These are unprecedented times for schools, teachers, and education in general. Many schools are operating exclusively online for the time being, but if your school is offering any in-person classes, you may be encouraged to try to teach outdoors as much as possible. This can feel daunting, especially if you are not someone who has ever taught outside the walls of a traditional classroom. While it will not be possible to perfectly replicate the classroom experience outside, there are many parts of the school day that can easily be adapted to the outdoors. In some cases, they may even be better suited to the al fresco setting!
First, some overarching advice:
In general, activities that require minimal materials are best for outdoors.
If you do need materials, make sure they are portable (clipboard, lightweight whiteboard easel, etc.).
Establish ground rules and behavioral expectations for your outdoor classroom, just as you would for your indoor one.
Clearly identify and mark independent work areas for each student, a whole-class gathering space, and play areas.
If possible, create a portable “learning kit” for each student containing essential materials such as pencils, paper, coloring supplies, and any anchor charts or reference materials they will need for a lesson.
School activities that are easy to do outdoors:
Morning Meeting, class meetings, and Closing Circle
As schools make plans to re-open in the Fall, many are considering taking part or all of their school day outdoors. Here are a few key things to look for when selecting your outdoor classroom site.
Want more ideas? Check out the Teaching Outside ebook for 20 detailed, Common Core-aligned, step-by-step activities that are categorized by grade level, time needed, materials needed, “readiness level,” and subject.
Representation matters. And when it comes to seeing themselves represented in books about exploring nature and the outdoors, black children are not being represented.
The 2019 Atlantic article Where is the Black Blueberries for Sal? by Ashley Fetters highlights the dearth of black protagonists in books where the main characters are exploring in nature or going on a wilderness adventure for fun. In a follow-up article, Where are the Books about Black Kids in Nature?Andrea Breau of Diverse Book Finder wrote about DBF’s comprehensive search of their collection of picture books with Black and Indigenous people and People of Color as protagonists. The search turned up just 16 books that met this criteria. Notably, only four of the sixteen were written by authors from that same diverse group (learn about the #ownvoices movement here).
The reasons for this lack of representation are complex, but, unsurprisingly, many of them are rooted in systemic racism and historical injustices toward black people.
Now, more than ever, as our country reels from the horrific and racist treatment of black people by police officers, dog walkers, and self-appointed vigilantes, we must do more to rebrand nature as a place for all people, including black children.
It has been almost two months since I last took my class of first graders on a forest day. At our last outing back in early March, I sensed it would be the last time we’d all be together outdoors for a while. I didn’t, however, think it would be our last forest day of the school year. If I had known, perhaps I would’ve made more of an effort to soak it all in–the smells of the redwood trees, the sound of the squealing laughter as the children guided each other blindfolded through the forest, the shrieks of delight when they stumbled upon a banana slug. Now, almost eight weeks later, as I prepare to embark on yet another week of at-home learning and endless Zoom calls, I find myself frequently thinking about all the many things I miss about “real” teaching, and, in particular, teaching outside. Here are a few, in no particular order.
I miss seeing the creative games kids come up with when there are no walls and no toys. With an anthropologist’s watchful eyes, I admire how they spend their time, what worlds, creatures, and situations they conjure, and how they navigate and negotiate these imagined realms.
I miss seeing a new side of my students that doesn’t always show up in the classroom–the tentative child attempting a daring tree climb, the by-the-book literal thinker creatively devising a solution for how to ford the stream, and the timid, shy child boldly calling out across a field and leading his classmates in games. In the forest, preconceived notions and well-worn tropes are challenged, thrown out, and recreated with the most delightful reckless abandon.
I miss Sit Spot — the several moments of complete calm that take over the class and transform them from wild animals in their natural habitat to peaceful, reflective beings.
I miss watching kids make discoveries, connections, and hypotheses in the most natural, unplanned ways. They find some interesting insect nests and hypothesize they might be silkworm cocoons. They find feathers and nails on the ground and become detectives to solve the mystery of how they got there. It is here, in the great outdoors, that all the skills and objectives and learning targets that I so carefully and methodically have imparted on them are applied and brought to life. It is here that the learning is happening.
Last school year, before the words “global pandemic” were part of every conversation I had, I embarked on an ambitious and sadly ill-fated mission to eliminate landfill waste from my 1st grade classroom. Nowadays, I would give anything to just be able to teach in a real classroom again. However, I’m also trying to see this situation as a chance to start fresh, to reevaluate some of the practices that are so deeply ingrained in elementary school culture. The shiny new plastic-encased markers. The individual plastic-robed glue sticks. The squeezable tubes of yogurt. The list goes on.
