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.

Read moreAdapting a Mandated Curriculum for Your Outdoor Classroom

Top 8 Transportation Tips: How to Get Safely To and From Your Outdoor Classroom (while keeping your sanity intact)

Picture this: the bus pulls up to its stop at exactly the time it was scheduled to do so. Twenty-three 6 and 7-year olds wait patiently in a quiet line, being careful to leave room for bus passengers to exit. When the last passenger has disembarked, the children ascend the bus steps in an orderly fashion, pleasantly greet the driver, scan their passes, and file quickly to the back of the bus. They find the first available seat, sit on their bottoms, and face forward for the entirety of the ride while making polite quiet conversation with their seat-mate. When an elderly woman boards the bus, they all quickly stand and offer their seat. Once their destination is reached, the children stand, quiet as a mouse, call “thank you!” to the bus driver, and quickly but safely exit the bus. The remaining passengers smile sweetly and comment to their neighbors how well-mannered those darling children were.

Sound familiar? I didn’t think so. Here’s a more realistic image of what it looks like to take young children on public transportation:

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Depending on where your outdoor classroom is located, you may need to ride a bus or train, or you may be fortunate enough to walk. Here are my top 8 tips for making the journey as enjoyable as the destination:

  1. Travel during off-peak times. Whenever possible, schedule your trips in the middle of the day, i.e. not during peak commute times. Your odds of getting a whole chunk of seats together (and possibly an entire bus) greatly improve if you are traveling between 10am-2pm, plus there are far fewer innocent commuters to annoy!
  2. Make transit passes wearable. I stole this idea from the former Kindergarten teacher at my school because it is brilliant: turn transit passes into necklaces (see above picture) so your students have to work a lot harder to lose their tickets. As an added bonus, the necklaces can double as nametags.
  3. Label your children. Because we all forget our names sometimes. JK. We always include the child’s first name, as well as our school name, address, and phone number in case they get separated from the group. Remember, safety first, people!
  4. Assign a task or challenge. This is a great hack for keeping kids busy and (relatively) quiet while in transit. Before they board the bus, assign them some sort of scavenger hunt-type challenge, such as: How many pigeons can you spot between here and our destination? Who can spot the most elm trees?
  5. Travel Buddies are your new best friend (literally). Before you leave, assign each kid a Travel Buddy. This will be their walking partner, their seat mate, and the person who makes sure they don’t get left behind on the bus.
  6. Create a Student Sandwich. When walking with your class, make sure the teachers are the “bread” and the students are the “meat” (or peanut butter/sun butter/tuna fish, etc.). There should always be one adult at the front of the group and one adult at the end, and students should not “leak out” of the sandwich (i.e. go in front of/behind the teacher “bread”).
  7. Only bring what you can carry. Make sure students know that they will be responsible for carrying all their own belongings, so they should not bring more than they want to carry. In other words, leave that Harry Potter brick of a book at home, and just bring the essentials: outerwear, food, water, and sun protection.
  8. Sprint to the finish. We’ve all been that teacher calling (read: pleading) to their students in the final 5 minutes of a long walk: “You can do it! We’re almost there! Just a little bit longer! Don’t stop now!” At my school the last block of our walk happens to be straight up a very steep hill. The solution? Run. Yes, you read that correctly: make them sprint the last leg. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but what kid can resist a little competition? Plus, they get the hardest part over with more quickly. Just don’t be surprised when your students collapse in a sweaty, exhausted dog pile in front of the school entrance. Pat yourself on the back and revel in the knowledge that you have successfully completed another off-campus journey and returned with the same number of children with which you started (I hope).

Got more transportation tips? Don’t keep them to yourself!

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My #2018NatureGoals: Lead by Example

I spend a lot of time telling other people they should get outside more. I can spout off ten scientifically-proven facts about the benefits of spending time in nature without breaking a sweat, but how often am I actually breaking a sweat in nature? The dawn of a new year has encouraged me to take a closer look at my personal nature habits, and I have concluded that there is definitely room for improvement.

