years by the fact that we continue to occupy a space subject to 1 or 2 year leases and a landlord that periodically considers selling the building or re-purposing  the rooms we use. In other words, we've been reluctant to make any major, permanent improvements (like replacing cracked and pitted asphalt) because we always live under the threat that we may have to find a new home. Pushing the playground/courtyard further down our list of priorities has been the fact that we have a nice, large "gym" where we have climbing equipment and gym mats that we've tended to use on rainy days (a frequent occurrence here in the Pacific Northwest corner of the US).

We've also been limited by the fact that our courtyard was visible and accessible to any passerby, which made it impractical to leave anything out there that was not anchored down.

In other words, we've made the most of what we had, sadly sacrificing our garden (which has always had a ton of potential) to essential preschool pursuits like digging and mud play:

Only the toughest plants have managed to survive here.

This is all about to change. During our December break, inspired by blogs like Let The Children Play, I'm A Teacher, Get Me OUTSIDE  Here!, and Playscapes, I began to rethink and reconsider what we could do to enhance our outdoor play experience. 

One of the first steps in this process was the accidental one of our landlords adding a new 7-foot fence with a locking gate, which has unfettered us from having to put everything away every day, and reduced our concerns about intruders, vandals, and lazy people wanting to use our fenced courtyard as a place to exercise their dogs (yes, we have had problems with that over the years). The space isn't exactly impenetrable, but someone would really have to want to get in, and they would have an even harder time leaving with anything.

Little World, which we plan to use as the anchor of our new, daily outdoor art station, is already underway. We've also already begun experimenting with a construction/tinkering station, which will ultimately be based around a playhouse frame, featuring access to real tools like hammers, saws, drills, two sets of outdoor blocks and lots of scrap lumber. A large, full-body sandbox is going to replace our tiny sand table, moving our digging play there, thus allowing us to utilize our garden for its original purpose. And, of course, we are going to be making enhancements in our water play area.

We're shooting to get all of this done by March 1 when we will be implementing a new schedule that puts us outdoors, rain or shine, for approximately half of our school day. It might sound overly ambitious, but remember we have some 80 adults in our parent community who are accustomed to putting their arms and legs to work on behalf of their cooperative preschool.

I'm going to let these photos serve as our "before" pictures. I can't wait to share our "after" pictures.

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Unknown said...

You are such an optimist! In my last post I complained about my outdoor area, and here you are showing pictures of your area and saying all these positive things about it and what you are going to do with it. I truly need to see the joy in the faces of my children when they step outside to our beautiful playground. Thank you for lifting my spirits!

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to see your after pictures!

Sherri said...

Very Fun!
I love your attitude!
I am excited to see what you come up with!

Kat said...

It sounds like you have some wonderful ideas for the space. My center has a challenging play area (sandwiched between our building and another in a light industrial park). It's lacking trees and space and
. . . well, it's lacking a lot! But I've been given the go-ahead for a garden so I'm hopeful! Can't wait to see your ideas take shape.

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

Your plans sound really exciting and doable! Having before and after photos would be interesting - although as you know appearances are deceptive as it's what the children do outside that count. In fact some of the most messy and visually unattractive spaces have high play value!

All the best and keep blogging about it.

Teacher Tom said...

I certainly didn't think there was anything wrong with our outdoor play area, Juliet, until I came across you and others in the outdoor play movement. In the last few months I've come to realize that we can go from being just "good" in that area to "excellent" by just being a bit more thoughtful and purposeful. And, if possible, I'd like to see it be a little more beautiful as well!

Just with the few things we've done so far in the past 2-3 weeks, the energy level has gone way up. There seems to be a lot more exploration, and a wider variety of play taking place. The biggest eye-opener for me is that outdoor does not necessarily equal large motor play. There are still kids running around, of course, but they're also stopping, even sitting down, to concentrate on smaller things. Children who don't normally play together inside are hooking up outside. And I'm not the only one who has noticed -- many of the parents have already started commenting on how their play has changed.

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

Your observations echo those of many researchers! Interestingly, outdoor areas, especially small spaces do work better if the focus is on imaginative and creative play. Why this is so, I'm not sure. It also sounds like your gym indoor is ideal for large motor play - I would reckon a trip to a local park/natural space may be the outdoor equivalent.

I think this blog is great in that your comments and thoughts naturally highlight the issues and concerns, benefits and joys of developing an outdoor space. I think this is useful for other practitioners thinking of doing the same thing.

Best wishes

SurprisedMom said...

Good luck with what seems to be a very ambitious project. I can't wait to see the after photos!

kristin said...

i actually love your little nook....but growing up south of chicago, i am a sucker for asphalt.

and really, i. want. a. boat.