Learning Outside with The Garden Classroom by Cathy James { interview & book sneak peek }

The Garden Classroom by Cathy  James

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There are a lot of educational activity books out there and being a part of the kids education and activity community I am lucky to know many of the authors. I am so proud of Cathy James whom you may already know from her blog Nurture Store. We have been friends and colleagues for years and when she asked me if I would share her book with my readers I didn’t hesitate to say of course! Cathy is a homeschooling mom and one of the areas of her blog I have long admired are all her outdoor ideas for learning, it was no surprise to me when I found out that was the subject of her new book The Garden Classroom: Hands-On Activities in Math, Science, Literacy, and Art .

Cathy agreed to sit down and share some of her wisdom about teaching and inspiring learning about the outdoors with us today. We also have a sneak peek at the book down below. It’s gorgeous!


A lot of parents talk about having a hard time getting their kids outside to play. Do you have any tips for parents who are struggling to get their children to go outside and explore?

With any activity, I’d always start with the child themselves, and look at what they’re interested, and then involve them in finding a way to bring that interest outdoors. Favourite toys can come outside with you, and you can set up interesting play areas, such as dinosaur worlds, fairy garden, and dens, to have lots of fun outside. The pride and joy you get from picking and eating your own homegrown food is so satisfying, so having a go at growing some of your own food can be a great enticement to head outside.

 In The Garden Classroom, you cover all different subject matters but which area of learning is your favorite to tackle in your garden?

I love doing math outside. It’s not a subject either of my girls naturally gravitates towards, and both of them have found standard ‘classroom’ style math a challenge. But when we head outdoors, it’s so different, and it’s a joy to seem them smiling while they learn. The garden offers great opportunities to do practical math skills, like constructing bean frames, or dividing seeds between the number pots you have. And we also enjoy heading outdoors for structured lessons, using leaves and pebbles to work on math facts for example, and just generally being out of the traditional classroom and in the fresh air makes my learners happy.

I live in Western Washington, USA which is known for gray drizzle much like England is. Do you have any tips for dealing with the wet, cold, and dreary days in the garden? What about snow?

It’s so beneficial to keep going outdoors in less than perfect weather. As you say, we have a lot of grey days here, and if we let that stop us playing outside, we’d spend way too much time stuck indoors. Suitable clothing makes such a difference. We make sure everyone – perhaps especially me! – is wrapped up warm, and we often bring along a warm drink and a nice treat like a cookie to refuel and keep spirits up! And you can really embrace the weather – jump in puddles when you get them, try painting outdoors when it’s raining to see the effects it creates, use spray bottles filled with paint to create snow art. The story stones activity in the book is perfect to do around a warming campfire.

For beginner gardeners eager to just grow something which type of seed packet do you suggest they grab? Any foolproof options to avoid disappointed kids?

Something reliable, that germinates easily and grows quickly is a great place to start: radish, cut-and-come-again lettuce, nasturtiums. There are some really fun egg heads and tin can hair salon activities in the book which are perfect first projects, using grass or garden cress seeds. Sunflowers are my favourite though, as they amaze children with their height and grow almost before your eyes, so the children have something new to notice each day.

How can readers living in apartments or other dwellings without a garden use or learn from your book?

You can still have a really rich connection to nature even without your own garden. I live in a city and our space is tiny, so I’ve made sure to include lots of projects in the book for those of us with little or no outdoor space. You’ll find the ideas like the egg heads and the indoor meadow work just as well in an apartment. There are lots of math, science and literacy ideas which make use of natural materials: they’ll give your children that hands-on learning and connection to the outdoors, even if you’ve had to borrow materials from the park – or even relocate your learning to the park itself. Everyone can grow something, and by doing so you’re offering your children such a rich opportunity to benefit from a connection to nature.


Ready for the sneak peek? 


