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.
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!
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
Happy International Women’s Day! In my classroom, we spend a lot of time learning about change makers, especially those who may not be as well-known or celebrated. My favorite way to introduce these admirable humans is through read-alouds of high-quality picture books. In honor of International Women’s Day, here are some of my favorite books about environmental sheroes.
Wangari Maathai grew up in Kenya with trees all around her. After studying abroad for many years, she returned home to Kenya to find most of the trees had been cut down. Wangari took it upon herself to restore Kenya to its verdant past, empowering thousands of women to help along the way.
Isatou Ceesay was fed up with plastic bags littering her community in Gambia and causing health problems for humans and animals alike. She was inspired to find ways to not only recycle the bags into useful items, but uplift other women in her community as well.
Northern California native Katherine Olivia Sessions was shocked to discover that the city of San Diego had almost no trees. After becoming the first woman to graduate with a science degree from the University of California, Katherine made it her mission to fill San Diego with trees.
Rachel Carson is most famous for her landmark book Silent Spring, which is often credited with being an impetus of the modern environmental movement. This book tells the story of Rachel’s childhood and the experiences that led her to become one of America’s most well-known environmentalists.
The Zero Waste Classroom Challenge is officially launched! My co-teacher, Vicki, and I wanted to have an exciting “hook” for introducing the challenge, so we turned to our old friend Phoebe the Phoenix, a Big Bird-like character who is the mascot of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Phoebe visited our school in the fall to teach the students about recycling and composting, so she was the perfect individual to issue the challenge. We decided to have Phoebe write a letter to the students with all the details.
After reading the letter aloud to the class, more than half the class raised their hands, eager to comment and ask questions. I thought they had grasped the concept pretty well until one boy raised his hand and said, “Wait. I don’t get it.” Oops. Time to backup and explain things a little better!
We then proceeded to spend a good amount of time breaking down the term “zero waste,” which led to a discussion of what exactly happens to our trash after we throw it in the bins in our classroom. It was a question that many students seemed to have never considered–most seemed to think it simply vanishes into thin air! Next thing I knew we were deep into a conversation about what exactly a landfill is. Pictures were shown. Terms such as “biodegrade,” “leeching,” and “toxic gas” were bandied about. Some kids still didn’t get it. Maybe we should take a field trip to the local dump?
Despite their shaky understanding of trash’s final resting place, the students did seem quite concerned about how much trash goes to landfills (in San Francisco alone, 1200 tons of garbage is carted off to landfill each day– that’s 800 Toyota Priuses!). They were overflowing (like the landfill!) with ideas about how to avoid sending trash to landfill. One student suggested she could just take her granola bar wrappers home and put them in a box (for future art projects) instead of throwing them away. Now this is the kind of innovative thinking we need! And I’m sure her parents will be thrilled by their new home decor. In all seriousness, though, they did have many great ideas, including not taking plastic produce bags at the grocery store (try reusable ones instead!).
We also started monitoring and tracking our class’s landfill waste at the end of each day. This week we just kept a tally of all the different items we found in there each day, and next week we plan to turn this data into a more visually-appealing graph. This week’s biggest offender was…..food wrappers! Yes, those kings-of-convenience (I’m looking at you, seaweed pouches!) stop looking so convenient when they are destined to spend the next 5,000-odd years festering in a landfill.
A theme that came up again and again throughout this first week was the idea of better vs. best alternatives. For example, recycling a plastic water bottle is better than throwing it in the landfill, but the best option is to forgo the plastic bottle altogether and use a reusable one instead. Similarly, using a paper bag is better than using a plastic one, but the best option is to use a reusable cloth bag. Which brings us to an important zero waste philosophy: Going zero waste is not about perfection. It’s about getting better compared to ourselves. It is nearly impossible to truly eliminate ALL non-compostable/non-recyclable/non-reusable materials from your life. The goal is simply to become more conscious of the decisions we make on a daily basis and to make changes and improvements wherever we can. In the wise words of Dr. Seuss, Progress is progress, no matter how small (OK fine, I may have taken some artistic liberties, there… apologies to Horton).
