Teacher Tested Tools and Equipment For Outdoor Learning

Girl using a magnifying glass outside

Outdoor learning shouldn’t be complicated. In fact, it can be as simple as taking a storybook outside to read. However, a few carefully selected tools and pieces of equipment for outdoor learning can engage your students in their exploration and allow them to take their learning deeper. I have used all of the tools in this post and have seen some amazing benefits for my students and their learning.

One amazing example of how a few choice tools can help occurred rather recently with a group of kindergarten students. This was a very high-needs group that simply just didn’t know how to play. We would go outside to our “forest” in the schoolyard and they would just stand there.

I had never experienced something like that before. Normally I would bring kids to the trees and they would take off exploring, making forts, or inventing games. This group was very different, they simply just didn’t know how to direct their own free play. It was so weird but also really sad.

I knew that we needed some support since they were struggling. (And there was no way we were going to be building up to 2 hours outside a day if all we did was stand there.) So after school that day I stopped at a local thrift shop. I bought baskets, pots and pans, and some sorting trays. Then I also found some stuffies and some loose parts in the classroom. I threw everything in a basket and hauled it out to our learning space (and said a little prayer and crossed my fingers!)

The next day, outdoor play was totally transformed. Some were playing animals and vet with the stuffies. Others were cooking with the pots. We even had some robots (with no equipment required ironically.) Amazingly, once the students warmed up, they didn’t even need the equipment. We were actually enjoying our outdoor playtime and experiencing the benefits of outdoor play, and not just staring at the dirt.

This easy-to-find equipment for outdoor learning helped us to initiate play and then extend the play. It was amazing what $30 worth of other people’s discarded items could do for our play.

Equipment for Outdoor Learning/ Children running outside during outdoor play

Tools for Outdoor Play:

Just like in my story, sometimes we need to provide our kids with some tools to help them get their creative outdoor play started. Many of these tools are open-ended and allow our students to use their own imagination and creativity to determine how they will be used. You will be amazed at what the students will create using these tools!

  • loose parts items: “Loose parts” are collections of play items that can be moved, manipulated, or put together/taken apart in multiple ways. Often times the loose parts do not have a specific purpose or intention and it is up to the child’s creativity and imagination as to how they would like to use them. Some examples of loose parts are:
    • rocks
    • sticks
    • glass “fish tank” rocks
    • “wood cookies”
    • scarves
    • shells
  • stuffies/puppets: A collection of animals is a great way to engage kids in imaginative play outside. Kids can take on the perspective of an animal through play. They can also incorporate the animals into their play as pets or animals that need to be cared for.
  • sheets, blankets, tarps: Old sheets, blankets, and tarps are great for creating play spaces. Kids can use the blankets as a soft place to draw or do crafts. . Kids can also use them to make forts or shelters.
  • animal figurines: Similar to stuffies, animal figurines can allow our students to share their learning and understanding of different animals through play. They can create habitats for the animals or take the animals on imaginary journeys. The possibilities are amazing and endless!
  • mud kitchen supplies: Pots, pans, bowls, spoons, and any other kitchen tool you can think of are often great additions to an outdoor play environment. Students will use these tools to create delicacies, potions, or they might just wear them as a hat.
  • baskets: Baskets of all shapes and sizes can serve many purposes. Kids will use them to carry around stuffies or collect materials. They are also great for storing loose parts.

For a more in-depth look at tools for outdoor play check out this post…Materials for Creative Outdoor Play

Equipment for outdoor learning/ child playing with rocks and sticks

Tools for Outdoor Art:

Taking art activities outside is an easy way to allow students to experience the beauty of nature through art. If you allow your students to engage in free play, have a selection of art supplies can also provide opportunities for your students to independently create their own art. Taking all of your art supplies outside might not be doable, but there are tools that are more portable and can make outdoor art more accessible.

  • travel watercolour sets: You can find travel watercolours at various price points and levels of quality. Travel watercolours are conveniently contained in a metal or plastic travel case and often come with a brush. All you need to bring is some water!
  • sketching pencils: If you plan to be doing some sketching with your students, having proper sketching pencils is a great idea.
  • paint chips: Find paint chips at your local hardware or paint store for free. They are great for allowing your students to explore the different colours that they see in nature.
  • sidewalk chalk: Sidewalk chalk is a simple tool that lends itself to so many different art activities. Students can use chalk as simply part of creative play, or you can give students large-scale art assignments (and incorporate other mediums like photography as well.) The possibilities with sidewalk chalk are limitless.
Equipment for outdoor learning/ Children playing with chalk outdoors

Tools for Outdoor Science and Math:

Nature is the best teacher when it comes to science. When we spend time learning about nature from nature, that learning becomes real and ingrained in how we understand the world. The same goes for math. When we see math in action, that learning becomes tangible and allows us to build a deeper understanding of what we see. Here are a few general ideas for equipment for outdoor learning that can help you take your science or math studies a bit deeper.

