Adapting a Mandated Curriculum for Your Outdoor Classroom

In my first grade class we often talk about noticing process and content. In other words, not just what we do, but how we do it. In the case of curriculum, teachers are experts at hitting learning targets and achieving student outcomes in creative ways, and it is unlikely that any two teachers will approach the same content in identical ways. I invite you to look at your next mandated curriculum lesson or unit through the lens of the great outdoors.

Many schools and districts mandate the use of certain curriculum programs for core subjects. Think TERC, Harcourt Brace readers, Handwriting Without Tears, FOSS kits, etc.

These restrictions can feel limiting and may at first seem like an obstacle to taking your students outdoors, however they don’t have to be. Even a heavily-scripted curriculum can be adapted with small tweaks and changes for your outdoor classroom that don’t require a huge investment of time, energy, or resources on your part.

To prove to you that this can be done, I will now walk you through a first grade math lesson I recently adapted to include more outdoor time and nature connection. (By the way, a similar activity to this one is described in Activity 7 of my eBook).

The lesson

TERC Investigations First Grade Unit 6, Lesson 1.2: What Would You Rather Be?

Common Core Standards: 

Organize, represent, and interpret data with up to three categories; ask and answer questions about the total number of data points, how many in each category, and how many more or less are in one category than in another. 
The original TERC lesson asks students to decide if they would rather be an eagle or a whale.

Learning Targets: 

  • Describe and compare the number of pieces of data in each category, and use an equation to show that the sum of the responses in each category equals the total responses collected.

  • Make a representation to communicate the results of a survey.

Lesson Context:

This lesson is at the beginning of our data collection unit, and it is one of the students’ first exposures to the concept of conducting a survey and representing their findings visually. In the words of the publisher, ‘[Students] respond to the survey question—Would You Rather Be an Eagle or a Whale?—and figure out ways to represent the data with cubes, drawings, or other materials.’

What the Curriculum Said 

The teacher’s manual instructed me to ask students “Would you rather be an eagle or a whale?” and then to have them each individually record the class data to this question on a piece of paper.

How I Adapted the Lesson

I changed the question to “How many of each type of plant grows in our school garden?” We then went outside to the small vegetable garden in our school yard, and as a class we counted how many lettuce plants were growing and how many kale plants were growing.

Interested in edible plants? Check out Lesson 13: Edible & Poisonous Plants.

The original TERC lesson said to record students’ responses with different colored connecting cubes, so I used this strategy to record each of the plants we counted (blue for kale, green for lettuce). The cube towers provided a great visual representation of our data and allowed us to have a quick discussion about the results of our survey right there in the yard without having to wait until we returned to the classroom. We talked about how many of each kind of plant we found, whether there was more kale or more lettuce, and how much more kale than lettuce there was.


Once we we went back inside, the students got right to work on creating visual representations of our findings. As you can see, they all had very different ideas about how to best showcase our garden data.


Like this idea? Check out my new eBook, Teaching Outside, for quick and easy ways to sneak more nature into your school day. 

How Did it Go? 

The kids loved getting the opportunity to go outside at a non-recess time. It lent a “special occasion” air to the whole lesson, which automatically increased student engagement. Getting to conduct a survey about plants that they themselves had planted and have nurtured for several months was an added bonus.

To me, the lesson felt much more meaningful and relevant to my students than asking them about eagles and whales. It was a great reminder to always explain the why of a lesson. Any time you can provide a real-world connection and context for a skill or activity, it is much more likely to sink in and be retained.

In conclusion, making this small tweak to the lesson was quick and easy, and my students still learned all the skills and concepts outlined in the lesson. And of course they also got to reap the many benefits of spending time outdoors. 

What Next?

I would love to do a follow-up lesson in a few weeks after we harvest some of the vegetables. We can then talk about how scientists and mathematicians often survey the same population or group over a period of time to measure changes in the data set.

Want more extensions and adaptations for this activity? Check out Activity 7: Surveys in my new eBook, Teaching Outside.


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