Thursday, April 01, 2010

Problem Solving In Our Outdoor Classroom

Since we didn't just install a bunch of plastic climbing equipment in our new playground, and because we're trying to use it as an outdoor classroom and not just a place to burn off extra energy, we've been talking about the whole endeavor as an experiment.

In that spirit, we've kept a notebook by the door for the adults in the Woodland Park parent community to take notes on what's working, what's not working, and to jot down ideas. I've found myself eagerly pawing through the pages at the end of each day. In fact, I've caught myself more than once checking it again the next morning even though there's no way there could be a new note! I've learned a ton as a teacher and judging by these notes and the conversations I've had, we're learning a ton as a community. I'm excited by how engaged everyone is in this creative project.

For instance, Charlie L.'s mom Shelly, who made our capes and who has a terrific sewing blog of her own, has been heading up the project to get a proper cover made for our irregularly shaped sand pit.

Because we built the pit around a pair of trees that we want to survive, the cover had to be made from a water permeable material that also discourages the use of our sand as a litter box by the local felines. Not only that, because it can get windy in Seattle, we needed something that won't blow away in the next windstorm.

This is a gratuitous photo of our sand pit magnolia
just starting to bloom this spring.

Shelly's idea was to use some of the burlap bags donated by our friends at Upcycle Northwest and sew them together into the custom shape we required. Not only that, but she recruited Peter's mom Katherine and Finn V.'s mom Karolyn and they've been bringing their sewing machines into class to work on it with the kids. They put the finishing touches on it last weekend. Here's the result:

Burlap seems like a fantastic solution. It's a durable fabric that holds up very well in the elements, is permeable to rain, and when damp (which will be the case in most of our windstorms) it is heavy enough to stay in place without being weighted down. Because of the trees, it had to be made in 3 pieces and fit together like a puzzle. Brilliant!

Our cast iron water pump has been problematic from the very start. On our very first day outside, it became obvious that it had been a mistake to locate it in our narrow garden. It's been a great addition to our sand pit area, but challenging. First of all, our entire set up was kind of rickety and required ongoing adjustments to keep it in place. But more significantly, we've been having a very hard time convincing the 2-year-olds that they can't put sand directly into the top of the pump or into the large muck bucket we were using as it's cistern because it gums up the works. I've had to take the entire pump apart several times to clean it out. Not only that but our bucket (which, in its defense, has gone through at least 3 years of hard use) split open on its side so that it could only hold a few inches of water at a time. In other words, for various reasons, it's been "our of order" for too much of the past month.

Here's my solution:

I've re-purposed one of our plastic storage tubs. I drilled a hole in the lid to accommodate the pipe and a second hole to accommodate the garden hose for refilling:

This idea is that the kids can no longer dump sand into the tub, accidentally or on purpose. We'll still have to make sure they don't put it in the pump itself, but that's where teaching will have to come in. I've also dug the whole thing into the sand a bit. That should help keep it a little more stable. We have several lengths of house gutter that the kids can position on their own for "flowing" the water.

Our construction/tinkering area has enjoyed both success and failure this past month as we've tried to get our minds around how it ought to work. I wrote recently about how I felt we needed to lead the kids a bit more than we have, but there was more at work here in our inability to really get something going. Isak's mom Leslie has been advocating for "framing in a playhouse" to give the kids a jumping off point for both construction and dramatic play. This is what I built using the materials at hand:

The idea now is for us to help the kids build it out as they see fit. As you can see, I've hung a few burlap bags on the top. I think they'll make excellent walls, roofs, and curtains that can be simply installed by driving a few nails.

Several parents have expressed the opinion that we've tried to get too much going at once in this area. That's probably true, but I think part of the problem is also that we've just had too much "junk" out there and it made the space seem jumbled and crowded. I spent some time storing away a lot of the scrap lumber, for instance, and better organizing what we leave out:

I've tried to leave "samples" of everything we have available, while storing the bulk of it in our shed. The idea is that if the kids decide they need more of something, we can pull it out on an as-need basis, including more burlap bags:

I've also finally found bits for our old egg-beater style hand drill, which should be a fun challenge for the kids:

And since this post seems to be turning into a tutorial on using burlap, here's where we planted our potatoes in the garden:

I can't wait to get back to school next week and test out the new stuff!

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Kimberly said...

I love what you've done with the pump and building area. The new burlap cover looks great, too.

Thank you!!!!

Scott said...

Maybe fewer "choices" in the construction center will make it easier for kids to choose and do. I'll be interested to hear the results of your modifications.

(V.Kerr) School Time Adventures said...

I love the hand drill! I need to be on the lookout for one of those. I love the fact that you admitted to checking the notebook more times than possible for new little notes. (That's how I feel about my email inbox sometimes :)

I wanted to congratulate you on being one of the 50 best blogs for early childhood education! Great job!


Pamela Wallberg said...

Hi Tom....interesting that you went to a permeable cover area, rather than a non-permeable cover and water "irrigation" system. Knowing your abilities with tubes and useful-machine construction, I would have expected a piped rainwater fountain off a plexiglass roof... :)

We also struggle with the rain. Being in a foret beside a slough on the west coast means everything is wet. and muddy. constantly. It affects tree growth (rot) and grass growth (mud swamps) and garden boxes (dirt is rained out and onto non-garden box areas). It is frustrating because I have toured all these beautiful schools in Italy and California....and they never get rain.

Play for Life said...

Thanks for the heads up on the water pump Tom. We've been wanting to introduce one into the Hush Garden but we might just need to plan things a little better first. We girls have certainly learned a lot about repairing all sorts of things around kinder but the thought of having to pull that pump apart to clear the sand out ... and like your children ours WILL be tempted to put sand into it ... well, hmmm ... don't know that water pump repairs is included on our list of natural talents!! :) :)

Teacher Tom said...

I have to say, Donna, that dismantling and reassembling our pump is very easy. I inherited it in a not working condition and just took it apart one day to see if I could figure out how to fix it. They are simple machines and you have to be able to take them apart and put back together if you are going to have one in your life because you need to replace the leather fittings at least once a year. These are a pair of leather parts that create the seals around the moving parts that in turn create suction. They gradually wear out and have to be replaced.

Play for Life said...

Okay cool that doesn't sound too complicated ... (As long as we can call on you for back tuition that is!) :)

Juliet Robertson said...

Yet another great post, thanks Tom.

Do you not think that working with pre-schoolers is one problem solver after another?

I'm interested that you feel the need to have a cover on your sandpit and impressed at the sheer effort involved to ensure one has been created. There are ways and means for other however...

1) Netting works well in that animals don't like getting caught up with it.
2) Sonic repellents (buy from a garden centre) are effective at deterring cats, dogs, foxes and other animals
3) Raking the sand before one leaves at night (this can be a job for a child) means that any disturbance the next day can be monitored
4) Always keep the cover off during the day - sandpits need to breathe to keep healthy!

Best wishes

PS I've got some good free info sheets about sandpits should anyone want the info, please email me via my website www,

Anonymous said...

Too much going on is better than nothing going on :)

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