How to Facilitate Meaningful Outdoor Learning
Exploring the natural world is a powerful strategy for middle and high school. Here are four ways to get students learning outside.
Toward the end of the academic year, students are eager to step outside and stretch their legs. And in an educational world dominated by standardized tests and worksheets, outdoor education is becoming increasingly important as a tool to help students understand the natural world and their local community.
Bringing the outdoors to students might seem daunting, but there are practical steps and engaging lessons that can make it possible for many students and teachers to reap its benefits.
Why Outdoor Learning Matters
Numerous studies highlight the positive impacts of spending time outdoors on reducing stress and anxiety. Being outside lowers levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, and decreases overall feelings of depression and anxiety. In today’s high-pressure world, taking students outside can be a simple yet effective way to support their mental health, which is especially important in the midst of what many national medical organizations have deemed a youth mental health crisis.
Movement is another critical factor in students’ mental and physical well-being, and wintertime limits opportunities for exercise. Taking advantage of nicer weather can have a significant impact on students’ ability to focus by facilitating opportunities for active learning—especially important for students who are neurodivergent and struggle with periods of inactivity or for those who favor kinesthetic learning and engagement.
While it may seem counterintuitive, students are often more focused outdoors. When digital distractions are eliminated, students can focus on the task at hand and immerse themselves in nature, where fresh air and the absence of traditional school walls create an environment for focus and enjoyment.
Examples of Outdoor Learning in ELA
There are many approaches to outdoor learning across grade levels and subjects. Some of the activities I favor in my English language arts classes include nature-inspired writing, storytelling and drama, read-alouds; and nature journaling. Below, I share my approaches, which are adjustable for varying levels of difficulty and depth.
For nature-inspired writing, I encourage students to draw inspiration from the natural world while responding to creative writing exercises, such as descriptive paragraphs about observed scenes, short stories featuring encountered plants and animals, and poems that arise from sensory experiences.
Having students perform short plays, or scenes from longer works, inspires discussions about what it feels like to perform Shakespeare in the open air and how context and setting impact a performance—conversations that connect to classroom explorations of Greek amphitheaters and requisite acting techniques.
Reading aloud in nature, especially a nature-themed book, poem, or short story, further roots us in our surroundings while introducing students to new literature. I have students take turns reading aloud, and it often seems as though students are more willing to share outside than they are in the classroom. As they sit near the flagpole taking turns reading from our book, they experience a connection not only to place but also to each other that fosters presence and engagement.
Finally, I encourage students to maintain a nature journal, where they record their observations, thoughts, and feelings about their outdoor experiences. This practice helps students develop their writing skills while fostering a greater appreciation for the natural world. These journals may or may not be connected to curricular content; for example, during a 10th-grade unit on Transcendentalism, I would have students read excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden and Whitman’s poems as inspiration for journal entries. Dickinson’s poems, too, touch upon the natural world and could be used as prompts.
Nature-Based Learning Across the Curriculum
For non-ELA teachers, there are plenty of ways to bring the outdoors into your curriculum. Perhaps students’ journals capture observations of water flow or weather patterns or serve as a think-space for outdoor investigations and experiments. Maybe your learners explore the ecosystem of the surrounding property, study historical aspects of the community surrounding your school, measure and understand the design and shapes of school buildings, or play a student-created game.
The nice thing about getting outdoors is that different students will notice different things during their time outside. In a rural setting, different animals or insects might come and go; or, in an urban setting, different city sounds might enter students’ sensory landscape. Each stimulus will impact students differently and inform the activities they work on, and sharing their observations and experiences with others will widen everyone’s perspectives.
Teachers unable to venture outside can still weave nature into in-class instruction. For example, you might utilize technology by showcasing nature documentaries or live streams from zoos or national parks. Encourage students to observe nature-related phenomena, such as bird nests or aquariums, through webcam footage. Integrate plant life by maintaining a classroom garden or terrarium (researchers reveal a positive relationship between plants in workspaces and reduced stress levels).
You might also utilize nature-based learning materials, like leaves or rocks, for tactile learning; explore natural concepts with simulations in science; or draw upon literature and art to explore nature themes—all of which bring the essence of the outdoors into the learning space.
Students spend many hours staring at screens for academic and nonacademic purposes, but outdoor education presents an opportunity for teachers to widen students’ perspectives and hone their presence, inviting them to attune to the natural world in ways that can boost well-being, appreciation, and learning across subjects—fostering student engagement while connecting to curricular content.