Get your copy here —>The Garden Classroom: Hands-On Activities in Math, Science, Literacy, and Art

11 Literacy Activities For Free Choice Time At Preschool

literacy activities for preschool Can I just take a second to tell you how much I love teaching? One of my very favorite things about teaching is thinking up activities that fit my students needs. No activity is one size fits all so when I am putting out free choice activities in the morning I have each student’s abilities and what they have been working on in the back of my head. For example, if you have a child who thrives with fine motor tray activities I would find a way to work in another area of learning they can work on using their strengths and interests. This is especially important for free choice because the children choose what to do, and children gravitate to things they are already good at and comfortable with. Use those strengths!

In my 2 and 3-year-old class my literacy goals may look different than yours but playing with letters is one that fits into all preschool classrooms. The children’s specific abilities will take the general activities in slightly different directions but our invitations to learn can have the same base. Here are 10 of my favorite literacy activities for free choice time at preschool.

If you are looking for even more resources and a place to chat about being a preschool teacher with other teachers check out my new Facebook group No Time For Flash Cards – Teacher Talk 

alphabet for starters

1. Letter cookie cutters in play dough.

This is such an easy activity, but you can do so much with it. You can make letter cookies, make and squish letters, use the cookie cutters like stamps in big mounds of play dough… the sky is the limit. I like to sit down and look for “my letter” and casually ask the child next to me if they want their letter. This leads to finding other classmates letters usually or sometimes it falls flat, that’s OK don’t push.

fishing for letters

2. Fishing for letters 

I love putting out my letter fish,  but I have also found that these jar lid letters work beautifully for this activity. They are especially great for not so gentle toddler hands.

alphabet mail 10

3. Alphabet Mailbox

Make a mailbox from a cardboard box , grab some small envelopes and add letters to them. Children love feeding the mail into the mailbox. They can hand it out to classmates who can also pop it in the mailbox. This is always a huge hit and like all of these ideas don’t require a teacher to be present the whole time. If you are playing with students if the opportunity is right for you to take the lead you can label the letters as they put them into the mailbox, ask if they have a favorite letter, or ask if they want to hand them out to friends ” Which letter should we give to Tommy? The J great!” resist the urge to quiz play. I know it’s hard, it’s so natural to say ” What letter is that?” over and over.

alphabet beads

4. Beading with letter beads

For beginners just let them work on beading, if they are interested in the letters they will start seeking out the letters they are familiar with. Comments like ” This is my Mom’s letter!” and ” Look a P!” is common around this type of activity. If you are teaching older children feel free to give them the option to spell things like their names. Once children are spelling with the beads you will need a few packs to ensure that you have enough letters for whatever they want to spell.

alphabet hunt outdoors with duplo

5. Building with alphabet blocks ( matching upper and lowercase too ).

I LOVE using marker on Duplo for this type of activity. I write out the alphabet at least twice once in upper and once in lowercase letters. Children can build, they can spell, make an alphabet tower, and they can match up the upper and lowercase letters. There is no wrong way to use these blocks. The child can choose to use the blocks based on their interests and abilities. What I love about free choice is that the child on the left of you can be spelling with these blocks while the one on the right could be building a tower without caring about the letters at all. They are both learning.

letter snowman alphabet for starters

6. Letter stamps and paper.

There is something so satisfying about banging a stamp down. Using letter stamps gives children who aren’t able to write yet a way to make letters they can recognize. Fun colored ink pads take it from plain Jane to fine art!

alphabet sensory bin

7. Alphabet sensory bin 

Have you ever watched a child just fill and pour for ages in your sensory table? It always grabs my attention when a child carefully fills and pours over and over. They are making connections. Adding in letters is really just a fun way to discover them but no extra instruction is required. Let the children explore and discover with their hands!

adding stickers to the alphabet wall mural

8. Alphabet sticker wall

Stickers are always a hit and what I love about this activity is that it naturally works on fine motor skills as well as patience. Peeling stickers off a sheet and putting them on a paper mural isn’t easy. You don’t don’t have to write out letters like I did in the photo above, I usually just pop up some paper and let the children go for it! When children are ready they can spell with the stickers, group them, and use the already stuck stickers for games like eye spy. I am always amazed at how these murals get used as children develop.

