Successful Outdoor Learning
Are you interested in exploring how you can integrate outdoor learning into your teaching? You may be hearing more and more about the benefits of taking your students outside of your box-like classroom to have them explore greenspaces, forests, and other natural environments.
Many experts agree that students find it easier to pay attention, make connections, and relate to their classmates while learning outdoors. As a teacher, you may even feel less stressed while taking your students outside.
It can be hard though, to balance curriculum expectations, administrator expectations, and outdoor learning. Some of this difficulty comes from not being able to find ways to incorporate the outdoors into what you’re already teaching. Finding ways to include the outdoors and being outside as part of your curriculum-driven instruction can help you reduce some of these competing demands on both your time and your students’ time. Let’s look at how to plan well for success and explore some specific ideas of how to incorporate more outdoor time in your classes, without sacrificing instructional time.
The Formula for Success
Starting small is always helpful. If you struggle to find ways to connect your curricular outcomes with natural spaces, think about simply holding your class outside. If students are working independently or in small groups on projects that don’t require many different materials, consider taking students outside to work. There will be more space for students to spread out, students can feel free to speak at a higher volume, and they will be able to benefit from the creativity that being outside can bring.
One of our team members recently took a group of teachers outside during a professional development workshop we were giving. She walked with them around the school grounds talking about ways to set up an outdoor classroom space. They found tree stumps and large rocks that could be used for seating and set-up a physical area in the schoolyard that will now act as an outdoor classroom. She stressed to them that outdoor education doesn’t just mean field trips, going out in the bush or out on the land, or complicated pre-planned activities for which you need a lot of special equipment. It can be as simple as taking a paper handout outside with your students or moving your existing work into an outdoor setting.
When the weather doesn’t cooperate
Inclement weather doesn’t always mean you need to stay in. As long as your students have access to appropriate clothing, take them out in the rain to see insects they may not have realized inhabit the same land as they do. Take them out in the snow to have snowball fights and see the results of their velocity and parabola equations, or make real structures like the ones that they have been studying in geometry. Ask students to write about what they encounter while learning outside, and to embrace and to truly experience the land that is described and portrayed in the Canadian and Indigenous literature they read and oral stories they hear.
If you don’t feel comfortable taking students out in the rain or in cold weather, use those days to plan out activities for when the weather is better suited for your activities. You can do research, prepare materials, plan, and collaborate inside to be ready to start the day bright and early when the weather gets better.
Ask for help
If your school has an outdoor education teacher, a language and culture teacher, or Elders who form part of your staff, connect with them to brainstorm creative ways to incorporate the outdoors in your curriculum. This may involve new cross-curricular projects, guest speakers who bring students outside, or maybe even additional class, grade, or school outings to explore the schoolyard and nearby lands. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you collaborate with your fellow teachers and staff.
Suggestions for English Language Arts
Learning from and in nature can help students form better connections to what they are learning. Students are able to engage by seeing, touching, and hearing what they are learning about. Descriptive writing can be a fun thing to teach students. One way to introduce descriptive writing to your students is by asking them to imagine their favourite place or food and to write about it. It is also an easy way to begin bringing your students outside to learn. This resource from Treaty Six Education Council asks students to practice descriptive writing in a few different ways, including going for a nature walk and writing about their experience using their five senses.
Here’s a pro tip: ask your students to write about a sixth ‘sense’: how they feel when they are outside. This can help students begin to connect to the land they are on in a deeper, more intentional, and a more meaningful way. It also introduces a new dimension to their writing that can help it become more impactful and engaging.
Suggestions for Math
Math can be a tricky subject to imagine teaching outside. The numbers, formulas, and calculators seem to lend themselves to the indoors. However, with some planning and outside the box thinking you can open up your classroom space to some fresh air. This resource from Eabametoong First Nation has students heading out into the land near their homes to identify tree species and calculate percentages. The objective of this resource is to discover which tree species is most abundant, but you can also use this resource as a jumping-off point for discussing other uses for math in forestry and sustainability, including topics such as statistics and geometry.
Don’t have a forest near your school? Try this activity out in a park instead. This exercise can facilitate interesting cross-curricular discussions about populations of species, biodiversity, and planned versus wild spaces.
Suggestions for Science
Celestial navigation, and even orienteering, may feel outdated, but they still hold their value when you’re out in the woods with no phone signal. Beyond that, these forms of navigation can be gateways to complex scientific domains, like astronomy, earth sciences, and physics. As you’re learning about constellations and the orbits of the moon and the sun, incorporate the outdoors by taking your students stargazing and pointing out how to orient yourself. As you’re learning about magnetic poles, or magnetism in general, pull out a compass and have students find their way to a set point in your community. This resource from Treaty Six Education Council forms part of a resource kit that introduces students to navigational methods throughout history and provides students with practical tips on using them themselves. This resource asks students to show what they’ve learned by navigating a path using their compasses and to share their knowledge of the skies. It also suggests going out with an Elder so that students can learn about even more methods of natural navigation.
How can you navigate using the stars during school hours when it’s usually daylight? This resource kit answers that question for you. But if you’d like to show your students some constellations in the skies above you, think about taking your students outside during the first or last period of the day during winter. As long as you’re dressed appropriately and don’t stay out too long, you’ll be able to show your students the night sky. Alternatively, think about finding an app that shows a constellation map in augmented reality (AR). You could download this to your class iPads, or even your cell phone. This will allow you and your students to find constellations even during the day time.
Suggestions for Social Studies
It can be easy to think that the only way to bring a social studies class outside is by taking a long time to plan an expensive field trip to a historical site or museum. These types of field trips definitely have their place, but they are not the only option, or opportunity to leave the classroom. This resource from Eabametoong First Nation is part of a resource kit full of activities you can do outside, including making a community garden and planting trees. The learning in this resource kit can serve to spark discussions about Indigenous rights, economic equity, as well as food security and sustainability. These activities have the added benefit of being able to support cross-curricular learning in math and science. This particular resource outlines what students need to know in order to plant a community garden.
The activities outlined above will certainly require a lot of planning, however, there are ‘lighter’ versions of these activities you could have your students participate in. Instead of creating a community garden or going into the bush to plant trees, go outside and create a smaller garden or plant some trees on school grounds, or go outside to let students pot some plants in individual planters. As an added bonus, you can bring the planters back to your classroom to create a greener indoor environment.
I’ve introduced just a few different ways to bring your students outside more during your classes. There are many different ways to do this, and many links that can be made between the variety of topics you will be teaching throughout the year and the outdoors. Have you already been taking your students outside to learn? If so, which types of activities have you tried? Have you used any of these resources or suggestions in your own practice? Email us and let us know how it went.