Outdoor Learning in the Early Years – “The Environment is the Third Teacher”

“There are three teachers of children: adults, other children, and their physical environment.”– Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education

At Silicon Valley International School, our Early Years approach takes inspiration from both the International Baccalaureate and Reggio Emilia philosophies, which emphasize imaginative play, inquiry, and the development of the whole child as part of a wider school community.

IMG_6642A Reggio learning environment – “the third teacher” – is aesthetically pleasing and filled with natural materials that facilitate discovery and the directed, creative play that is so important to bilingual learning in the Early Years. 

Last year we began an initiative to develop our “outdoor classrooms,” and this year we used the new guidance for operating under COVID-19 to be even more intentional about developing these learning spaces. On both Cowper and Willows Campuses we are fortunate to have ample outdoor space for running, dancing, exploration, building, and creative play.

When invited to reflect on the transition to outdoor learning, teachers have noted a marked increase in student creativity and immersive dramatic play in the natural environment, which is ideal for encouraging bilingualism. Outdoors, teachers have observed students building creative and critical thinking skills as they continually reinvent and reimagine materials and spaces through play. They have also noted a renewed and shared sense of well-being due to the extra time spent in fresh air and immersed in the natural environment. 

Here are just a few of our Early Years outdoor pedagogical areas, and the ways teachers have utilized them.

MarketImmersive Dramatic Play: Chinese Program Preschool/PreK students participated in an outdoor “market” where they practiced both their language and math skills by “buying and selling” vegetables and flowers, in immersive dramatic play. The students negotiated prices, “wrote” menus and built oral language and math skills as they ran their market. 

Loose Parts Play-1Loose Parts Play: For the German Program Preschool unit “How We Organize Ourselves,” students focused on how children arrive at school and other modes of transportation. In the outside area, they researched how they could build their own form of transportation. Through loose parts play they thought about what they could use for different parts of their vehicle and communicated about where they were going. 

Natural Materials 2Exploring Natural Materials: In Preschool/PreK French and Chinese, students gathered leaves, pine cones, rocks, and more from the natural environment around them and then transformed their finds into “Land Art.” They used their oral language skills to share what each piece represented and its meaning.

CircusMoving Our Bodies: In Preschool French, when exploring forms of expression, students began a “circus inquiry” where they moved their bodies, worked on their fine and gross motor skills, and explored their senses.

Experimenting with The Elements: The Preschool/PreK Chinese program students have been exploring earth, water, and how the two interact, in their “mud kitchen.” They have used the garden beds as “pumping stations,” conducting their own “scientific experiments” by inquiring into the world around them. Experimenting with Elements