What’s Out the Window?

Buckingham, A. (2006). What’s out the window? Early Education. Volume 39 Autumn / Winter . 10-12. 

By Adam Buckingham, Montessori early childhood centre, Auckland

The outdoor environment is a carefully developed teaching tool. The Montessori approach includes a prepared environment which is orderly and beautiful, in which the teacher is a guide and facilitator. Similarly in the Reggio Emilia approach a carefully designed environment is seen as the third teacher.

Maria Montessori (1967) wrote regarding children in early childhood “At that age children need to touch and handle all kinds of things, yet hardly any real articles are placed at their disposal” (p. 168). This article is about creative materials I have added to the outdoor environment where I work. I describe the outdoor area and what I have added. These materials are predominantly made from recycled waste. This article is about transforming someone else’s rubbish into learning experiences for children. It is intended to inspire you and give you ideas to use yourself.

The outdoor area

I teach at a Montessori early childhood centre for two to six year olds. It has a large established outdoor area behind the classrooms. The centre has a well prepared and pleasing outdoor environment, where the children can learn through active exploration, using their senses. The playhouse is the heart of this outdoor environment. All of the other activities stem from the playhouse, just as in life, everything stems from the home. I have added a clothes line and a letter box next to the playhouse. These additions were initiated by the children. The clothesline I added after noticing that the children had nowhere to dry the clothes they hand washed. The children talked about posting letters, and so a letterbox was added with their help.. Also next to the playhouse is the centre’s flag pole, this provides an opportunity to sing the national anthem and learn about caring for the national flag. Established gardens surround the playhouse. There is a seat in the herb garden for the children to sit on, relax and smell the plants. The children can help with the gardening in the flower and vegetable plots. Grass clippings and cuttings are made into compost, and food scrapes are fed to the three chickens in their enclosure. I have introduced a real lawn mower, without the blade, on the lawn. The children spend a lot of time working with tools to undo the bolts, pull apart the engine and rebuild it, then ‘refuel’ the mower and ‘mow’ the lawn. The letterbox, lawn mower and clothes’ line wire have been collected from inorganic waste collections.

The children help to care for the animals at the centre; there are chickens; a rabbit; and guineapigs. The chicken’s eggs are collected and used in baking. There is a large play area with a slide, small tyres, swings, a rope bridge and fireman’s pole. The sandpit has child size steel shovels and wheel barrows. The outdoor environment is surrounded by a high wooden fence. I noticed the children were looking through gaps in the fence, attempting to see what was happening next door. To make it more child-friendly I have made small perspex windows in the fence. Now the children enjoy really watching what is happening next door.

Old wooden crates were made into bench seats, they can be arranged in a semi-circle to face a stage. The seats can also be turned over and used as boats. I plan to make a stage from an old, wide screen TV frame placed on a plywood case; this arrangement can be used for puppetry or plays. A punching bag hangs on the deck, for children to punch and release excess energy. It consists of an old material bag filled with ‘bubble wrap’. Also on the deck is a workbench with carpentry tools; and soon I will add a sink, with a holding tank above it to collect rain water from a down pipe off the roof.

The steel case of a discarded washing machine provides an ideal wall against which to attach magnets. Manipulating the magnets is another opportunity for the children to develop their fine motor skills. Using familiar objects provides a link between the centre and home environment. I have cut the case in half using an angle grinder and placed a wooden top on it to make a table at child’s height, so that this fully utilises the available space. It can also be used for magnetic stories.

Two ’activity centres’ that the children are using on the deck have been made from recycled waste materials. One is a collection of car parts that are attached to a box at a child’s level. This provides an opportunity for children to explore, manipulate and experiment with objects that would otherwise be inaccessible. The children can push buttons to turn lights on and off (indicator lights, interior lights, tail lights, reverse lights and a head light). They can name the colour that they can see lit up (red, orange, green and white). They can place the key in the ignition to turn it, move the indicator switches up and down and use the door handle. The other activity centre consists of an instrument panel, steering wheel and rear vision mirror placed on an upright piece of wood attached to a bench seat; the children have named it “the bus”. One or more children use the ‘bus’ at a time. They often talk about numbers and mathematical concepts relating to real life applications: speed; distance; and the level of fuel in the tank.

Another activity I have made consists of seven steel rods standing vertically in a wooden timber frame. Each rod contains an increasing number of objects with a hole, such as tap washers, nuts, rings, hair ties and springs. The children enjoy sliding the springs up the rods, then watching them fall and bounce up and down. It is an opportunity for the children to manipulate springs in ways they would not normally be able to.