I recently learned about The Nature Pyramid in Florence Williams’ fabulous book The Nature Fix. Tanya Denckla-Cobb and Tim Beatley of the University of Virginia have taken the idea of the ubiquitous Food Pyramid and given it a nature-makeover to provide clear guidance on exactly how much nature the average human needs to maximize the health and well-being benefits provided by green spaces. One rendition of the pyramid looks like this:

Here are the basic recommendations:

1. Have casual interactions with nature in your neighborhood daily.

examples: sit in a natural-light drenched room, notice the trees and bird song as you walk to and from your car, tend your backyard garden

2. Spend at least one hour weekly in an intentional nature area, such as a regional park or green space.

examples: go on a walk in a park, go birding in a local nature preserve, take a walk on a beach

3. Designate one weekend monthly to more thoroughly immerse yourself in nature, preferably overnight.

examples: camp in a National Park, rent a cabin in the woods for one night

4. Unplug and get off the grid in a remote, farther-flung natural area for at least a 3-day period yearly.

examples: go on a multi-day backpacking trip in the wilderness

Me hugging some trees at Calaveras Big Trees State Park in December

With this framework in mind, here are my #2018NatureGoals:

  • Improve my houseplant game. I am a notorious unintentional plant-killer, but I am determined that 2018 will be the year my brown thumb turns green.
  • On weeks when I don’t get to visit the forest with my students I will make a point of taking a short walk or hike in nature either after work one day or on the weekend.
  • Take at least one longer hike or outdoor adventure each month (bonus points if I can convince my husband or friends to join me). There are so many beautiful hikes and Mother-Nature’s-Showing-Off-Again destinations just a short drive away from my home in the Bay Area, so I really have no excuse on this one.
  • Go on a backpacking trip (for the first time since high school!). Admittedly, this is the goal that generates the most anxiety for me. I adore camping, but the type-A control freak in me breaks out in a cold sweat just thinking about all the unknown factors and out-of-my-control elements inherent in a backpacking trip. Fortunately I have a robust support system in my circle of friends, and I know they will hold my hand through this (and bully me into doing it if I try to bail).

Cheers to a nature-filled 2018!

What are your #2018NatureGoals? Share them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with #2018NatureGoals so we can keep each other accountable!


Disclosure: Please note that some of the links on this page are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Thank you!

Exciting Announcement: I’m writing a book!

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “What should I do with my kids outside?” Many teachers and parents want to take their children out in nature but lack the time, resources, or ability to run a full-fledged forest school program. This book is for you.

The book contains over 20 different activities that can be done right in your backyard or school playground–no fancy forests required (although, if you can go to a forest, all the better). Each activity contains step-by-step instructions, materials lists, suggested ages and time requirements, and, drumroll please…COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS ALIGNMENT!

As a busy teacher myself with limited time in the school day to teach all the benchmarks, standards, and required curriculum, I know that feeling when you want to do something fun and different but just can’t figure out how to fit it into your schedule. I designed this book to be a quick and easy resource that you can pull out when you have just 5 minutes to spare and have done absolutely no preparation. On the flip side, it’s also a great resource for teachers wanting to go deeper and do a more involved and long-term outdoor activity. No matter your circumstances, this book is for you.

Still not convinced? Check out this free sneak peak of the book.

P.S. Subscribers to the Nature Natalie Newsletter will get 10% off the price of the book when it’s published this Winter. What’s that, you haven’t subscribed yet? What are you waiting for?!

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, or Why I Never Use Umbrellas (Part Two)

Read Part One here.

4. Embrace the mess. Wet weather = messy weather. End of story. The sooner you accept the fact that you and all your students will be covered in mud, the better. Just think of it as a little immunity boost.

