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Learning Environments

Moving Your Classroom Outside During the Pandemic

One teacher shares how her rural elementary school safely and effectively took their classrooms outdoors.

December 11, 2020
Elementary aged girl walks to her outdoor classroom carrying an umbrella and 5-gallon bucket
Courtesy of Amanda Yates

As rural schools in my home state of Vermont planned for the start of school this academic year, many education professionals here anticipated that a return to in-person schooling was likely due to the relatively few cases of Covid statewide. In the case of my K–6 school, the Albert Bridge School, we were able to turn some things that were previously considered challenges into advantages, including small class sizes. Our class sizes range from eight to 12 students, making social distancing easier. Some factors we’ve invested in over the last few years include a half-time coordinator on staff who supports place-based outdoor education; and we had a strong school and community identity centered around what we loosely call “The Mountain Curriculum.” With these pieces already in place, we could expand our approach to educating students outdoors while fostering connections within our community.

When we look back on the past three months or so, it’s clear that given the circumstances, we did well, but nonetheless, adapting to this model of schooling has been extremely challenging. Successes include the increase in collaboration among staff and the fact that parents routinely share their appreciation that their children are in school at this time. We can all see how much children enjoy coming to school too. Moreover, the community has provided materials for outdoor use, and volunteers have been plentiful.

Small schools like ours face challenges each year, like shifting staffing to meet various multi-age configurations and balancing our school needs with the community’s expectations of the school budget. We’ve made working closely with community organizations a priority throughout the pandemic so that families have the support they need for food, housing, transportation, clothing, and connection. As the hub of a rural community, our school can be a crucial link for many families, no matter what the public health circumstances.

Outdoor Learning on Campus

Our school district offered families options for attendance: 100 percent remote or in-person instruction five mornings with afternoon remote instruction.

Before the start of school, our teachers joined forces with masked and socially distanced parents and community volunteers to prepare outdoor areas so that each class would have a dedicated outdoor classroom.

Essential elements for all our outdoor classrooms included the following:

  • Fire pit (fire marshal approved)
  • Tarp shelter
  • Access to the nearby brook (like most children, our students love water play and exploration—it’s also a great environment in which to observe erosion, create experiments for buoyancy, calculate the speed of the water flow, and observe creatures and plants that live in the stream or on its banks)
  • Seating (most classrooms also constructed seating from logs, mats, hammocks, or five-gallon buckets)
  • Foot-pedal outdoor sinks
  • Outdoor storage containers packed with student whiteboards; pencil/marker cases; mud kitchen supplies like old pots, pans, bowls, and serving utensils used for creative cooking in the outdoor classroom; notebooks; fort-building supplies, including poles, bungee cords, string, and tarps; and tools like hammers, mallets, and safety glasses.
  • Waterproof notebooks for each student

Scheduling and daily activities: The school day typically starts in the classroom, where students settle in, eat breakfast, and review the day’s schedule. This is a sample second-grade schedule:

  • 8:00 a.m.: Arrive and have breakfast
  • 8:15 a.m.: Whole school virtual morning meeting
  • 8:30 a.m.: Journal writing
  • 8:45 a.m.: Prepare to go outside
  • 9:00 a.m.: Head to outdoor classroom
  • 9:15 a.m.: Independent reading
  • 9:30 a.m.: Math or literacy stations
  • 10:00 a.m.: Class reading and discussion
  • 10:30 a.m.: Math or literacy stations
  • 11:00 a.m.: Free choice/nature exploration/science
  • 11:30 a.m.: Pack up and return to classroom
  • 11:45 a.m.: Wash hands and eat lunch (outside or inside)
  • 12:10 p.m.: Pack up to go home and final activity of the day, usually outside
  • 12:30 p.m.: Dismissal

Weather this fall was mild, which made learning outdoors easy and comfortable, and we’ll continue to stick with the pre-Covid rule of going outside on certain days as long as the weather has a “real feel” of 10 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

There will be challenges as it gets colder: It’s hard to write while wearing gloves and remain seated as the temperature drops. Colder temperatures required shifting some instruction back indoors and rethinking how to continue doing academic content outdoors while staying physically active to keep bodies warm.

Successes and future plans include the following:

  • Math centers with nature manipulatives, including sticks, acorns, rocks, pine cones
  • Nature writing on clay, sand, dirt, mud, rocks, and “wood cookies” (a cross section of a tree trunk that ranges in size depending on the tree that was cut)
  • Sit spot journaling, where students observe, wonder about, and reflect on their immediate surroundings
  • Reading in hammocks (each student has their own)
  • Discussion and observations about stream health, maintenance, and how to study the stream without disrupting the natural environment
  • Comparing and contrasting westward expansion referencing social studies concepts, books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the students’ own outdoor explorations
  • Literacy walks, where a story is placed page by page throughout the forest, and students walk from one tree to another to read the story (this works for sight words too)
  • Story of the day, where students collectively or independently review the day in their journals

Walking Field Trips

Weekly walking field trips, mostly on Ascutney Mountain, offer opportunities for integrated lessons connecting literature, science, and math, as well as ample time for unstructured play and free exploration. Students observe their surroundings and find and manipulate materials from the environment in lessons.

A local nonprofit, Ascutney Outdoors, generously allowed us to construct an outdoor shelter with the help of that community and staff members; we used a donated concert canopy and situated it near the main lodge at the bottom of the rope tow ski hill. From the canopy, classes have easy access to ski hills, forest trails, streams, waterfalls, and the 1,500-acre town forest. We spend a lot of time in a large, open meadow dotted with wrapped hay bales; students (and teachers) love to jump from one bale to the next on their way across the meadow. We walk to many areas of the mountain; there we study seasons, plant life cycles, the water cycle, and trail construction and conservation.

Walking field trip days soon became the most anticipated day of the week for both students and teachers. These trips provided opportunities for all of us to connect and chat while walking and practicing social distancing, so the outings wound up dismantling aspects of traditional student/teacher roles; on the mountain, it was easier to recognize that we are all a community of learners.

Each student was encouraged to pack a change of clothes for field trips (an extra pair of dry socks, for example, is a must-have), and we also made sure to keep moving to stay warm and taught the students how to safely build fires to gather around.

Strategies for Success

Several resources guided us on this journey, including A Forest Days Handbook, by David Sobel; the Upper Valley Teaching Place Collaborative; and Natural Start Alliance. We also transitioned into an instructional model that helped us implement our plan. All of our “specials” (art, music, PE, and guidance) teachers are paired with a classroom teacher for a one-month rotation, so there is always a second adult in each classroom, and our curriculum includes an interdisciplinary model for that month focused on the specialists’ expertise. We’ve adapted this strategy for outdoor learning. For example, one month the first-grade class was paired with the art teacher; outdoors they learned perspective through observational drawing.

Also, comfort is a fundamental component of successful outdoor education. Because of our community commitment to outdoor education, families are accustomed to sending their children to school with appropriate clothing and footwear for the elements, but over the years we have collected many donations of socks, rain and winter boots, coats, gloves, and hats, so we have any item on hand that a student might need.

As we continue to focus on safety, local organizations, our school board, and the town government have collaborated and volunteered their time, tools, materials, expertise, and encouragement. This year has challenged everyone to examine what really matters in their lives, communities, and the greater world. In our community, this has meant uniting around what our community holds dear: appreciating, caretaking, and learning from our natural environment. It is our hope that our students will reflect on this unprecedented time with some joyful memories of exploration and wonder, as well as an understanding that the connections and memories we’re making together are just as important as academics. 

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Filed Under

  • Learning Environments
  • Community Partnerships
  • Environmental Education
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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