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 Finding Awe and Wonder in the Outdoor Classroom

How to find Awe and Wonder in your Outdoor Classroom

As an educator you hope for those ‘wow’ moments, for the audible gasps when their eyes seem to sparkle, the cogs are turning and their smile stretches from ear to ear. In those flashes of brilliance, you know children are fully engaged in their learning and they are empowered to discover more.

In our rapidly changing world, that is dominated by screens and new technology, it is a delight to watch children become mesmerised in the wonders of nature.

A big class of children sat inside a large hexagonal gazebo which has been installed onto blue and yellow wetpour. Children are dressed as pirates listening to 2 teachers who are also dressed as pirates.

What is awe and wonder?

‘We are here to feel, wonder and gaze in awe at the world. Instead of just teaching our children how to use things and do things, I suggest we nourish their sense of wonder.’ Bernie Siegel

Awe can be described as a powerful feeling that leaves a mark. It moves, inspires and motivates us. Wonder in a child is an inner desire to learn that is ready to be awakened. Educators seek to develop natural curiosity, creativity and the ability to make connections.

As adults we can view certain things as ordinary but from the perspective of a child, who may have limited experience of the world, it can be extraordinary. This is why practitioners plan with children’s interest in mind.

11 children sat inside a hexagonal gazebo writing on pieces of paper whilst a teacher wearing a blue shirt and blue trousers stand next to a giant whiteboard in the gazebo.

I have seen children become engrossed in looking at patterns in frost on a particularly cold morning and amazed at the sight of their breath in the chilly air.

Children are naturally curious and ask lots of questions. Sometimes asking, ‘Are there any questions about this?’ causes a wave of responses and that can be something to be actively encouraged.

Young minds can wonder about big topics such as the origins of our species, the vastness of the cosmos, life, love, death, art and nature to name a few. Children have a thirst for knowledge and develop their own theories. As practitioners we recognise and support experiences.

8 children, 4 wearing white polo shirts and 4 wearing red school jumpers, sat undercover outside listening to one teacher wearing a yellow scarf and yellow trousers.

Young children don’t necessarily need to be overwhelmed by content knowledge yet but to experience the world as beautiful and joyous and be ready to find out more.

I can remember moments of awe and wonder from my childhood. The excitement of spotting a rainbow is something I still do with my children today. Where did it come from? What colours can we see? What is at the end and how do we find it?

Even now an autumn walk through the forest, the bloom of the springtime blossom or the sight of a sunset when driving home can leave me astounded. I’m left with a greater awareness of our wonderful world and my place within it. We can share these feelings of awe and wonder with the children by modelling, recognising, enriching and responding.

‘Go out I beg of you

And taste the beauty of the wild

Behold the miracle of the earth

                             With all the wonder of a child.’        Edna Jaques

A class of children sat inside of a hexagonal gazebo with a large chalkboard whilst one teacher stands next to the chalkboard teaching a lesson. The gazebo has been installed next to a multi-coloured bench.

The Outdoor Classroom

Having an outdoor classroom space created by Pentagon Play is the perfect place to encourage awe and wonder. Now, more than ever, after months of online learning children need to feel connected to nature. Here are some ways that you can use your space and build upon children’s interests within Early Years and beyond...

2 children, one wearing a pink coat and one wearing a black coat, both wearing red polka dot chef hats, mixing mud in large bowls at a mud kitchen that has been installed next to a water wall.

Connect to the Natural Environment

A Sheltered Classroom really allows you to be outside in all weathers.

When it is raining, just like our well-known piggy friend, there is nothing children enjoy more than splashing through the biggest and longest puddles they can find. They could swirl a stick around very quickly to make a whirlpool, add a figure and see what happens. Art could be made by leaving painted paper out in the rain and watching the drops dance on the page.

A hexagonal gazebo with a ramp leading up to it for wheelchair access with 3 storytelling chairs and 3 moveable artificial grass topped seats inside.

In winter they could paint ice with watercolour paints or try to blow a frozen bubble. Raindrops and snowflakes can be caught on tongues and snow can be felt and seen melting.

Autumn treasures such as leaves and seeds can be collected for the nature table and viewed through a magnifying glass. Conker shells can be cracked open and even standing on a playground mound, feeling the power of the wind can provide a wonderful sensory experience.

One boy wearing a red, white and blue coat with a dinosaur hood stood on a playground surface mound that has been topped with artificial grass.

Encourage those little green fingers!

Pentagon Pay can design a designated Gardening Area that really involves children in the process of growing their own food, observing over time and appreciating how our earth provides for us.

Children love to get their hands dirty by digging up potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables to make their own soup. They enjoy picking and eating berries and making jam. A wormery or a compost bin can be a great teaching tool about waste reduction.

3 children planting flowers in a planter bench, 2 children wearing yellow polo shirts and green gloves, and one child wearing a purple school jumper whilst another child walks past the planter bench.

Patterns and structures of a variety of leaves, feathers, shells and dried flower heads can be studied and provide perfect conversation starters. Plants and flowers can be dissected to reveal their seeds and learn about their structure.

Natural items such as conkers, stones, petals, moss, lichen and bark can be collected and used to make pictures and patterns. Why not make a spiral, a rainbow or a leaf man and frame your picture using twigs?

Watching seeds, blossom and leaves fall and sweeping up natures treasure is always fun, develops gross motor skills and saves the caretaker a job!

One child with blonde hair wearing a red top and blue jeans stood at a planter with lots of pink, red, purple and white flowers growing. The child is stood next to a green truck on wheels.

Become animal detectives!