The main ’activity centre’ I designed is a cubed box at waist height, it has an opening at each end, one in the shape of a diamond, so the children can sit inside. Fixed to one facing outside wall are real objects found around the home for the children to manipulate with their hands. There is a tap, caster wheel, light switch, door handle, door hinge, nut and bolt, bungy cord, keyboard, Perspex mirror and cell phone. The inside of the box has developed into feeling walls, with ropes of different colours and sizes hanging down, rubber, foam and wool.

Montessori (1967) said “The intellect builds up its store of practical ideas through contact with, and exploration of, its environment” (p. 99). The activity centres provide an opportunity for children to explore using their hands and their senses (sight, touch, taste and hearing) and by observing others. Each object has many uses and movements, the children experiment with them and enjoy discovering how things work and what they do. As they manipulate and explore each object with their hands, they are developing their fine motor skills and hand–eye co-ordination. The objects also trigger imaginative play amongst the children.

Montessori believed that children are motivated to learn for themselves, especially when given the opportunity to explore according to their interests, using their senses and by manipulating concrete materials. Using the activity centres children take responsibility for their learning, discovering things for themself. The children can experiment and test ideas as they explore and make sense of the objects in front of them. The activity centres provide a link between the centre and home with familiar objects.

When selecting objects for the activity centres, I asked myself the question: is this safe? I have not used stove elements on the wall (even though they are a good shape) or power points, because we usually encourage children not to touch these things. I have smoothed over sharp and rough edges and always consider the height of the objects with regard to eyes, and make sure the objects are fitted well. A finger could become entrapped up a tap; however taps are commonplace in all centres, so this not a new problem. The tap and door handle have been placed in a low position on the activity centres to prevent it centre being pulled over. I have been conscientious when making all the activities to ensure that they are as safe as possible.

Through observing the interest of children and how they use the activity centres I have redesigned the main activity centre. I have received funding from the local council through WasteWise Fund to make one hundred of these new activity centres, as they are made from waste materials. The new design is smaller to make it portable, and made from MDF-melamine so it is washable. These activity centres come with a tap, door handle, cell phone and light switch, with room to add more objects. It is a cubed box with one blank wall, one facing wall with the objects attached, one wall with a heart shaped opening, and the fourth side is open. I have asked the community, including businesses, for timber, paint, old taps, phones, wheels and so on. The heart shaped piece of timber cut out of one side I am making into a transportable version, with a light switch, tap and castor wheel.

A spin off from making these activity centres has been involving parents and people from outside the centre. In particular, this has enabled a rapport to be built with men, involving them in the children’s learning through helping to obtain resources. I have acquired good resources from contacts in different trades within the community. Making resources for the outdoor environment provides an opportunity to use my handyman skills, and to role model these skills to children. I have brought in an empty tool box, and each day a new tool is added after I have demonstrated it to the children, showing them how it is used.

Recycling in your outdoor environment

Within the curriculum you can discuss what can be recycled and reused. Look at why we recycle and what things are biodegradable and consider what may happen to the earth if we do not dispose of our rubbish in a responsible way. Using recycled products links to the technology area of the New Zealand Curriculum Framework and to the stands and essential learning of Te Whāriki, the early childhood curriculum. The well-being strand discusses children developing self-confidence and perseverance in learning the uses of objects. Links can be made to the wider world through the objects and this reflects the belonging strand. Imaginative play links to the communication strand, and with adult support a child’s vocabulary can be expanded. The objects provide concrete experiences for children to explore, linking to the exploration strand, as they gain control of their bodies (Ministry of Education, 1996).

Waste can be collected from local businesses, most are happy to give away waste materials as you are saving them money in rubbish collection fees. Look for clean objects or objects that can be washed. Also you can share these materials with other staff to obtain more good ideas on what it can be used for. A great place to start looking for materials is.www.renewwasteexchange.org.nz. Links to local waste sites around New Zealand can be found at www.wasteminz.org.nz. Te Kete Ipurangi:www.tki.org.nz is a good site. A visit to your local teachers’ resource centre is always useful (ask a local school where they are).

The amount of effort you put in to your practice is reflected in what you get out of it: It is satisfying to see the outdoor environment working well I have experimented through trial and error to discover what works and what does not. For example, I have learnt that some children are very strong and the objects need to able to stand up to this sort of treatment and last in a harsh environment. It is important to consult your peers and share your ideas with the teachers you work with, to refine your ideas before you make anything.

I hope this article can inspire and enrich you with ideas about what you can incorporate from junk and the home environment into your centre. It is true that one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure!


Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whāriki: early childhood curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.

Montessori, M. (1967). The discovery of the child. (ed. 1972). New York: Ballantine.

Montessori, M. (1967). The absorbent mind.(ed. 1995). New York: Henry Holt and Company.