word building word families with magnets supplies

9. Alphabet magnets on a magnet board

Alphabet magnets are a classic for a reason. So many great idea for them ( check out a post I wrote for Scholastic for more) but just having them out and available is great for free choice. I like to sort by color, to have them all up and ask students to go search for a specific color then I label the letter, or sometimes I will spell out a name or two and see if anyone recognizes it. If they do I spell a new one, if not no worries the children find their own ways to play as well.

playdough letter matching activity for kids

10. Letter stamps in play dough

Children love it when you mix two things they never thought to mix together. Letter stamps in play dough is a fun way to invite children to play with letters. They can  squish the letters into the playdough making fun marks, work on spelling their names, print the whole alphabet, or even hide the stamps in the playdough and then excavate them!

toddler books

11. Reading

A comfy place to read and some easily accessible books are a must for free choice.


Want even MORE alphabet activities? Check out my list of 50 awesome alphabet activities by clicking on the image below or here.

alphabet activities for preschool

Need some alphabet books? We have 50! Click on the image below  or here to be taken to the reviews.

50 alphabet books

Water Table Activity – Make A Mess and Explore!

sensory play outside As parents and teachers we often create activities with something specific in mind, then when we add our little ones the activity takes a turn. That is the moment when we can encourage or lose our cool and stop everything and fight against our little charges and get the activity “back on track”. There will be days when the best choice IS to redirect the children and stick to the plan but many more where we can trust our children and follow their learning and exploration.

My plan was to have a desert and swamp water table activity her plan was to explore what happens when things get wet. We went with her plan, I’ll still share mine in case it’s useful for you. water table outside fun

Gather your materials. You will need some sand, rocks, and desert animal figurines for the desert side of the table. For the swamp side you will need water, pebbles, grass clippings, frogs and other swamp animal figurines.

sand in water table

Pour your sand into one side.

water table swampAnd your water in the other. Add all the extras.


I envisioned exploring the differences and for a few minutes she did. water table swamp small worldWe talked about the frog life cycle and made snake prints in the sand… and then went off-book and the real fun started. desert snake prints

The kinetic sand went into the water, and out, and in. sand with water in water table

Flowers were added. water table activity for kids

More water!

water table mess

She stirred the water and let it settle, found the animals and hid then under the water again… and kept exploring.

messy water play in water table

Parenting and teaching is a balance of choosing your battles, but it’s only a battle if we choose to look at it that way. If we choose to think about how they are exploring, how they are learning about their world through their senses and following their own curiosity we can battle bigger issues than sticking to the plan all the time.


Letter Of The Week – Letter T Theme

letter of the week letter t activities Are you doing a letter of the week with your child? If you are here are some ideas for your letter of week letter s week. Can I share a few of my thoughts about letter of the week? I think letter of the week is a fun way to use a little novelty to focus on one letter, but that’s it. Please only focus a small amount of attention on the single letter and continue to focus on all letters as a whole. Letters work together and children learn about letters and how they work when they use them in meaningful ways. Play is meaningful, art is meaningful, and a fun craft can be a mix of both but focusing too much busy work is not. Choose one or two fun ideas from this post then check out the whole alphabet activities after the T crafts and activities.

Letter T Crafts

letter t treasure

3D Letter TTree TTorch tTrain Tracks tTreasure t

Crafts & Activities For T Week

tiger craft

Leaf Rubbing TreeRecycled Painting TreeTiger Puppet

Truck CraftTire Tracks Painting–  Tadpole Craft

Paper Plate TigerTurtle CraftTambourine Craft

Whole Alphabet Activities For Preschool

heart shaped upper case & lowercase letter memory game

Alphabet Road Magnet ActivityLetter Rubbing Board  – Letter Memory Game  – Move and Groove Letters