When children have opportunities to see wildlife, a whole new, special world of wonder can open up. Witnessing the life cycle of an animal is a special event in young children’s lives. Chicks hatching, butterflies emerging or frogs spawning are wonders to behold.

Pentagon Play’s Bug Hotel offer fantastic insights into the lives of tiny creatures and children will love the feel of a ladybird on their fingers or counting how many different types of bees/butterflies they can spot.

One boy with blonde hair wearing school uniform and green wellie boots using a yellow magnifying glass to look inside of the bug hotel that has been installed in front of large trees and plants.

A trail of ants or a snail climbing a window are usually special discoveries. Bird watching is exciting and mysterious to children. Their homes are different from ours and are built by the animals themselves. They have to find their own food and the ability to fly is something many children wish for!

Research shows that when children are encouraged to care for animals, they tend to be more sensitive and caring towards people. By supporting children’s love of animals in your setting you’re helping to nurture feelings of connection and stewardship.

One boy with blonde hair wearing a white polo top using a yellow magnifying glass to look inside of a plastic tube to fine bugs living between the different leaves and twigs.

The children in my classes showed so much enthusiasm whenever our topic involved animals and when a dog or cat was spotted on the playground, it would cause a flurry of excitement! An outdoor classroom would be the ideal place to keep a class pet which teaches responsibility and can help to regulate emotions.

One boy wearing a blue zip jumper and white t-shirt stood in a field with a leaf and 2 snails on his hand, the boy is smiling at the snails looking very interested.

Adult directed outdoor experience

An outdoor classroom/space allows practitioners to facilitate certain activities that promote awe and wonder. Designing paper planes from different materials and testing them from different heights or making their own bubble wands will generate hours of fun and collaborative working.

Even simple things like eating a snack outside, whatever the weather, listening to poetry in the outside reading area or observational drawing on Pentagon’s Giant Whiteboard all promote calmness and connection. I remember vividly an art lesson where we held mirrors to the sky and used a mirrored surface to paint on.

2 children wearing white tops and grey trousers are drawing on a giant outdoor whiteboard that has been installed onto artificial grass in front of green fencing.

Allowing children to be still and to listen for evidence of animals such as birds chattering in the mornings is precious.  At times we want to create reflective environments and provide opportunities which allow all children to become mindful and calm.

In my experience lighting a candle, gathering some key objects as a focal point and playing music offers a valuable time for adults and children to come together and just be still and quiet. A time for reflection and gratitude to send out good wishes and to remember.

The effective use of an outdoor classroom/space truly supports child centred learning. Awe and wonder features heavily in the seven areas of learning development in the EYFS.

4 children playing on a bongo panel post, glockenspiel panel post, and a shaker panel post with one child walking over to the posts to join in and play.

Being outside, observing and talking about what they are doing develops a language rich environment. Children’s own (PSED) is supported through interaction with friends and learning to cooperate. They learn to express their own feelings and manage emotions.

By being outside children make sense of their physical world and their personal experiences widen. Religious education in schools requires children to demonstrate evidence of awe, wonder and mystery. To appreciate the natural world and its patterns as a source of meaning and symbol for our experience.

one child sat on a storytelling chair whilst one child sits on a teacher's knee reading a book. The teacher is sat on a moveable artificial grass topped seat.

Understanding the world

Through play and exploration outside the classroom we develop a child’s awareness of the world and of themselves, from which knowledge and skills can then be developed.

As educators we are very good at providing children with tools to enable them to write well.  We play music, video clips, use drama techniques and read around the subject.

3 children wearing red school jumpers sat on artificial grass next to wigwam posts. There are 4 different coloured flowers attached to green fencing behind the children.

But what could be better than the child experiencing something first hand? If we expect children to write with emotion, detailed recounts and stories, diary entries, poems, and understand figurative language then surely we must try to provide them with experiences to support their ideas and develop their own feelings. Is it possible for a child to write a story based in a forest if they have never been to a forest, listened to the sounds, smelled the earth and spotted the animals?

Core experiences in nature at school could be as simple as taking your shoes off and feeling the textures beneath your feet, rolling down the hill and making shapes with a stick in the mud. The possibilities are endless!

5 girls wearing red summer dressers and 2 boys wearing white polo tops exploring in a school forest which is surrounded by lots of big and tall trees.

The children’s book ‘Stick Man’ by Julia Donaldson always reminds me of this. As adults sometimes we see a stick as a stick but to a child it can be used to make a nest, a mast, a sword, a bat, a pen. For in nature, a child’s imagination knows no bounds.

Moments of wonder do not occur all the time but they certainly do when playing in the outside classroom and children are deeply involved. They want to discover, to explore and learning becomes self-directed.

one child wearing a white school polo top holding a clear tube with leaves and twigs in looking for some insects and bugs that have been living inside of the tube.

Let's get outside!

As educators we need to ensure curriculum coverage and achieve high standards but in an authentic way! It is our job to enable children to reach their potential academically but to create a classroom culture in which awe and wonder are prevalent.

2 girls wearing red overalls and wellington boots stood inside of a mud pit playing with a blue spade and a rope and pulley feature to move the mood around.

Being outside in nature can fill children’s hearts with more than we can sometimes teach! This may be thanks to an experience of sitting under a tall tree and staring at the clouds or an encounter with a sneaky squirrel.

Let’s notice that glimmer in their eyes, make time in our day to be outside, let’s make space in our curriculum for awe.

If you would like to develop your outdoor area, including imaginative and creative play solutions to improve children's educational experiences in your school or nursery playground, we're here to help. Please Contact Us for a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our expert playground consultants. 

We have a fantastic range of School Playground Equipment to fully support the curriculum outdoors, allowing awe and wonder to be present in your outdoor space!