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Take Your Class Outside

Found in: Teaching Strategies

Get some fresh air with these educator tips for holding lessons outdoors.

Spring has arrived. Are looking longingly outside your classroom windows yet? Well, go for it! You can tiptoe through the tulips with your students - without trampling your curriculum standards.

Taking your class outside isn’t just a way to engage them in science and geography. Your NEA colleagues who set to strolling when the temperatures rise say it also can inspire students’ writing or illustrate a math concept – and it’s an excellent incentive for better behavior.

And consider this: Kids these days are so plugged into their computers and video games, they simply don’t get outside enough. Author Richard Louv calls it “nature deficit disorder,” and in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” said a fourth-grader told him, “I like to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

If we’re going to leave the Earth to these kids, maybe they should appreciate it.

Try This: The new guide for creating a schoolyard habitat is available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is not a book about why schoolyard habitats are important but how to actually plan and create one. (Just think about the possibilities for hands-on science or inspired nature writing!)

Getting Started

There are few broad principles that will help make an outside adventure into a learning opportunity: First, be purposeful, says Lynn Cashell, a fourth-grade teacher in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania. Make sure your outside activity supports your inside work, and can be furthered through discussion or individual or group projects. For example, when Cashell’s math class ventured outside with cameras to snap geometric shapes on their school campus, they returned to the classroom to sort and identify them, and build their own geometry books.

Second, like you would for any field trip, set some ground rules for behavior. A little fresh air is gas for growing bodies – and you might see more energy from your kids. That’s a good thing – use it! But keep it safe. Also, before you step a toe across the threshold, make sure students know exactly what they’ll be doing outside and why they’re doing it.

“I usually plan a visit to the local county nature park, a guided tour along its boardwalk, and a picnic lunch. The students learn about recreational activities and local wildlife, and get an opportunity to practice skills outside in the community,” says Ann B. Nicholas, a special educator at West Florence High School in Pennsylvania.

Try This: “On warm sunny days, I take the children outside to see if they can identify the types of clouds in the sky or can tell time by the position of the sun.” – Melva Higgs, Camden, New Jersey. 

Good Behavior

“Spring fever is a time of restlessness and wanderlust,” Nicholas says. But you might just be able to feed that fever to get the attention you need….Consider taking your class outside as a reward for good behavior.

Dave Foley, a retired Cadillac, Michigan, middle and high school teacher and the author of “The Ultimate Classroom Control Handbook,” used to take his class outside – but only if every student in it had been listening and participating in his indoor lessons. The class knew that just one bad egg could close the window of opportunity, so there was intense “positive peer pressure” for everybody to focus, he says. “Peer pressure doesn’t have to be bad,” he notes. “You can use the other students to influence good behavior as well.”

Other rules for making it work: “The outside temperature had to be at least 60, the ground had to be dry, and the lesson had to be one where they would be working quietly,” says Foley, who taught English and social studies. “And, if anybody had to go to the bathroom, we all had to come in.”

Try This: You don’t have to venture to the mountains or woods to have a great outdoor experience with your students. Consider taking an on-campus “field trip” to the school’s roof or parking lot. (Be careful!) Read more in this NEA Today story

Make Friends

You don’t have to venture into the wilderness alone. In fact, you might find that outdoor learning opportunities are more productive if you have a partner – and there are plenty out there.

Local nature centers often employ naturalists who are willing to lead classes or conduct nature observations. Similarly, regional advocacy groups – like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland or Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Florida – may offer one-day camps or field trip activities and assistance. If you’re hoping to develop an outdoor space on your own campus, check with local gardening clubs and landscape companies about possible sponsorships. 

Plenty of your colleagues have developed – and are willing to share – lesson plans for outdoor learning. One place to connect is the Children & Nature Network, where you can join C&NN’s “Natural Teachers Network.”

And don’t forget parents – potentially the best partners of all. Educating them about the benefits of outdoor education means developing an excited panel of people who will support your efforts to take learning away from the whiteboard and into the sunshine.


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