Making It Happen: Transitioning to an Outdoor Classroom

An outdoor classroom is exactly what it sounds like, a classroom that is outside. Our outdoor classroom pulls inspiration from our indoor space.  The areas we have inside, we also have outside. Our outdoor spaces are influenced by the Nature Explore philosophy.

In 2015, Shunk Child Care, became the first in the State of Maine to have an Outdoor Classroom certified by Nature Explore. We are very proud of our work and want to inspire others to transition their program to be outside as much as possible.

Here are some photos of our before space.

First, I assessed what I had, which was lots of plastic materials. The primary function of the space was for gross motor. I knew in order to have a successful “outdoor classroom” I would need to incorporate all the learning areas, just like I have in my indoor space.

I worked with my staff and got them to jump on board! Everyone was intrigued with the idea of having an outdoor classroom.

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We started one step at a time. First by moving our group story time outdoors. Then we started eating our meals on the deck. Our last routine transitioned was nap time. We worked on the rest of the areas slowly over the course of a year.

IMG_4688.jpg  IMG_6122  IMG_0574

We still have a large area “action area” which the primary focus is gross motor. We also added….

  • music area
  • nature art area
  • sand area
  • water area
  • messy materials area
  • dirt digging area
  • building area
  • gathering area/books area
  • quiet alone space

Here are our after pictures from 2015…

In 2017, I took a college course on designing early childhood education environments. For one of my assignments, I observed the children’s play and how they moved throughout the space. From there I redesigned the space, filling my design with all my “dream ideas.” Well fast forward to 2018 (and after working with a licensed playground architect) my outdoor design is becoming a reality. This was a decision my husband and I made, knowing we needed to replace our deck and fence anyway. They were over 15 years old and showing their age. I hired Three Stone Landscape here in Portland and so far everything is looking magnificent.

Just remember, you do not need to hire a professional. As you can see from our pictures above, you can create a magical space for children without spending a fortune. It just takes planning. 


Math Books for Young Children

These are a few of my favorite math books! I have linked them to the Maine Early Development and Learning Standards. I created this annotated bibliography as part of a math assignment for my college course.

Campbell, S. C., & Campbell, R. P. (2014). Mysterious patterns: Finding fractals in nature. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights.

 Mysterious Patterns

MELDS Geometry

Mysterious Patterns is a book which focuses on the patterns found in nature, fractal patterns. Examples of fractal patterns include broccoli, trees, and even lightening.

Though toddlers and younger preschoolers will enjoy flipping the pages of this book, it is written for older preschoolers and school aged children. By modifying the text, I am able to engage all the children in my program.

With the older preschool children, who have a solid concept of basic shapes and their attributes, I utilize this book to further their understanding of shapes. The moment I said the word “fractal” each child’s ears perked up. They knew this word, lyrics from Frozen’s Let it Go. This prior knowledge helped to connect what a fractal is. After reading we went outside to find fractals in nature.


Dean, J., & Litwin, E. (2016). Pete the cat and his four groovy buttons. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.

Pete the Cat

MELDS Counting and Cardinality Cluster & Operations and Algebraic Thinking

Pete the Cat is a counting backwards book, starting from 4 and ending with 0. As Pete rides his skate board his shirt buttons keep popping off one at a time.

I use this book in conjunction with a Pete the Cat game I created, where the children roll the dice and “pop” off the number of buttons they rolled.

This book is different than other backwards counting books. Dean and Litwin specifically put the numerical math equation (ex. 4-1=3) after the question was asked, “How many buttons are left?”

I first learned about Pete the Cat at a national family childcare conference back in 2012. I haven’t met a child yet who doesn’t like Pete the Cat!


Falwell, C. (2008). Turtle splash!: Countdown at the pond. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Turtle Splash

MELDS Counting and Cardinality Cluster & Operations and Algebraic Thinking

Turtle Splash is written and illustrated by a Maine author. The story simply counts down from 10 to 1 as each turtle goes into the pond through rhyming text.

This book is similar to a pond the children in my program are familiar with. We visit this pond a few times a year as a group. I always bring this book with us to read. We compare the number of turtles in the book to the number of turtles at our pond.

I use this book to practice rote counting backwards and numeral recognition. With older children I work on algebraic thinking, “There were 8 turtles on the log and 1 went in the water how many are left on the log?” “What if two had gone in the water?”


London, J. (2010). Froggy Gets Dressed. Paw Prints.

Froggy Gets Dressed

MELDS Geometry & Measurement and Data

Froggy Gets Dressed depicts a young frog who wants to play outside, but he keeps forgetting to put on different articles of his winter clothing. By the end of the book he figures out the correct order to put his clothes on it, but alas, he is too tired now to play outside.

