In the late 1990s when I began my teaching career, moving instruction outside was a necessity during the warmer months as my southwest Michigan elementary school was not equipped with air conditioning. Hot, humid days in the classroom were unbearable. Fortunately, my classroom was at the end of a hall next to the door that accessed the playground. Moving instruction outdoors, whether it was planned or not, occurred frequently.
Reading instruction often took place on the grass under the large tree on the playground. During independent reading, students frequently brought out carpet squares or found a piece of playground equipment to read on. Science lessons integrated our school garden whenever possible and our geometry and measurement units in math took advantage of shadows, playground equipment, and large open spaces to measure. Of course, during the 90s technology hardware was larger and not as mobile as today. In the early 2000s, I found myself an elementary principal in Virginia on a large property complete with a wooded nature trail bordering a picturesque farm. Our outdoor options were greater and with increased utilization of the area, we added an outdoor classroom to maximize the space for instruction. As technology changed and became portable, our project and investigation options increased. It was not unusual to see students creating movies with flip cams or iPads. I imagine today those videos are even more robust as technology has progressed.
With so much emphasis and attention on electronic media, technology, and virtual connections, students today spend less time outdoors than any other generation. In addition, modern environments and communities have reduced the amount of open green spaces. Not only does this lessen exposure to fresh air and sunshine, but it also decreases physical activity that is needed by all.
Now more than ever, there is a renewed focus on outdoor education and the benefits of learning outside. Research has shown that interaction with nature—whether it be an outdoor learning classroom within a wooded area, open field, fenced-in patio, or edge of a playground—results in benefits for all involved. Students have shown improvements in focus, attention, memory, creativity, and critical thinking. In addition, the physical benefits of movement, vitamin D, and fresh air impact students and teachers alike. We all know that sometimes a change in environment often impacts our mood and energy.
With the right mindset and supporting materials, classes can conduct many activities they would do in a traditional classroom environment outdoors instead. Reading, discussion, and reflection can all easily take place outside. If students have mobile devices that are sufficiently charged, and if WiFi extends into outdoor environments, then classes could even do web-based inquiry and work on digital projects as well. Instructional activities can be as simple as independent reading, partner reading, creativity writing, or small group instruction. Ideally, instruction outdoors should be planned and purposeful. In order to get the most out of outdoor learning experiences, educators should think about how they might take full advantage of being outside by incorporating the setting itself into students’ learning. If students have access to fields, gardens, water, wooded areas, or other natural environments either on or adjacent to school grounds, then educators might engage students in an inquiry-based exploration of these environments or create other hands-on learning opportunities.
When planning for instruction outside, educators should consider the goals of instruction, seating options, technology needs, how materials will be transported, how materials will be distributed, and how they will be cleaned afterwards. A quick and easy organizational strategy is using plastic totes or boxes that include all materials for the lesson for each student or small group.
Here are six easy-to-implement outdoor instructional activities to inspire you:
- Read Outside: Assign a time for students to grab a blanket, carpet square, portable seating, or towel and read outside. Ideally students will see that reading in different environments can impact their concentration or interest in what they are reading. Outdoor reading is also a great time for partner or buddy reading.
- Creative Writing: Task students with a creative writing topic, ideally one in which they are encouraged to think about all of their senses.
- Scavenger Hunts: Younger students can look for or identify items that begin with a certain letter or sound or share a trait or characteristic. Older students might be assigned rhymes or riddles to solve that require critical thinking skills.
- Following Maps and Directions: This is a great activity for students learning how to understand directions, measure distance, and navigation. Older students may be asked to create a map of the outdoor space to scale and identify key landmarks. Younger students may be provided a map of the outdoor space. In both cases, students can be given directions and maps and be challenged to reach a final location.
- Data Collection: Task students to collect data and graph information appropriately. This can include animals observed, types of plants/trees, trash collected in areas, colors of plants in a planter box, etc.
- Measurement and Estimation: Students can be assigned areas of the playground to measure the height of objects and estimate when needed. If possible, students can measure shadows and compare that to their measurement/estimation of the object itself.
The possibilities for outdoor learning are endless. With careful planning and slight modifications, most instructional activities can be moved to the outdoor setting, thus benefiting all involved!
Deanna Marie Lock
Deanna Marie Lock is a reputable educational leader with a multifaceted background as an elementary school teacher, assistant principal and principal, Instructional Solutions consultant, Instruction and Intervention Subject Matter Expert, and today as the Director of Category Expertise and Support across all of School Specialty’s target curriculum solutions and widespread product categories. With 18 years spent specifically in the public education sphere, Deanna now uses this in-classroom expertise to add a personalized, intentional approach when professionally advising to an audience she herself had been a part of for nearly two decades. Deanna is passionate about building purposeful long-term internal and external customer connections, and helping students find their passion and highest potential, too!
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