As a teacher, I loved taking my classes outside, but I also loved bringing the outdoors in. We had our outdoor notice board covered in jute and with pics, poems, stories, art and more, showing what we had been learning outside. Then we had any number of stick arts, dream catchers and more hanging by windows and, well, anywhere there was space! Of course, we needed our plants as well; these were beautiful and taught the children responsibility. And, amongst all of this were my loose parts shelves, tinker trays or treasure chests.
Writing it like that makes it sound somewhat idyllic. Let me assure you; it was not. It took years for me to determine what resources worked and which were a waste of money. Some were easy to maintain, and others took a whole heap of effort. I am going to share with you what worked for me. But I realise different strokes for different folks, so please, share your thoughts and experiences in the comments to help others!
I always loved to have a working board in my classroom which would chart our outdoor learning, give us somewhere to share work and often have mind maps etc, to show what we are learning and how it all connects. A quick search on Pinterest will bring up hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas just for this. I tried many board layouts but what I found worked best for me was
- A hard-wearing background, whether jute pinned up or a gorgeous wallpaper, something a bit heavy would generally last the year. And let’s face it, sorting display boards takes time; we do not want to be redoing that as the year goes on
- Having a way to hand things worked well too! Sticks do not attach well to a wall but can be hooked onto clothes hangers or tied to a string
- Making a working wall that the children took charge of worked a treat, they would update it with their work, and it, therefore, needed minimal maintenance. In saying that, with my younger years classes, I needed to take more of a proactive role. In these classes, I would often update the art/ photos/ whatever as and when it was completed.
Tinker trays, or baskets filled with outdoor treats, are great for all ages. While they look amazing in the photos but can quickly become a time drain when you constantly have to tidy them. Never mind how actually to stock them in the beginning. We are now in Autumn, which is a great time to start collecting these bits! But this is where knowing your local area is very handy. I would collect things like
- Pine needles
- Pebbles and stones of varying sizes and hues
- Dried flowers (that I dried myself at home)
- Sunflower seeds or other large seeds
- Logs or wooden slices
There are a few mistakes I made with these when I started using these materials in the classroom. So, here are some of my top tips
- Do not spend money on these bits! In low-cost stores like B+M etc. it is easy to see bags of things and think they are marvellous and buy them. As teachers, we tend to spend too much of our own money on resources, so do not let this be another thing. Instead, I collected my bits and bobs on walks and only put out what I could find.
- I initially wanted a whole bookshelf of treats in beautiful baskets. It is no exaggeration to say it quickly felt like I was spending my life sorting these to keep them tidy. This is where cutting back was vital. I had a great wee tea chest that could only fit in a handful of bits and pieces, then two small trays for the other bits. This meant it took up little space and was quick and easy to put away.
- I also trained my class to care for the tinker trays and put them away correctly after use. It took time, and for some classes, it would be a classroom job, but it made my life easier and gave the children a sense of responsibility and ownership of this.
- It is also important to note that these resources were great for all ages, from primary 1 (and younger) to primary 7. How the children use the resources could vary; for younger children, it is often sensory and exploratory play, and for older children, creation, but all ages get something out of this.
- A scavenger hunt can be an excellent homework task throughout the seasons and can also help supply you with more resources for this area! That also helps children develop a sense of shared ownership over the resources.
The benefits of plants on our indoor environment are well researched and documented, from their ability to clean the air to how they improve our mood. I loved having plants in the classroom, but sometimes I made mistakes even with this.
There was one year I got every child in primary 1 to create the first initial of their name with cress seeds on a paper towel. I had seen it on Pinterest and thought that was a great idea. Until heading into the classroom every day to the overpowering stench of cress – not pleasant!
And then buying so many plants that the kids invariably knocked them down and soil went everywhere – never mind the hassle of carting them back and forward in the holidays to ensure they were watered and did not die – of course, I never forgot to do that and then had to replace plants 😉
So, what tips have I got for plants?
- Think about what you want plants for; is it just for some greenery? In this case, spider plants or other hardy specimens will do the trick. Or is it to have something that might smell nice? Then you might want some herbs; they are easy to care for, after all. Or maybe you want an air purifier so you can look at the peace lily or English ivy.
- Again, do not spend money! Put a wee plea out at school or with friends and family for cuttings. People tend to love to share their plants. Then all you need is a pot to put it in. And pots do not need to be fancy; a plain plastic pot on a saucer will do!
- This is another great class responsibility. Yes, you must teach the children to check the soil and not overwater the plant, but that is quickly done!
Hopefully, I have helped you see some of the ways the outdoors can come inside to create a lovely space. The big tip is to keep it simple, small and easily doable. Have working walls that change and adapt over the year, and do not get caught up in creating the perfect Insta or Pinterest photos – ever notice how they are always before the children are in school!
Please share your tips with others; as I said at the start, you will have ideas and experiences I have not thought of, and they can help others!