I use this book to teach sequencing skills, especially as we head into the winter season. This book is filled with prepositional words. As the children dress themselves I am sure to model the same language they heard in this book.


Mazzola, F. (2000). Counting is for the birds. New York: Scholastic.

Counting is for the birds

MELDS Counting and Cardinality Cluster

This is a counting book which increases from 0 to 20 as more birds fly to the feeder. The family cat is close by on each page trying to catch a meal. Before the cat can capture on his feast, a pesky squirrel interferes.

This book is wonderful because all the birds depicted are ones possible to see ay my childcare. Many have been spotted in the outdoor classroom.

I use this book to teach cardinal counting by both 1’s and 2’s. On each page two bird are added, which makes it a great way to have children practice counting by twos. I also use this book to practice numeral recognition.

I pair this book with our bird sensory bin. I include bird manipulatives and a bird house within a bucket of bird seed. I also make sure to include the cat!


Shannon, D. (2011). Duck on a bike. Auckland, N.Z.: Scholastics.

Duck on a Bike

MELDS Mathematical Practices & Geometry

Duck on a Bike is a story about a duck who decided he wants to try riding a bike. He rides his bike in a variety of ways around the animals of the farm. He rides, slow, fast, toward, and past. All the other animals thought duck was silly, but after they saw empty bikes they changed their mind. All the animals ride bikes around the farm.

In the warmer months we often have bike parade days. Each child brings their bike from home. We bring this book out every bike parade day! Riding bikes not only promotes prepositional language, but also works on balancing skills.

Additional Resources:


Simple Math Materials to Enhance Your Classroom

Math, there is so much more to explore than simply 1, 2, 3, 4!

Here at Shunk Child Care, we work hard to make sure your children develop the necessary mathematical skills to become lifelong mathematicians. We do this by ensuring our curriculum meets Maine’s Developmental Learning Standards (MELDS.)

MELDS define five areas of math: mathematical practices, counting and cardinality cluster, operations and algebraic thinking, geometry, and measurement and data.

I purchased cedar deck railings from Lowe’s for about $12 each. I painted with black acrylic paint. I opted to add yellow dashes as this material was originally intended for the cars in the block area.

The railings can be used as ramps. The children time how long it takes their car to get to the end. We have 2 railings, so they compare times. The children try and roll down numerous types of materials (cars, balls, pinecones, acorns, etc.)

The children also use the railings for balancing. Experimenting with standing on each side. This helps them explore weights, leverage, and balances. The sections I have are 6ft, I opted not to cut in half. The children even devised their own teeter totter.

Ramp 4

Our railings have persisted for over a year providing HOURS of learning enjoyment for the children. Open ended materials are the perfect “math material” to enhance your classroom.

This material meets MELDS standards Mathematical Practices, Geometry, Measurement and Data:

  • Recognizes the idea of a “problem” and “problem solving” in the physical and social world.
  • Communicates math ideas verbally and non-verbally
  • Uses physical movement to gain understanding of orientation and directionality
  • Responds to words indicating directionality and position through physical movement (near, far, beside, up, down, over.)



Click to access Maine-ELDS.pdf

Outdoor Books for the Outdoor Classroom

An Outdoor Classroom means we spend all day outside, which includes story time! As we transitioned to our all day outside curriculum the book issue became quite apparent, quite quickly. Between weather, dirt, moisture, and well, 12 children a day, our books were not up for the wear and tear of being outside. This lead to a brilliant idea, laminate those books!!

What you’ll need:

  • Laminator
  • Laminator Sheets. We use Scotch™ Letter Size Lamination Pouches
  • Paper Cutter
  • Three Hole Punch
  • Staple Remover
  • Staples™ Loose Leaf 1 inch size metal rings. 16 pack found Here  (3 per book)
  • Books!


What to do: 

First, the books to be brought outside need to be selected. Paperback books are the easiest to transfer as the staple is right there on the binding. At first we selected books we had multiples of and then selected books we found fit with our theme of nature and the outdoors.

If the page numbers are not marked, write them in yourself! You will want to be sure of the order once you disassemble the book!!

Use the staple remover to remove the staples from the binding and dispose of them. You will then need to cut the page in half at the binding. For a neater, straighter, quicker cut, use a paper cutter. If using scissors, only cut a few pages at a time.

You will then stack the pages in order from cover to cover. Taking one page at a time, place each one in a laminator sheet.
Once the laminator is hot and ready, you can begin to send the pages through. As they come out you can stack them back in order.

Even if the pages are smaller than the laminator sheet we have found it best to not trim them. This allows us to place each sheet into the three hole punch.
Once all pages are laminated and hole punched attach a metal ring into the three holes.  Your book is complete!