Whenever I do get the opportunity to return to my classroom, I want to do things differently, and there’s no better person to talk to about my aspirations than Jacqueline Omania, the inspirational teacher behind the Zero Waste Classroom Project and winner of the 2019 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators.
What is a zero waste classroom?
It tries to make no landfill trash.
It tries not to use plastic– we use real forks, spoons, and cups.
It tries to recycle and compost.
It practices rethinking, reusing, and refusing.
It practices and studies about being a sustainable person.
Why do you make your classroom zero waste?
Once I got informed about plastic recycling not really happening, I didn’t want to participate in that anymore. So I shared it with my kids.
Having done a zero waste classroom for the fifth year now- I feel it completely inspires all my students.
They can connect, they can make changes and see and measure it. They know the world has great challenges, but they are empowered daily with the desire to learn more and the ability to make a difference.
What have been the biggest challenges to going zero waste?
It’s not as much as you would expect. The trick is to get the kids onboard, to make it theirs. Make them feel like it’s reachable for them. It’s a matter of intention. You try to be intentional to make the least waste you can. It’s definitely a process–it took 5 years to get there.
My obstacles are things that come from school. For example, all our math [materials] come wrapped in plastic. I’m required for them to use whiteboard markers when I teach math.
What surprised you about this project?
In any moment it could be destroyed, but it wasn’t. The kids embraced it on a deeper level, naturally, without a lot of force. They all wanted to do this, to do their part. Kids feel so powerless in the world. For them to know there’s a concrete way they can make a difference. [that] what they’re doing is worthy [and[ they have a role in the world–they really want that. They’re so proud, so bold. They impress me so much.
What kinds of impacts or changes have you seen in your students since starting this project?
They’re more engaged with their writing in general. They’re often writing their speeches [for press conferences]. They’re engaged because they know it’s going to have a purpose. With math, they’re doing multiplication and division for each trash audit. They’re super engaged with their learning.
I’ve had really positive feedback from parents. [They’re] so proud of their children for being advocates for the environment.
We’re stronger as a community together. This had a ripple effect around our school. I opened up the Ocean Club for the whole school–all their friends came. The other kids wanted to know about it and talk about it. Now we have 45 kids coming.
Where do you go from here?
My vision would be to empower every kid to get on board. If you set up everything with a Kindergarten cohort on board, you’re set.
More teachers need to be doing this, but we need the education piece for people to care. I’m hoping to create staff developments about this in a different way. Not telling teachers what to do, but showing them what we do.
It’s more than the materials–it’s parent education. More education to not buy those school supplies. They don’t need their own stuff. I think we all just need to share more. We’re constantly buying and dumping. We have so much excess, and we just need to redistribute all that. We have to rethink the way we are together, and the amount of stuff we have.
Learn more about the Zero Waste Classroom Project with these videos:
Have you ever wondered how much trash you produce in a day? How about a whole lunchroom of elementary school students? Nanette Heffernan, author of the newly-published children’s book Earth Hour: A Lights-Out Event for Our Planet, became curious about this question while working as a lunchroom volunteer at her children’s elementary school about a decade ago. She conducted a trash audit, meticulously counting every chip and plastic bag in the trash for a week.
“I told the principal, if you support waste-free lunch, I’ll do it for another week, and I’ll make a hat,” said Heffernan. Within the first day, the hat was complete, and it quickly grew into a suit because there was just so much trash.
For Heffernan, what started out as a somewhat facetious challenge, soon morphed into an iconic and highly-impactful visual reminder of the astonishing amount of waste produced by school lunches every day. Ten years later, Heffernan continues to don her trash suit at school assemblies, festivals, and other educational events to draw attention to the environmental impact of single-use disposables. “Your first breath you laugh, then you pause, and then you react,” she said.
Educating children (and “their grown-ups,” as Heffernan likes to say) about how to reduce waste is just one part of Heffernan’s work as a sustainability consultant. Her new book, Earth Hour, aims to reach an even wider audience of children who are looking for ways to get involved in protecting the planet. Earth Hour is a global environmental movement sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. This year, Earth Hour takes place on Saturday, March 28. Wherever you are on the planet, at 8:30pm on March 28, you shut your lights off for the hour as a pledge of what you’re going to do for the environment for the rest of the year. “It’s not about how much energy you save in that hour,” says Heffernan. She likens the event to Valentine’s Day. “We love each other year-round, but we go out of our way to show it on Valentine’s Day. It’s the same for Earth Hour.”