5. Stock up on supplies. These 3 essentials will be your savior in wet weather: a tarp, ziplock bags, and plastic sheet protectors. The first

time it rained at a Forest Friday I arrived home with a backpack full of soggy emergency forms and disintegrating tissues. Never again! Now I stick everything in ziplock bags or sheet protectors, and they’re good as new even after a deluge. The tarp is great for sitting on or for covering up backpacks or lunches so they don’t get soaked. I have yet to try this, but I have plans to attempt making a “roof” out of the tarp for students to sit under at lunchtime. Some other supplies that are nice to have but not crucial: rain covers for backpacks and waterproof journal covers.

6. Leave the umbrellas at home. Seriously, just do it. I’ll admit, this one’s a little bit personal for me: umbrellas and I have never gotten along. We have what you might call an antagonistic relationship. Past feuds aside, though, umbrellas are a direct obstacle to connecting with nature. If you’re worrying about keeping your umbrella from flipping inside out with every gust of wind, how will you notice the way the wind whooshes through the trees? If you’re toting an umbrella overhead, how will you fit into the tiny opening at the mouth of the rock cave? If one hand is holding an umbrella, how will you keep your balance when you make a tightrope out of a fallen branch? Umbrellas are ineffectual at best and burdensome at worst, so do yourself a favor and just leave them at home.

7. Follow the children’s lead. This is actually my advice for all things forest school, but it is especially important when the weather is unpredictable. Children’s moods and stamina can change just as quickly as the weather, so be extra vigilant for short tempers, unsafe behaviors, or general ickiness. Don’t be afraid to head home a bit early if it means avoiding complete and total meltdown in the forest. That being said, though, remember that pushing kids out of their comfort zones is the fastest way to build their confidence and to help them LEARN.

8. End on a wet note. With apologies to the families and cars of my students, I always try to schedule our forest trips for the end of the school day so I can immediately shuttle the soggy, muddy children into their waiting vehicles before the discomfort and complaining begins. If the timing does not work out in your favor, refer back to number 3. Did I mention the dry socks?

Have any other good tips for making the most of unpredictable weather? Leave a comment below.

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, or Why I Never Use Umbrellas (Part One)

The Scandinavians have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

This concept of not only allowing, but encouraging, children to play outside in cold, wet weather sparks fear and horror in many American parents. But in Northern European countries, where the weather is often much colder and much wetter than here in the States, it is a common and recommended practice to take children outside in practically all weather conditions. Newborn babies (well-bundled, mind you) even nap in sub-zero temperatures.

In her new book There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hyyge), Swedish-born Linda McGurk chronicles her experience trying to raise her American children in the free-range, nature-centric style she grew up with in Sweden. As you might expect, she encounters some resistance along the way.

This book, combined with the recent rainstorms in San Francisco, got me thinking: why are we Americans so afraid of “bad weather”? I grew up in Northern California, so my experience with extreme weather events is admittedly limited. But after two-plus years of taking my students

outside year-round, I’ve learned a few things about how to make unpredictable weather your best friend in the forest.

1. Mindset is everything. Your kids will follow your lead. If you’re excited about getting wet, they’ll be excited too. If you are complaining about the cold, expect to hear a chorus of whining from your students. So go ahead and slap a smile on your face, even if you’d rather be supervising indoor recess in your hot, stuffy classroom.

2. Wear the right clothes. The Scandinavians are absolutely right about this one: bad clothing can really ruin your day. I wear mid-calf rubber boots from October through May, even when there is no sign of rain in the forecast. This way I have no hesitation about splashing through mud that may be lingering in shady spots from last week’s rain showers. On days when I know or suspect there will be rain, I throw on my water-resistant pants over a pair of leggings, a fleece pull-over, my water-proof rain coat, and, to top it all off, a baseball hat to keep the rain out of my face. With this ensemble I am able to stay outside comfortably for at least 3 hours. For the kids, I have heard great things about Oaki Wear. They sell everything your children will need to stay dry and warm, from waders to one-piece rain suits, to gloves.

