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Learning Environments

Learning Blooms in Outdoor Classrooms

Outdoor learning can refresh instructional practices and bolster student engagement in both rural and urban schools.

May 20, 2021
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Outdoor classrooms brought me hope this year—hope that for many of us was very difficult to find. As a first-grade teacher who lives in a rural community, I’ve seen firsthand how transformative teaching in the outdoors can be: It can help build community and breathe new life into instruction, all while keeping teachers and students safe.

The school where I teach serves 125 students in grades K–6. Before Covid-19 struck, outdoor learning in my classroom was confined to a few walks outdoors to visit the local pond and the stream running in the woods behind our school. Now, it’s not only an integrated part of our day but also the most engaging part of our instruction—and I’ll continue to rely on it after the pandemic is over. Here’s the path I took to making outdoor learning a key and permanent component of my teaching.

Tapping Communities

When schools were forced into ongoing remote learning, I joined Inside-Outside: Nature-Based Educators, where I found lots of examples of teachers and students working together outside, especially in response to the pandemic. There I learned about curriculum resources available to teachers, examples of what outdoor classrooms could look like, and support networks that teachers could access to make outdoor learning happen at their school. Once I understood what was possible, I reached out to other teachers, administrators, and the parent-teacher organization at my school, hoping we too could make this happen for our students.

We started by identifying spaces on our campus that seemed the most practical and usable for outdoor classroom learning; it already had resources that we could build upon, like a circle of large stones on the playground that defined a space and just needed some stumps for extra seating and a whiteboard to transform it into a classroom. Then, on a community work day, teachers, parents, grandparents, our current and former principals, and community members all showed up to help. There were outdoor adventure experts, carpenters, landscapers, and determined 4-year-olds wanting to roll tree stumps, nail plywood, level whiteboards, secure tarps, rake mulch, and clear trails through the woods.

By the end of a single day, we had six outdoor classrooms ready to go. Just as important, this shared effort of working together to create beautiful, safe spaces for our children to learn made us feel hopeful and purposeful during a very challenging time.

Connecting Learning to the Outdoors

Outdoor learning helps students get much-needed time away from screens and gives them a healthy dose of fresh air. When we are outdoors, the school feels like the setting of a storybook, and each time we take to the woods, it feels like starting an epic adventure. That spirit motivates my students to learn and explore, and primes them for lessons that are rooted in what surrounds us.

For example, instead of writing indoors, the kids have been taking their nature journals outside to write about what they see, think, and wonder about there. This past winter, my class completed a unit on tree identification, studying the features of the trees that surround us on our playground and writing about them. Then we labeled them to create our own arboretum. Some days our read-alouds take place under the same canopy of tall pine trees that we studied.

In math, first graders learn to count in groups of 10s. For one activity, I sent my students running into the woods to collect 100 sticks in about 10 minutes. Partners worked together to accurately count and record the 10 bundles (with 10 sticks in each) that they created.

Now that spring has arrived and the vernal pool near our school is alive with sounds of creatures stirring, there have been lots of opportunities for scientific exploration. Frog eggs floating in the water and salamanders hiding under rocks are now part of our everyday discoveries. My first graders explore the pool, stream, and pond with pails and magnifying glasses in hand. They’re curious and engaged in their learning. Science is no longer an indoor project.

Urban Outdoor Classrooms

While it might be more natural to build outdoor classrooms in rural areas, it’s possible to envision and create outdoor spaces in urban areas, where existing infrastructure can be transformed into outdoor learning spaces to meet the needs of a school. Explore neighborhood parks as a class or construct garden beds on school grounds to grow vegetables and flowers. There are many examples of urban schools that have transformed their schoolyards to create inviting outdoor spaces for children to learn. Start small by bringing your class outdoors to do a read-aloud in the fresh air, or take a walk around the neighborhood to see what signs of nature you can discover using all your senses. Assess the spaces around your school, and talk to community members about how they might be transformed into greener spaces.

At my school, the surprises continue as we discover new ways to bring the curriculum outdoors. Every season brings new lesson material, whether that’s flowers growing in the greenhouse or the trees turning green in front of our eyes. It was all there before—I’d just never realized how much the outdoors could inspire students in their learning. As one of my students recently told me, “Sometimes you need to look for beautiful things in the most bizarre places.” I am so grateful that I looked outside.

For me, teaching outdoors will be an ongoing process in which I explore and develop new strategies along the way. I’m learning by keeping an eye on what other schools around the country are experimenting with and by taking classes to learn from other outdoor educators, as well as reading books about successful classrooms that are making learning happen outdoors.

Outdoor education isn’t often required in the curriculum, but it can still be integrated, no matter the circumstances—and I’ve seen firsthand how much joy it can bring to students.

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