The Outdoor Classroom


Yesterday, we were in the midst of a blizzard here in Connecticut! There’s nothing like shoveling heavy, wet snow while being pummeled by hail to make me appreciate being inside next to a cozy fire while preparing for next week’s Outdoor Classroom webinar!

I do hope you’ll join me, but for now, I wanted to share with you one of the most fascinating pieces of research I’ve come across so far. In his book Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, David Sobel identifies 7 “outdoor play motifs” – types of play all children tend to engage in when they’re left to unstructured play outside:

1. Making Forts and Special Places
2. Hunting and Gathering
3. Creating Small Worlds
4. Developing Friendships with Animals
5. Constructing Adventures
6. Descending into Fantasies
7. Following Paths and Figuring Out Shortcuts

These patterns of play definitely hold true for my son and his friends! As a mom and educator, I find it exciting to supplement my own backyard, family outings, and my son’s school playground to enable the type of play kids are naturally drawn towards!  Take a look at some of my family and friends’ photos below. What was needed to facilitate the play?

1. Making Forts and Special Places


For an afternoon or for many weeks – we make hideouts in all seasons and in many landscapes!



2. Hunting and Gathering

Picking blueberries, drinking maple water, apple picking and gathering autumn olives. We always enjoy nature’s treats so much more when we’ve hand picked or grown them ourselves! When we’re not eating what we’re gathering, we are usually adding to our (ever growing) rock, stick, shell or feather collections. 



3. Crating Small Worlds

At the base of a tree, in a raised bed, in a flower pot…miniature worlds and fairy houses abound for a reason!


Brave cast of characters balancing on on a tight rope in the veggie patch!

“our magical oak tree”












4. Developing Friendships with Animals






When we took a family trip to Maine last summer, we stayed on the most beautiful little farm. My son fell in love with the cows – the smallest cow, in particular.


“I remember the baby cow wanted a crabapple but the bigger cows would always eat it out of my hand first. So, I said to the little cow, “stay”, and she did stay. And then I chased all of the other cows to the other side of the field with some hay, and then I ran back and gave the little cow the crabapple just before the big cows came back. It felt good to take care of the smallest cow so she could grow into a big cow!”

5. Constructing Adventures

My little guy has always been so much more eager to “go on an adventure” than “go for a walk”. It’s a small shift in language, but also perspective, because when we “adventure”, there is no destination or purpose beyond exploration.






6. Descending into Fantasies


“We’ll pass the poison ivy zombies soon, lets tippy-toe.” A rolled up treasure map in hand.




“You be the mama bird in our nest.”





“The soup isn’t thick enough. Keep stirring.”




















7. Following Paths and Figuring Out Shortcuts

Kids can feel so empowered when they lead us off trail and blaze their own paths!


“Today I’ll be the leader and you will follow me mama, we will go on a different path”. Sure enough we found this lovely little stream. We sat with our feet in the water, fished leaves and then made our way back…


The tools for these types of play are so simple: nature-provided loose parts, shovels, buckets, dirt, sand, water, miniature characters…What’s harder to come by is TIME and a shift in priorities. The more I learn, the more clear it becomes that unstructured time outside isn’t a bonus – it’s critical! As I look back on these gorgeous memories, I’m struck by the bonds that formed in the sand and streams and pastures…and I’m more motivated than ever to connect my family – and yours – with nature every day!

In your family or teaching lives, do your children engage in these kinds of play? Do your outdoor spaces invite children to play in these ways? I’d love to hear how you incorporate nature into your family’s activities, and/or how your school connects with nature!

If you’d like to learn more about intentionally crafting your outdoor play environment and experiences to best support your children’s outdoor play, please register for The Outdoor Classroom webinar. I’ll be coming to you live on Tuesday, March 21st from 4-5 PM.

Happy Adventures!


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Marina Pappas is the Education Programs Coordinator at Gesell Institute. She apprenticed on a biodynamic farm, camped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and went spelunking into underground caves in New Zealand. Nowadays, her son and dog lead the adventures in the Connecticut woodlands, farms and beaches!