Uncovering the Curriculum Through Outdoor Play

By Rebecca Seiling

Whoosh! It’s July already. With COVID-19 restrictions in place around the world, in my family, it feels like we’re partway through a marathon—not sure of what the ending point looks like and trying to take it one stride at a time (and sometimes it feels like more of a crawl). 

So much of what has happened over the months of COVID-inspired home-schooling has been what we like to call “backwards planning.” I’ve used this method in both my Kindergarten teaching and my forest school facilitation. It’s the most enjoyable kind of planning for me because it requires: 

  • making space for open chunks of time to play;
  • observing that play, listening for questions and interests that arise;
  • finding ways of extending and introducing a next step; and
  • noticing all the curriculum ties that we uncover during the process. 

Backwards planning has helped me to realize all the incredible learning experiences that surround us. My family finds inspiration in things like: digging in our backyard, walking through a neighbourhood forest, fairy house building, cooking a meal, tromping through a swamp, or watching a skunk amble through long grass. 

Back in late March (remember waaaay back then!?), my cousin Melissa told me that she felt worried about keeping up with her children’s online learning, and felt guilty when not enough school work was happening during the day. I wondered whether she could watch for what was interesting for her kids in their play and then run with it. 

She remembered her kids being interested in a stick fort they had found on a hiking trail. They spent hours playing in and around it, pretending. She suggested making one of their own, and her kids were keen. They helped her search for the perfect location, between a triangle of trees, and they set to work. Melissa texted me: 

Melissa: Today’s project. Tomorrow it gets a roof!

Allowing space and time is the key to this type of learning. I felt so happy for Melissa and her kids. I wrote her back with all the learning—curricular and non-curricular—that I could see and sense from the pictures she sent and stories she told.

Rebecca: Amazing! Look at all the curriculum you’ve experienced! Here are some that come to mind:

      • Science and technology (e.g., structures and mechanisms)
      • Language arts (e.g., verbal communication, vocabulary development)
      • Art (e.g., visual-spatial sense)
      • Math (e.g., non-standard units of measurement—finding the right size of sticks for the walls)
      • Personal and social development (e.g., making a plan, persisting, conflict resolution skills, negotiation, cooperation amongst siblings and parents)
      • Gross motor skills (e.g., lugging rocks and sticks back and forth)
      • Awareness of natural and built environments
      • Understanding of the natural world and need to care for the environment
      • Plus: joy and a love of the outdoors, working with various woodland materials, and making memories

Melissa: Yay!!! Boy, who knew we could accomplish so much schoolwork with happy faces!?! 

Rebecca: THAT is an education! I think some of the most important things to experience in elementary years (and beyond!) is to wonder, to cultivate questions, to learn a love of the process of learning, and to see the land as a source of that wonder—which you’re doing through this building project. 

Construction on “The Happy House” continued during the month of April, adding a roof, found treasures (like a fisher skull), and interior decor. They also had to realize that some of their design dreams would not be possible or safe. But they adapted! The kids pretended to be animals or characters from Harry Potter, moving in and out of these fort fantasy worlds when “school paperwork” was complete. 

The journey is important. The snippets and stories that came my way reminded me that while searching for building materials and making The Happy House, Melisa’s kids discovered so much unexpected learning along the way. The process is perhaps more valuable than the final product.

One day, they uncovered yellow-spotted salamanders under some potential building materials (which they left, then researched the creatures). Melissa wrote, “We quickly realized that we were not in the forest alone. Chipmunks and birds and all sorts of critters moved into The Happy House.”

They experienced the weather in that small house—the brilliant sun, the rain, and even more snow as April marched on.

They marvelled in the granite, quartz, and sedimentary rocks they were finding, each one unique.

As I think about uncovering the curriculum as a parent there are several images that come to mind. I can be: 

  • like one big ear, listening for my children’s questions and interests;
  • like a miner, searching for inquiries, sifting for gold;
  • like a co-explorer, mapping out our way together to new understandings and questions;
  • like a spider, weaving ties to learning strands, spinning connections; and
  • like a brewmaster, mixing it all together into one big stew—blending bitter and sweet, a complicated and full life.

Carving out these spaces and times for wonder, curiosity, and creativity inspires my parenting journey with my kids. What is inspiring you? Where are you uncovering curriculum in your day-to-day life? 

Stay open to the multitudes of teachers around you, and perhaps the words of St. Bernard de Clairvaux will be realized for you: “You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.”