Transforming our Play Space at Stonestown YMCA’s St. Francis
By Erich Wieland, St. Francis Site Supervisor
Photos: Maria Durana
The St. Francis teachers and I have always seen the outdoor play space as a third teacher, and over the past year, we have collaborated extensively on ways to keep children engaged and connected to nature while encouraging exploration and discovery. Here are some of the things we learned by repurposing what we had and bringing in free or low-cost items.
A welcoming space
There’s a mysterious invitation when we approach the gate to our outdoor preschool space. A tall, dark holly tree obscures the view from the sidewalk and prompts folks to want to see more. Once you’re in, the entire space opens up and welcomes you with warm sunshine and cool breeze. A large flowering saliva plant, “Indigo Spires,” is positioned in the corner further draws the eyes inward. It is important to be thoughtful about the approach to your outdoor space and think about ways to welcome participants with visual presentations.
Repurposing free or low-cost materials
I am always looking for ways to further connect children to nature. One venue I explore is the free section of Craigslist. You would be surprised at the things that get given away! One person gave away a large amount of lumber which I picked up and brought to the preschool. With a little bit of know-how, I had the children help me cut the wood with a hand-saw, drill the wood with a power drill, and hold the screws as we put together the planter boxes. Now we have three large planter boxes for free! I have also received dirt, sculptures, a piano (too heavy so I couldn’t transport it), and more.
An old rope
One item that came in handy was a length of rope. The rope had seen better days, but I untied the various knots and washed it in a bucket of water. The willow tree in the center of our space seemed inviting and I felt the potential there for a swing. I tied it off along with a small branch we had onsite and Viola! Ever since, the children have swung their ways to delirious joy.
If you are interested in hoisting a swing of your own, I suggest learning a few simple knots. Here are two or three that I always use: square knot, clove hitch, and fisherman’s knot. There are other knots you can use but these are consistent and safe for children. Rope itself is inexpensive at any hardware store and can be used in multitudinous ways. A sturdy stick that is 20-24 inches in length is a solid option for a handle as well. It should be firm and have a weight to it that does not indicate rot.
Branches can also be used to create intimate spaces. Branches that were previously stored on top of the shed were repurposed to create a wood structure on the fence.
Existing stones were used to create a “rock-pile” which is a warm and calming area that also provides opportunities to balance and create.
In the tool corner we have a leaf rake, garden rake, garden hoe, and shovel, all of which are age-appropriate and sized appropriately for young children. There are only two rules young children must follow: no tools above their heads and tools stay in the tool corner. The tools are inspiring to the children because it develops their sense of autonomy and builds their confidence. Most of the students who use the tools end up wanting to assist teachers with sweeping, watering the plants, or moving large objects around the outdoor playspace.
Mud and dirt
One challenge we seem to always face is that we just don’t have enough dirt. Young children love to play in dirt, and we encourage the students to get dirty and make mud, or whatever their minds want to do. And that I get
Having a green thumb is not that difficult, I promise! If you are thinking of having some plants but are nervous and don’t know what to do, don’t let that hold you back from trying new things! It’s simpler than you might think. All plants need sunshine, water, dirt and air. I noticed that Whole Foods has a very nice selection of plants for sale; these are all very good varieties and cheaper than garden stores. Simply buy the plant, bring it to your preschool, take the plant out of the pot, and stick it into a hole in the ground (a sunny spot and not where children trample). Then make it a habit to water every other day and let the students help you do the watering. Most of your plants will survive, but even if they die, you are still trying something new and the students will learn from this journey.
One way to boost your plant populations for free is to utilize a method known as propagating. This is essentially cutting a small twig-sized branch off the host plant and inserting the cut end into moist soil. Cut somewhere just below a leaf and then strip the leaves off the bottom end of your cut stem. Once the cutting is firmed in the soil, trim the leaves back to a couple of little leaves (more leaves on the stem force the plant to focus on photosynthesis rather than putting out roots), put somewhere outside with a little bit of shade and a little bit of sun (think balance). Over the next two weeks keep the soil consistently moist but not too wet and you will start to see new buds form. Some plants do so well with this method of propagation that you can stick the cut stem in water and watch roots grow in a glass. A rose does incredibly well in a glass of water, as well as most of your indoor houseplants.