3. Have extra clothes. No matter how well-prepared you are, you will likely still get wet if you stay outside in the rain or snow for an extended time period. (I learned this lesson the hard way a few weeks ago when the public bus stopped running during a rain storm, forcing me and my first graders to walk several miles back to school from a field trip). You can be having all the fun in the world while you’re out in the rain, but as soon as you get back inside you’re going to want to put on dry clothes. Especially socks.

If nothing else, have clean, dry socks for all your kids, and everything will be OK. (Side note: I always include “complete change of clothes, including shoes, socks, and underwear” as part of my Back to School supply list for students. These come in handy for bathroom accidents or art mishaps, too).


Check back next week for 5 more ways to make unpredictable weather your best friend.


Disclosure: Please note that some of the links on this page are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Thank you!

This Too Shall Pass: How a Little Pain Will Offer Students a Lot of Gain

I hated hiking as a kid. It was hot, it was dusty, and it was always a forced family activity that I was required to complete. Fast forward a few decades, and hiking is now one of my favorite pastimes. I am grateful to my parents for ignoring my complaints and guiding me to push through the “pain” all those years, because once I was ready to embrace hiking on my own, I immediately fell back on all the lessons I had learned from family trips about my personal limitations and the tremendous rewards of spending time outdoors.

It can be hard for teachers and parents to tolerate seeing their students and children uncomfortable or upset. The instinct is to immediately jump in and fix whatever is not going smoothly and to relieve the child of any pain or suffering. My advice? Let them struggle (within reason). Barring life-threatening situations or extreme danger, it’s healthy and good for kids to face challenges, and the benefits of letting them muddle through are immense. Here are just a few of the many ways that the saying no pain, no gain pans out in natural play.

They will learn to tolerate a bit of discomfort. I once had a student who refused to sit on the ground for fear of getting her clothes dirty. One Forest Friday in September, she was blissfully running next to a creek when she lost her footing and SPLASH! she fell on her bottom into the water. The tantrum that ensued scared off all the wildlife for miles, and once it became clear that she was not physically hurt, she switched her attention to being upset about how wet and muddy her clothes were. I assured her that this too shall pass, but no amount of reassurance from me would appease her. Fortunately we had planned ahead and all the students kept a change of clothes back at school. I figured she would stay away from the creek from then on, but the next week, and every week after, she was the first one to jump into the creek. I never heard another complaint from her about her clothes.

They will learn their physical limits. Tree-climbing is a favorite activity at Forest Fridays, and I am careful to never set a limit on how high they can climb. Have I had to climb up into a tree to help an ambitious student who has climbed too high? Yes. Have I ever had to help that same child again? No.

They will increase their endurance. The first walk back from the forest is always the same. “Are we there yet?” “I’m hot!” and “I wish we could fly back!” are a constant refrain. The next week a bit of the complaining is replaced with gushing about the awesome millipede we uncovered. With each ensuing week, the joyful chatter about the day’s discoveries gradually drowns out the whining about the hike. You’ll always have a few kids who can’t help but mention how long the walk feels, but for the majority, the trek becomes easier with each walk and seems a small price to pay for the chance to spend an afternoon in nature.

They will venture out of their comfort zone more often (including in the classroom). Learning occurs when we brush up against things we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. We put children in this position of confronting their discomfort all day long in the classroom. We tell them, “I know this math problem looks hard, but we’re going to break it down and solve it together.” We say, “Yes this is a word you’ve never seen before, but we’ll look at the parts of the word and that will help us figure out what it means.” It’s no different in the outdoor classroom. When children are pushed to do unfamiliar activities, such as tasting a wild edible plant, or letting a garter snake run over their hand, they learn from that experience. Perhaps the most important lesson they learn is that they can do things they’ve never tried before, and they just might enjoy it.