  • magnifying glasses: Magnifying glasses are fantastic tools to help kids really get to see the intricate details that makeup parts of nature. Use magnifying glasses during free play, when sketching, or for examining a leaf or bug closely.
  • colanders or sieves: Find used colanders at thrift stores or inexpensive new ones at dollar stores. They are great for exploring soil and sand.
  • buckets, pots, bowls: A good collection of containers is great for both science and math. Students can explore the volumes of containers through comparison. They can also use the buckets to collect samples of rocks, water, soil, or whatever you might be studying.
  • measuring tapes, rulers, string: If you are planning on incorporating measurement into your studies, having a collection of different measuring tools can allow students to make actual measurements of the subjects they are studying. String is great for the comparison of different circumferences or lengths as well.
  • animal and plant books or reference cards: Reference books about the plants, animals, fungi, etc. that are in your learning area are a great tool. Students are able to study and learn about the living things that they share their learning space. They can really get to understand their learning area in a holistic and meaningful way.
Equipment for outdoor learning/ children playing with a magnifying glass outdoors

Tools for Outdoor Language Arts:

Taking your language arts outside is a great way to add a bit of extra outdoor time into your school day. Simply taking your reading time or story time outside can give your students a bit of extra space and time to experience nature.

  • book bags: If you plan on taking your independent reading time outdoors, a reading bag can be helpful. When I taught grade 1, I purchased a class set of drawstring bags that each student used to keep their books, their reading journal, and a pencil in. It made reading portable and easy to take outdoors.
  • outdoor-themed stories: I love to take story time outside also. In kindergarten, we start our outdoor play time with stories. Having a selection of outdoor-themed books that you can take outside makes outdoor storytime fun and easy. Most of my books actually come from the library (so they are free!)
  • nature journals or writing journals: Similar to taking reading outside, why not take writing outside. If your class creates journals, you can take your journaling or writing notebook outside. You could even try nature journaling with your students. More info on nature journaling with your students here!
Equipment for outdoor learning/ children with clipboards outside

General Tools:

These pieces of equipment are for classroom organization and just outdoor learning in general. These are tools that I have on hand most of the time.

  • wagon: We found a fantastic wagon at Costco for less than $100. It has been a game changer and allows us to haul around all of our equipment for outdoor learning with ease.
  • plastic tubs: I store all of our materials in different tubs that fit inside of the wagon. This makes it easy for me to switch out materials when I need them.
  • clipboards: clipboards are another invaluable tool for outdoor learning. The clipboards allow students to have a firm place to write, draw, or simply keep their papers clipped together.
  • sit pads: A sit pad is not a necessity, but if you have students that are picky about where they sit these can come in handy. Kneeling pads from a garden store work great for this.

Setting the Expectations for Using the Outdoor Learning Tools:

Having a set of tools or equipment for outdoor learning is fantastic. It makes it easy to take learning outside and also can help students to take their learning deeper. However, one drawback to taking things outside is that sometimes they don’t come back. Before you set your students free with your new set of learning tools, it’s important to set some expectations for using the tools.

Some expectations for the learning tools you might want to consider are:

  • Treating the tools kindly
  • Using the tools to treat nature kindly (as in don’t use the tools to hurt nature)
  • Being responsible for the tools that were used. You may wish to even have some extra responsible students be in charge of doing a site inspection when you are done to ensure all of the tools are accounted for
  • Where do the tools go when we are finished
  • What condition do the tools need to be in before they get put away (not covered in mud or snow)

Now It’s Time to Take Your Tools and Your Students Outside

You have created a set of tools that you are excited to use outdoors. You have assembled some clipboards, sit pads, some magnifying glasses, and a wagon. Or maybe you have made a collection of loose parts or stuffies for outdoor play. Now it’s time to actually get outside and use them. Get your kids outdoors and see some of the amazing benefits that outdoor learning has to offer. Your students will love being able to get outside and experience learning in nature.

However, don’t let the equipment bog down your outdoor learning either. Collecting too many tools or trying to use too many things at once can create confusion for some kids. Try one tool at a time and see where it takes you. You can always build on from there. Having less to look after at first can help ease students into taking responsibility for the tools as well.

No matter what equipment for outdoor learning you choose (or even if you choose not to use any) have fun exploring and learning outside with your students!

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