Outside In!

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I do not know the name of this plant.  I grew it from a single leaf.  It is aromatic and the leaves are covered in fine hairs.  It is incredibly soft to touch.

Today I spent lunch time in a school staff room.  There were no staff in it (they were working through their lunch hour; nothing new there then!)  I was using the photocopier and had to smile to myself as everytime a member of staff popped into the room they said exactly the same thing.  “Brrr, it’s cold out there!”  I know that I have said that there is no such thing as unsuitable weather.  However, there really are some days when one is much less likely to go outside for a lesson than others: the wind blows not only paper but any other resource (maybe even the odd small child) around; it is too cold to stand and listen to simple instructions; it is not only raining but it is raining so hard that it hurts your face!  I am not saying that you wouldn’t go out in these kinds of weathers, but I am saying that you are much less likely to choose to take your class outside.

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This one is even hairier!  I bought it cheaply from Aldi’s last spring.

Maybe it is on days like this that we appreciate the ways that we have made room for ‘outdoors’ in the classroom.  On Saturday I wrote about our class experience of feeding the birds so that they could be easily seen from inside.  Another way of bringing the outdoors inside is to have a nature table.  Yet another way is to have a selection of plants in the room.  However, plants are inclined to die if not watered regularly enough and there must be more than one teacher whose plants have died during a particularly busy part of the term (Christmas plays, report writing, OFSTED; it is a hazardous business being a pot plant in a classroom).

This is where succulents come in.  They come in a range of sizes, shapes and colours and can cope with prolonged periods of teacher stress (and school holidays)!  However, they do keep growing and can become too big for the windowsill and less attractive than when they were originally introduced to the classroom.  Fortunately they take so easily from cuttings that you can make new plants and throw the older ones away (I don’t feel too guilty about this as the cuttings are clones of the original plant).

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A tray of succulents at various stages of development.

Succculents  are a wonderful way to practice sorting and classifying living things.  They are also a good starting point for exploring the adaptations of plants to dry and arrid conditions.  This selection have all adapted in a variety of ways to conserve moisture and to deter hungry animals.

They are also a fantastic first experience of taking cuttings as they rarely fail.  With a little advance planning they are a great way for children to make Mother’s Day gifts or build a collection of plants to sell at a school Fayre.

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I have more plants than I know what to do with here!

How do you bring the outside into your classroom?

Whatever the weather …..

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The weather here has certainly turned a lot colder!  However, as Early Years teachers are fond of saying “There is no unsuitable weather; just unsuitable clothing!”  The trouble is there may be  will certainly be some children in your class who are reluctant to put on coats, however cold the weather becomes.  Conversely, even in the middle of a heat wave there are a few children who need to be forced to take their sweatshirts off!

To help develop children’s awareness of the importance of choosing suitable clothing it can be worth having a class mascot and a selection of clothing which children need to dress for the appropriate weather each day.  In the early years classroom this could be a significant part of the welcome routine; for older children it is likely to be a bit more light hearted.  In all classrooms it is an opportunity for children to think about why we wear the clothes that we do, and perhaps to take more responsibility for the choices that they make.

I hope that you are enjoying the seasonal weather wherever you are, and managing to keep warm.

Feed the Birds

Even if you’re not taking part in the RSPB’s Big Bird Watch this January.  (Although why wouldn’t you?  It is a chance for your children to get involved in ‘real’ science and practice data handling using genuine data).  It is worth taking advantage of this colder weather to start feeding the birds (if you aren’t already).  At this time of year hungry birds will readily start using new feeding stations that they would be more suspicious of in less desperate times.

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Birds can become amazingly tame if they get to recognise a safe source of food.  This young blackbird was photographed by the outdoor area in a cafe.

The  wonderful Woodland Trust’s Nature Detective site has some great ideas for making a squirel proof bird feeder.  If you live in an area where squirels are likely to steal bird food this might be a worthwhile DT project.  If not, the RSPB has some simple step by step instructions for making bird cake.  If you would like the activity to fit with  the ‘Changing Materials’ element of the science curriculum it might be worth heating the lard so that it melts.  Nevertheless, the activity fits with ‘Humans and other Animals’.  It could also be used to support children’s experience of ‘Working Scientifically’.  Perhaps children could experiment to find out which is the best recipe to attract the birds.  Or maybe they could keep a record of which birds, and how many, visit the feeder as the seasons change.

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Robins in particular can become incredibly tame.  This one loved to be near me when I was gardening in case I turned up any tasty looking invertebrates.

I do not think that it is uncommon for children to start feeding the birds but to forget to keep the feeders topped up.  This happened in one school where I worked; I think that this was because we made the mistake of siting the bird feeder at the other end of the playing field.  It was not only ‘out of sight out of mind’, but a long muddy walk to fill it up.  On the other hand my most successful experiences have been when I have attached feeders to the classroom window.  In one school the flocks of blue tits became so distracting that I had sometimes to draw the blind while I delivered whole class teaching to have any chance of being noticed!  More recently our class window feeder was frequented regularly by a Robin which was extra exciting as our class was Robin class!