For storage keep them in a dry place as heavy saturation will seep through the lamination.

To clean, wipe with a damp cloth and dry.

In the media

Next week, NAEYC, is having their annual Week of the Young Child. This reminds me of the 2009 event, when childcares across Maine, displayed children’s art work at the State House. My son and I delivered cookies to the Senators and Representatives. Attached to each cookie was a painted child’s hand print with a tag line, which was something like, “high five for quality child care” or “raise a hand for kids.” I wish I could remember what it was!


Over the years I have been an outspoken advocate for quality childcare. I have testified in Augusta several times.

In 2009, providers fought for their right to have homeowners insurance with LD 896 An Act to Ensure Adequate Access to Insurance for Family Child Care Providers. I was please to testify and now today providers have are not turned away simply because they have a home based childcare.

Here is a copy of my testimony…

Most recently I was in Augusta about a year ago….

“Testified this morning opposing LD 559. The workshop will be next Monday & the committee has lots of questions for DHHS. Hopefully this bill will be opposed! Joshua & I tried to visit the State House Museum, but it wasn’t open today. Oh well, Joshua still got to experience a bill hearing.”

Currently there is a bill on the floor, LD 166 An Act To Increase Reimbursement for Child Care Services. This is needed! Please contact your legislator today! We need higher subsidy rates to ensure quality child care for all of Maine’s children!

Here are some other throwbacks when we would host US PIRGS, Trouble in Toyland report!


Additional Resources:“trouble-toyland”-survey-finds-dangerous-toys-store-shelves




Wonder and Magic in the Classroom

It’s important to encourage a child’s sense of magic and wonder. I’m not talking about Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny, I mean real magic…


The children in this picture noticed a rainbow. They were mesmerized, trying to understand how it came to be on the wall. Had it been there all this time? How had they not noticed it before? When they placed their hands on it, how did the color go onto their hands? Why was it only on this part of the wall and not everywhere else? And many more questions came from a simple rainbow on a wall.

Activities such as this, spark curiosity, which promotes higher cognitive thinking. From their interest, sparked over a month-long curriculum unit on rainbows.

I have a prism in the classroom, to promote intrigue and curiosity. I filled our glass vases with colored water in… rainbow order of course. The children had a rejuvenated interest with the wooden rainbow. (Which is one of the BEST purchases I have ever made, over 8 YEARS AGO! Link at the bottom of the page.)

As we delved deeper into the science of a rainbow, their curiosity expanded to shadows. It brought me (and the children) such joy as they experimented with light and shadow; the cause and effect of moving their bodies closer or farther away from the light source, the social interactions as they created “shadow plays.”

Their learning was authentic, they owned it. I was there to support them, scaffold upon their interests. If I had tried to push and “teach” the concept of a rainbow before this moment, I do not feel it would have been as successful. 

I urge you to look around your classroom and think about how you can incorporate more, magic and wonder.” 

Where to Purchase Items…

Grimm’s Wooden Rainbow:

Prism: (Local business on Forest Ave in Portland.)

Glass Vases: Goodwill 🙂

Family Style Dining



Having children serve themselves makes many providers uneasy. “So much food is wasted.” “What if one child takes everything?” “There is more mess.” I often hear these comments when talking with fellow providers.

Their concerns were my concerns when I first thought about family style dining. Self-serving at meal time is a skill which needs to be taught. We start with one item to self-serve and pitcher of milk at the shorter toddler table. At the larger table for the older children, we place all the meal components. Over time the children are able to regulate how much they serve and less food is wasted. In the long run, family style dining makes meal time easier for providers and more fun for everyone!

What do children learn from family style dining? The answer is SO MUCH! Children practice their math skills as they count the number of apple slices or scoops of peas they place on their plate. Social skills are practiced as they ask each other to pass the milk, interact in conversation, and practice table manners. They practice gross and fine motor skills as they lift the pitcher of milk and grip their utensils.




Another skill learned is INDEPENDENCE! After the children are finished, they clear up. It helps promote their self-esteem, confidence, and problem solving skills. It’s hard work navigating around the chairs as they carry plates and cups.

Having children be self sufficient at this task is a huge help to the staff at meal time.


I encourage everyone to work towards family style dining!


Here are a few resources to learn more about family style dining.

Click to access 20130815085751.pdf

Click to access 20130815085751.pdf

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining us here at Shunk Child Care! We’ve been getting many requests and inquiries from our colleagues and peers about how we run our program, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to create this blog. We are very proud of the work we do, and how we have changed and adapted our program to be the best it can be. We look forward to interacting with you all as we continue to learn and have fun!

It is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men. – Frederick Douglass

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