Are you O.K. with bugs? I sure hope so because the students are almost always interested in bugs. We have roly-polies, worms, beetles, earwigs, flies, bees, and yes, spiders. All these invertebrates play a crucial role in our ecosystem and need to be acknowledged by people for the role they play. Young children should be encouraged to explore our connection with insects and discover them in dark and dank places like under the stumps in our “stump dump” or “rock pile.” If you are curious about inviting insects into your outdoor play space, you need to build habitat for them. A pile of branches will suffice, or the bottom of a stump or you can even create a “bug hotel” out of straws or bamboo. Think of establishing an area of your outdoor space to dedicate to bugs; the shadier the better.
I was so impressed that a group of students had figured out on their own how to leverage large rocks with a 3-ft piece of 2X4 lumber. They used a steel bowl as the fulcrum and levered pretty much all of the large volcanic pieces of basalt we have in our outdoor play space; all this to find bugs like beetles, spiders, centipedes, and other creepy-crawlies. This is a terrific example of student-initiated teamwork that comes from their own desire to explore more and discover whatever they can find. I think this also really points to the importance of having sturdy and durable items in your outdoor space. A solid steel bowl that is 20 inches in diameter will never rust because the students constantly use it. The 2×4 pieces of lumber have been smoothed down and greased by human handlers everyday and are now smooth and glossy. This also leads to a safer outdoor experience because the materials are reliable and strong. The more the students use these items, the safer they are to use.
A group of dedicated students spent at least 4 weeks exploring the life cycle of the earthworm. One of the teachers noticed that the students were expressing lots of interest in worms, and despite her own squeamishness she led the students through an in-depth exploration of the unheralded worm. Luckily, I personally have tons of experience with worms as I compost my food waste in my backyard and utilize red wigglers from the local garden shop to make worm castings (or worm poop). I brought in my own worms as well as helped the students find worms in the gopher mounds left around our outdoor play space, and they compared their sizes and colors. We kept a group of worms in a plastic bin in the classroom so that the students could find the worms everyday in the morning, and the teacher recorded their conversations to share with the group during circle time. The students still get excited when they find worms outside, and now they are expert at finding them.
The other day I saw a dragon fly for the first time. I suspected that the insect had discovered our mini-pond that we put together. Quite simply we filled a medium-sized bucket with water and put various cuttings as well cattails from local ponds into it. Often times if you walk by the edge of a pond you will find washed up “rafts” of cattails, lilies, marsh marigold, mint, Egyptian papyrus, and more. All these plants will do extremely well in a bucket of water. This is also excellent habitat for benthic macroinvertebrates like dragonflies and damselflies. The cattails will grow long, tender leaves with a beautiful cotton-style flowerhead that is visually and texturally appealing. The papyrus alike is also visually striking and can be cut and dried for display in the classroom.
One of the most important things you can do with your outdoor space is to just clean it up. The teachers were supportive and on-board with the “spring cleaning” that we did in the beginning of the fall. We took everything off and out of the metal sheds and cleaned them vigorously with soap and water. Once the deep cleaning was finished, we noticed how many toys and tools were available that had been put away and forgotten, and how interested the children in these “new” items.
Loose Parts for Construction
A combination of natural materials and found objects.
It’s ok if your outdoor space isn’t completely “organic.” For example, we have large waffle blocks that are constructed of plastic. These waffle blocks have been critical over the past 10 months we’ve had them. Their usage is limitless and as open-ended as you could ask for. They’re not made of wood, but they do connect children to nature because the children construct structures on the wood chips and crawl through tunnels or make pathways to run on or hop from. I think these waffle blocks were the best purchase we made for our outdoor play space.
Bringing the outside in
The teachers at St. Francis have become adept at collecting interesting items from nature and displaying them in the classroom. They dried flower heads, cut branches, collected pods, dried vines, and more, all of which are gathered from our outdoor space. In this, the teachers continue the connection between nature and child even while we are indoors. The large branches are hung from the ceiling with fishing line and the slender branches are placed in large glass vases that have water in the bottom which keep the leaves green for a long time.
Erich has always been a “green human”and drawn to all things outdoors. During his youth, neighbors would pay him to climb their trees and cut down branches by hand, mow their lawns, weed their gardens, and rake up leaves. His love and passion for being outdoors was encouraged by his parents who turned off the tv and video games!
Prior to working at the YMCA, Erich worked as a naturalist at an environmental education camp in Northern California, a fisherman in the Gulf of Alaska, and a backpacking guide in the Southwest. He holds BA’s in Environmental Studies and Adventure Education, and MA in Education with an emphasis in Experiential Learning.
Learn more about the YMCA’s early childhood programs here.