Do remember to keep feeding sites as clean as possible.  Dirty feeders can spread disease amongst birds.  Similarly adults and children must wash their hands thoroughly after handling the bird feeder.

Growing in January

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Healthy garlic cloves ready for planting.

Choosing crops to grow in school can be difficult; so many need harvesting during the summer holidays.  In this respect garlic is ideal as it is traditionally harvested in mid summer.  Although garlic is usually planted a little earlier than this it is not too late if you missed the boat earlier in the season.  If your garden centre has sold out garlic bulbs can still be purchased online.  The ground outside will be too wet and cold now, but you can plant it in pots so that it can start growing and be ready for planting out once the ground is a little warmer (and drier).

Garlic is planted a little deeper than onion sets; their tops should be just under the surface of the compost.  But only just; if they are too deep they might rot.  Once planted and labelled you need to find a place to keep it.  Indoors will be too warm.  If you have a school greenhouse or polytunnel you’re in luck as that would be perfect.  A cold frame would also provide enough protection for these hardy plants.  Failing that find a sheltered spot against the school wall which will be significantly warmer than in a more exposed location.  If you are worried about them you could always splash out on some horticultural fleece (or a bit of polythene at a push).

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A tray of freshly planted garlic alongside other plants in a cold frame.

If you follow these simple steps now you could be harvesting garlic to make garlic bread, and pizza with your class before the end of the year!

Another crop that you could be planting in pots now is broad beans.  These have the advantage of being ready for harvesting even sooner than garlic.  They have the disadvantage that not many children enjoy eating broad beans; however, they may enjoy flogging them to parents!  Another advantage of broad beans is that they are a member of the legume family.  These fix nitrogen in the soil and so improve the soil fertility for future crops.






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Chalks: cheap and cheerful!

A pot of playground chalks can cost as little as a pound.  When I put in my yearly  class ‘consumables’ order to an educational supplier I always made sure to order plenty as they are so versatile and I always knew that we would use them all.

Perhaps their value is more easily appreciated in an Early Years classroom where children need lots of practice writing their name, letters or numbers as much as possible; chalks provide an obvious change of scene and scale.

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Sadly, I didn’t keep any.  However, a picture of a child proudly standing next to a row of numbers in order that they had indpendently written down was always a lovely piece of evidence to share with parents and keep in record books.

Chalks have so many more uses though.  Many of the things that are usually done in children’s books or on work sheets can just as easily be done using play-ground chalks.  Here are some ideas ….

  • Draw around a person and then try and add their internal organs.  Where are you going to put their heart?  their lungs?  their brain?
  • Could you draw around someone else and show the journey that their food takes through their body?
  • Use chalks to draw Venn diagrams into which to sort children, or leaves, or plants gathered from the school grounds.
  • Make a branching data base on the school play ground using either children, material collected from around the school or grounds of some pre-laminated pictures
  • Challenge children to draw a life size elephant, giraffe or whale on the school grounds; then use secondary research and a tape measure to find out how accurate they have been.
  • Make a labelled picture of a plant or flower showing all of the separate parts
  • Make a labelled picture of an animal or person

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    This is my own feeble attempt at a labelled picture of an alien: I think that your average 5 year old would do a bit better than this!


An added bonus of using chalks is that at the end of the day children can be encouraged to take their carers to see their piece of work and tell them about it (a chance to revisit and talk about learning helps to reinforce it).  The first time I did this (many years ago)  my head teacher nearly had a seizure until I promised her that everything would dissappear without trace as soon as it rained!  Likewise, the chalk on clothing soon brushes away.

It can be very difficult to write with chalks so writing is never very neat, however chalks do write more smoothly on a wet surface so it is worth wetting the surface before writing on it.  There are loads more things to do; perhaps we can talk about these in a future post.  In the meantime I would love to hear your own experiences of using chalk.




Hello there!  My name is Jane and until recently I worked as an Early Years and KS1 teacher in a small Lincolnshire school.  I’ve always particularly enjoyed science teaching and learning, and recently took on a new role as a ‘Professional Development Leader’ for CIEC at York University.  I lead continuing professional development experiences for teachers in all aspects of primary science but my particular loves are Early Years and the Outside Classroom.

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Is there anything in the classroom as captivating as this?

I was expecting about 20 delegates to attend a work shop that I was running at a recent conference, but when over a hundred people turned up (and we had to be hastily moved to a much larger room), I realised that there were lots of people like me who believe in the importance of going outside with children more often.  I also realised that they are facing many of the challenges that I have faced and so the idea for this blog was born!

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Participants working together to build a den on a recent course.

I must point out that most of the ideas that I plan to share are not mine!  Like all good teachers I have spent most of my career stealing magpieing ideas from others.   Nevertheless, these are all techniques and activities that I do know work because I have used them with my own class!