Learning Environments

Using the Outdoors as an Extension of Your Classroom

Regular exposure to the outdoors helps young children learn and develop the skills they need to thrive in school.

October 10, 2023
Wavebreakmedia / iStock

For many years, teachers have known that allowing children to be in touch with nature on a regular basis generates huge changes in the child’s brain. However, it is a fact that children in urban schools are becoming more and more distant from nature for a number of reasons, such as this technological age we live in, parents’ beliefs that spending time to be in nature isn’t schoolwork, parents’ worries about children getting dirty, or even our own misconceptions as teachers. To find the time and space to offer children the chance to be in contact with nature, it’s important to create or visit amazing natural scenarios. 

Contact With Nature Has Benefits for Students

Our children are spending less time in nature and suffering the consequences. Children need nature to generate strong connections related to skills development, emotional intelligence, and problem-solving, among others. There are advantages of growing up interacting in a natural context—children with nature-rich school playgrounds are calmer and are capable of concentrating for longer periods of time than those children who attend schools that have few natural elements. 

Children who regularly interact with and are connected to the natural world develop stronger awareness of the environment and the importance of taking care of nature, as well as stronger reasoning and observation skills. Children who play outside, in natural surroundings, are more creative, are better problem-solvers, engage in more imaginative games, interact more with their peers, and get used to collaborative work. 

But how can we help learners benefit from a nature-rich context in an urban school? I invite you to follow the tips below, which I developed as a teacher with different age groups of learners, to get your class closer to nature and allow learners to benefit from that contact at the same time that they continue working on the topics and skills development associated with their corresponding curriculum. 

Start simply

One very important aspect of teaching in contact with nature is that often, teachers don’t take the time to consider the possibility or think it might interfere with curriculum requirements. So, allow yourself and your learners to engage with nature in simple and accessible ways. Here are some ideas for bringing nature to your class:

  • Create a vegetable garden in pots. 
  • Prepare compost from the learners’ home kitchen waste (fruit and vegetable peelings and cores, coffee grounds, etc.). 
  • Research, collect, and classify leaves, plants, and roots. 
  • Create musical instruments from natural materials (branches, bark, tree trunk sections, stones, pebbles, seeds).

Next, move a little farther and take the class outside—to the playground, the school’s vegetable garden, or, if possible, to a park nearby. In this session, encourage children to do the following: 

  • Notice and document the weather conditions. How does it feel? How do each of the learners feel? Do they like or dislike the weather conditions? 
  • Observe and document the sky: the color, the light, the clouds (shape, size, color, movement). 
  • Document the appearance of animals such as birds, insects, dogs, cats, or any other that they see. Classify these animals according to different attributes. 
  • Dig in the dirt (wherever it is—plant pots or flower beds), and look for insects, worms, etc. Look at the structure of the soil. What is the soil, dirt, or mud made of?
  • Notice the texture of the soil, the temperature, the moisture, the smell. 
  • Compare different plants: their color, their size, the number of branches, the shape and size of the leaves. Classify plants, leaves, roots.

Last, expand a little bit more and go to the woods, the beach, or a meadow—wherever you and the children have the chance of being surrounded by nature. 

Engagement with Nature Can Cover Multiple Content Areas

You can schedule a day outdoors every week. You can work creatively and collaboratively with other colleagues to decide the content to be taught in each nature immersion day. 

Any natural context you decide to visit is an interdisciplinary context that makes subject-content-area interaction meaningful. As a consequence, agreeing with other colleagues about the areas you will focus on would be a good idea. For example, if you visit an urban park every week, you can focus on different content areas:

Math: Consider the size and shape (perimeter/area) of the park or the area of the park you’re visiting.

Science: Observe and learn about the growing needs of the plants and trees in the park, considering sunlight, soil, watering, and pruning. 

Art: Notice the light and colors in nature. Find out where colors in nature come from, how they are created, how they can be transferred to other contexts and materials. Research how sunlight affects the park and the living beings in it. 

Physical education: Move around in a nature-rich area. Encourage learners to use their bodies to move around—jumping, skipping, running, walking, crawling—and document the changes in their body, according to their breathing, heartbeat, temperature, and more.

Research projects: Invite learners to develop a research project to motivate the school leaders to invest in turning the school building and playground into more nature-rich areas. Decide where to get information, invite experts, visit green buildings, visit plant nurseries where children can get information about different plants that are suitable for their project. Children may even suggest how the nature-rich process should be done and develop possible milestones and other appropriate actions according to their research. 

There’s much to learn about teaching and learning in a nature-rich learning context. However, if children are allowed to interact freely for at least part of the school time, they’ll naturally show teachers the path to the best and most effective approach to fulfill the expectations in the curriculum. 

Invite nature into your class. Let children interact with it and lead the learning process. Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Learning Environments
  • Environmental Education
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.