So, where to next? Well, as Phoebe instructed, we will take the month of January to learn more about zero waste and really start paying attention to our class’s waste stream. We will continue to do daily landfill inventories, and, once trends start to emerge, we will work on brainstorming reusable alternatives for our most pesky landfill items. Come February, the challenge really begins as we will bid farewell to our classroom landfill bin. All items that can’t be reused, recycled, or composted will be placed in a clear jar and kept until the end of the school year. The goal is to keep that jar as empty as possible! As classroom supplies run out, we will replace them with the least-wasteful alternatives we can find.
Around mid-May we plan to wrap things up with a big Zero Waste Celebration. Will we succeed in limiting our landfill trash to one single jar? Will we make Phoebe proud? Only time will tell. Whatever happens, you can read about it here: the good, the bad, and the toxic gas. ‘Til next week!
I pride myself on living a pretty “green” life and having a relatively low carbon footprint. I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, I am a member of a local CSA, I drive a Prius, and I always bring my reusable produce bags and shopping bags to the farmers market or store. I even purchase carbon offsets for long distance travel and recently bought a GuppyFriend bag to stop microplastics from entering the oceans when I wash my clothes. So when I started reading Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, I was expecting to feel pretty smug, and I wasn’t expecting to make many major changes to my daily life. It didn’t take long for me to realize, though, that there is MUCH more I can do to reduce my impact on the planet. Specifically, there is a lot of room for improvement in my work life, aka in my classroom. So, with this in mind, I will be engaging my students in a Zero Waste Classroom Challenge in 2019.
Why do it?
Better for the planet
Modeling sustainable behavior for kids, which they will hopefully then pass on to their families and spheres of influence
Can eventually eliminate large bulky trash can, thus creating more space in our classroom
What we’re already doing:
Using cloth dish towels instead of paper towels to dry hands
Using scratch paper for art, drawing, book marks, tests, worksheets, etc.
Investing in higher quality materials (e.g. folders, book boxes, supply bags) and reusing them every year rather than buying new sets for each class
Sourcing used items for flexible seating (thank you Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and Nextdoor!)
Encouraging students to bring snack/lunch in reusable containers
Book hospital- repairing broken/torn books rather than replacing them
Thinking twice before printing (Can I submit a form electronically? Can I take a picture of it on my phone instead of printing it?)
Using old Tupperware/food containers for math manipulatives, science projects, etc. rather than buying new
Donating old materials/rugs/furniture instead of throwing them out (offer first to other teachers in the building, then to the public) and the opposite: asking others for something we need before buying it
Laminating posters I will reuse every year, writing on both sides of chart paper, and only tearing off the exact size I need from a new sheet of chart paper
Using the library as much as possible to avoid buying new books
Opening curtains and shades to maximize natural light and avoid turning on the overhead lights (this has the added benefit of lowering stress and keeping kids calm)
What I want to do in the future:
Not buy a class set of math workbooks each year. Instead, I will buy one master copy and make copies of the pages we actually need/will use (also helps with storage/resource management!).
Eliminate (or reduce as much as possible) Amazon or online deliveries– buy local and without packaging
Stop getting Scholastic Book Order fliers– shop online only
Over the next 6 months, I will be documenting our Zero Waste Classroom journey here on the blog. Be sure to subscribe to receive all the latest news and updates and to follow along on our journey.
And, of course, I want to hear from you! Have you tried reducing your classroom’s waste stream? What has worked and what hasn’t? Any words of wisdom? Let me know on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or email!
I recently became one of the co-moderators of the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) Early Childhood Environmental Education Group, an online community of like-minded educators, parents, researchers, and more who are passionate about connecting our youngest children to nature. The group is a goldmine of resources, opportunities, and fellowship, and I encourage anyone and everyone with an interest in this topic to join the group (it’s free!). Here’s a snapshot of some of the great features of the group (and the larger eePRO community).
Pose or answer a question from a fellow group mate, and do some fantastic networking in the process. This is the most lively and interactive portion of the site and you are sure to come away with great new ideas.
Find out about upcoming learning opportunities, such as webinars, online courses, conferences, trainings, and more. Successful completion of a learning opportunity earns you Learning Hours, which are noted on your eePRO profile.
If you’re looking for a new job in the field of environmental education, you might want to peruse the curated job postings on the site. They are sorted by location and you can also search by a variety of other criteria.