Heffernan emphasizes that participating in Earth Hour is a way for people of all ages to get involved in a tangible way. “Kids have so many rules,” says Heffernan, noting that children are often told they have to go to bed at a certain time, eat their vegetables, do their homework, and more. “It’s easy for a child to feel overwhelmed when you hear these stories about climate change. They think, ‘What can I do, I’m only 7?’ You can participate [in Earth Hour] when you’re 7, and you don’t need permission.”
Above all, Heffernan hopes that her book inspires optimism. “[Kids] have so much power in their little hands to make a difference. With that finger they can turn off the light, with that hand they can turn off the water, they can say ‘no thank you’ to single-use plastic. Whatever their pledge is, it makes a huge impact,” said Heffernan.
Animals may be hunkering down for the long, cold winter, but that doesn’t mean you should enter hibernation as well. Don your hats and gloves, and take advantage of the many benefits of teaching outside this winter.
Disclaimer: Taking children outside in extreme temperatures and weather conditions can be dangerous. Always use good judgment when deciding whether to go out or not, and remember to keep the children’s safety as your top priority!
1. Fresh air leads to less sickness
Small, heated classrooms and indoor spaces act as the ideal incubators for bacteria and viruses to thrive, leading to rampant runny noses and coughs. Exposure to fresh air helps keep those germs at bay, plus it helps boost your immune system for added protection.
2. Natural light boosts mood
When you expose your body to natural light, it helps keep your circadian rhythm in tact, which in turn improves your overall sense of well-being and may even help reduce symptoms of depression.
3. Experiencing cold and wet weather increases resilience
With proper gear and preparation, outdoor time in cold and/or wet weather can be an excellent time to teach children some mental toughness. A little discomfort can go a long way towards building one’s capacity for resilience, and it provides a great opportunity to teach children about the importance of adequate clothing and equipment. They may find they are much tougher than they think!
4. Shorter days mean less outdoor activities after school
With daylight in short supply, after school soccer practices and backyard play time may be limited during the winter months. Providing outdoor time during the school day ensures that children are getting their much-needed dose of Vitamin N.
5. Wintertime nature is fascinating and unique
The winter months are rich with opportunities for unique scientific investigations, amazing observations, and just plain beautiful sights.
Here are a few things you can try this winter:
Examine a snowflake under a microscope
Search for animal tracks in the mud or snow
Collect and measure rainfall or snowfall
Splash in mud puddles
Track the temperature
Build a winter shelter– can you make it waterproof?
How will you be spending your outdoor time this winter? Share your ideas, learn from others, and stay warm!
It’s the longest day of the year, and that means it’s also the official start of summer! Take advantage of the extra sunlight by spending time in nature today.
Take a walk outside. Go for a stroll around the block, through a park, or on a trail. Notice the colors, smells, and sounds. Stop to smell those beautiful flowers and take a closer look at those fascinating insects. Bonus points if you bring a picnic lunch!
Go on a nature scavenger hunt. Choose a few categories or items for kids to look for outside. Keep things loose by instructing children to find 3 things bigger than their hand, or get specific by asking them to look for a certain type of plant or insect. I like this 5 Senses Scavenger Hunt from Childhood 101.
Press flowers. Channel your inner Martha Stewart and create beautiful keepsakes that will remind you of summer for months to come. Here are step-by-step instructions for how to press flowers in a book.
Make a mud kitchen. If it’s hot where you are, cool kids off by getting out the hose and making some good old fashioned mud. Pull out some old kitchen tools (think muffin tins, measuring cups, bowls, etc.) and let them go to town creating delectable mud confections.
Plant a pollinator garden. Did you know that today marks the end of Pollinator Week 2019? Help our hardworking insect friends by sowing some seeds in your garden. Check out these Pollinator Facts for information about what kinds of plants are best for attracting animal pollinators.
If you enjoyed Part 1 of How to Start an Outdoor Classroom at Any School on Feb. 21, then you’ll love Part 2, which covers the “outside” work that happens once you’ve laid the groundwork for a successful nature-based learning program. Topics include: safety, schedules and academic time, and good gear.
The webinar will start on Thursday, March 21 at 8:00 PM EST/5:00 PM PST. Register here.
This webinar is for teachers, administrators, parents, community members, mentors, and anyone else who is interested in helping connect children to nature.
Learn directly from experienced professionals
Gain knowledge, tools, and resources to start their own outdoor classroom