Forest Friday on the Fly: Lessons From an Improvised Forest School Lesson

It was going to be an awesome Forest Friday: we were scheduled to help plant seedlings as part of an effort to return native plants to the Presidio. There were guaranteed to be ample opportunities to dig in the dirt, find all manner of creepy crawlies, and experience the unparalleled joy of placing a baby plant in the warm, wet earth.

Then we looked at the weather report: 90% chance of thunderstorms on Friday. The volunteer coordinator waited until Thursday afternoon to make the call, but make the call he did, and with that our forest planting adventure was postponed indefinitely. I notified all our parent volunteers and told them that unfortunately their services were no longer needed and they could go ahead and reschedule that Friday lunch date with a friend. I resigned myself to a long Friday afternoon stuck in the classroom with my restless first graders.

Come Friday morning I woke up and looked out my window, expecting to see clouds. Instead, I was greeted with a beautifully blue sky, not a cloud in sight. I figured the rain would start later, but no, it appears the meteorologists had gotten it all wrong. The gorgeous weather lasted all day, which made for an awkward conversation with my students when our normal Forest Friday departure time rolled around.

“Natalie, why aren’t we going to the forest?”

“Well, uh, it’s supposed to be raining….”

The widespread disappointment and confusion from my class was nothing compared to the annoyance that I felt about having needlessly squandered a forest school lesson.

By the time lunch was over, I had made up my mind that we were going to get outside that afternoon, no matter what. If we couldn’t go to the forest, then we would bring the forest to us! With little more than one short activity in mind, I told my class to head outside because we were DOING Forest Friday!

Miraculously, no other kids were on our school’s play yard when we got there, so I quickly gathered my students in a circle on the wood chips in a somewhat desperate attempt to “claim” the space. I was met by many bewildered looks from my first graders, and more than one student commented, “What are we doing here? This isn’t the forest!” Undeterred, I quickly initiated our Opening Routine and started racking my brain for activities we could do here in this concrete jungle.

The first thing I came up with was a leaf hunt. I instructed my skeptical scientists to find three different leaves in the yard and bring them back to our circle. They obediently ran off and scoured the far corners of our small yard. Back at the circle, each student proudly displayed their three leaves and I invited them to discuss what they noticed about how the leaves were similar and different from each other, where they came from, and why they might look the way they do. There was a particular fascination with the leaves’ color varieties, which led to an interesting conversation about decomposition.

Feeling emboldened by the somewhat unexpected success of my first attempt at an improvised forest activity, I decided to press on. The kids had seemed to particularly enjoy the hunting aspect of our first challenge, so I continued with that theme and asked them to find a collection of four different kinds of natural items and make a representation of them (which happened to be a nice tie-in to our current math unit on data and graphing). Instead of sharing as a whole group I instructed the students to gather in groups of three and go on a gallery walk to each other’s representations, and I have never seen a child speak so passionately about a pile of sand.

The students were still engaged at this point, so I quickly thought up one last task: create a representation of your name using only natural materials (leaves, sticks, sand, pebbles, tree bark, etc.). Within seconds of releasing them to work I began seeing letters take shape, and I have to say, their finished products wildly exceeded my expectations. Such creativity and enthusiasm for such a seemingly-simple task!

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that by now almost an hour had passed, and the students were just as engaged as they usually are in the genuine forest. Despite their being no creek, no large branches to use as fort walls, and a noticeable dearth of insects and small amphibians, my young scientists were happily connecting with nature in just as authentic ways as they do when we make the trek down the hill to our local park. And after all, isn’t that the whole goal of outdoor education and the forest school approach?

I don’t plan on making Forest Fridays in the schoolyard a regular occurrence, but I did learn two important lessons that day:

1. Don’t trust the weather report.

2. Forest school can happen anywhere! No fancy forests required.

Post Script: I am happy to report that our planting expedition was rescheduled (for Earth Day, no less!), and the first graders are looking forward to being proud plant parents to approximately 120 seedlings!