Tips and Tricks for Outdoor Learning
The Student Stewards Program at the Parks Foundation champions the outdoors as a classroom for K-12 students. I have been exposed to teaching outdoors in the field most of the time I’ve spent educating during my term of service.
This article details my tips and tricks for youth learning outdoors. After growing into the role of an outdoor educator over the course of the last ten months, I have learned to implement these suggestions into my methods. Whether you work in the outdoor education industry or occasionally take groups outside, I hope these suggestions can help make outdoor learning an awe-filled, inspiring, and enjoyable experience!
1. Plan ahead and prepare
As an educator, it is crucial that you feel confident in your capabilities to teach outside. The outdoor classroom has many surprises. A few weeks before our Junior Naturalist Programs and classroom field trips, it has been immensely helpful for myself and my colleagues to scout the open spaces (parks, fields, trails etc) we plan on hosting our programs. When scouting an open space for your students, you may consider climate, accessibility for individuals with exceptional abilities, noteworthy elements of the space, any potential hazards, and where you will start and stop.
2. Establish clear expectations
Just like inside the classroom, expectations of students apply outside of the classroom. When setting boundaries, It is important to avoid telling students what not to do. Instead of saying “do not approach animals,” consider “remember to observe wildlife from a distance!” Rather than “stop running,” consider “walking feet!”
When establishing expectations with your students, think of them as being instructed to draw a line with five circles on it. It is likely that each of their drawings will look very different from one another as five circles can be drawn “on” a line in several ways. I learned this analogy in a Positive Behavior Training administered through Michigan State University.
3. Highlight specific tasks and designate roles
Emphasize that students should be acting differently than when they are playing outside at recess. Consider discussing with students how their outdoor classroom experience will sound, feel, and look differently than playing outside. You may want to ask children “when you’re learning outside for science, how might you behave differently than when you’re playing outside for recess?” Giving children a role or task also encourages engaged learning outdoors. Tell them they are “citizen scientists” and the observations they make and record will be used for science!
4. Embrace distractions and allow children to explore
Give students time to transition from one learning environment to another. The structure of the class will inevitably change when taken outside. While setting expectations, allow your students to be curious, playful, and distracted by what they come across. Explore spontaneous opportunities in nature and relate them back to ecological ideas. Focusing on a singular object or organism in nature can also help fixate the learner’s attention on the topic of choice.
5. Know what to bring and what not to bring
The less children have to carry on their own, the better. Be creative– integrate elements of the open space into your lesson or activity if you see fit. There are so many “teachable moments” in the outdoors! If any materials are needed, it’s best to bring a large backpack to store specimen containers, magnifying glasses etc. It has been really helpful in the past when I pulled up iNaturalist and Merlin Bird ID on my smartphone to help identify organisms in the field with children.
6. Explore nature using the five senses
A great way to create hands-on engaged learning outdoors is through encouraging students to use all of their senses. One of my favorite activities I’ve executed was during our first Junior Naturalist Program of 2023, where I asked children to describe the smell of the wetland at our Rosewood Nature Study Area. When a wetland smells like a rotten egg, you know it’s doing its job well– filtering sediment through the release of hydrogen from decomposing plants!
In summation, I strongly believe that, as an educator to young minds, there is an obligation to expose children to the outdoors in some capacity. However, this is not to say that the outdoor classroom comes without challenges. It took me months to learn how to transform my instruction to fit the schema of the outdoors. When taking the time to teach outdoors in thoughtful and intentional ways, you can inspire stewardship to young people and preserve access to the outdoors!
About the Author
Caroline earned a Bachelor's degree from the American University School of International Service in Washington, DC where she studied Environmental Sustainability and Global Health with minors in French and Art History. She grew up recreating outdoors in the northeast, but is passionate about preserving access to the outdoors everywhere. She relocated to the Reno-Tahoe area after leaving DC in May 2022 where she worked on preserving access to the near 200-mile Tahoe Rim Trail system for 6 months. In her free time, she enjoys art, running, and the sunshine!