Schools are operating outdoor classrooms more than ever before this winter, and the prospect of teaching in cold, possibly wet weather can feel daunting to even the most seasoned professionals. We’ve gathered some resources from a variety of sources and experts in the field to inspire, motivate, and encourage you to stay outside over the next few months and beyond.
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!
Not all kids are born loving the great outdoors. For some, “nature” is synonymous with dirty, scary, and unpleasant. How can we help these children change their associations with the natural world and learn to see it as an exciting, fun, and comforting place?
A few years ago I had a student (I’ll call her Tanya) who absolutely hated Forest Fridays because she didn’t want to get her clothes dirty–until she did. Fast forward to the last day of school when we went to the beach and Tanya had a meltdown at the end of the day because she did not want to put her shoes back on after being in the sand and water virtually all day. I considered this meltdown a sign of a successful transformation from a nature-fearing to a nature-loving child.
The key to Tanya’s transformation was quite simple: I mostly ignored her. I know I know, I’m a terribly negligent teacher. But hear me out. The first few days in the forest I tried everything I could think of to encourage Tanya to participate and get comfortable being in the dirt. For every argument I made in favor of why it was OK for her to sit on the ground, she was prepared with six counterarguments. While 21 children sat, Tanya stood. When it came time to play and explore, Tanya held back and tried to convince her friends to draw with her or do anything that didn’t involve actually touching dirt or bugs. They guiltily told her thanks but no thanks.
Eventually I gave up trying to persuade Tanya to do things my way, and I just let her sit back and watch everyone else have fun. I stopped fighting her and let her stand instead of sit. (This was a hard one for me, because I am a firm believer in everyone following the “group plan.”) Slowly but surely, Tanya found her way into the group.
The real turning point came with the first rain. As I have mentioned in previous posts, our forest site has a natural swamp that forms once a significant amount of rain falls. It is a scientific fact that no child (and most adults) cannot resist the temptation to jump in a mud puddle. Sure enough, one day I watched with amazement as Tanya dipped first just a toe, then a whole foot, into the swamp. Next thing I knew she was knee-deep in the mucky, squishy mud and squealing with delight.
In the weeks that followed, Tanya was spotted painting her face with charcoal, bushwhacking her way through thick bramble to reach a secret hideout, and, most notably, letting a garter snake slither over her hands. I could hardly believe this was the same child who, only months earlier, had steadfastly refused to let her her clothes come in contact with dirt.
Not all kids who are hesitant about playing in nature will undergo such thorough transformations as Tanya did, and that’s OK. Meet them where they are. Let them take the lead. Never force a child to do something that scares them or makes them uncomfortable, for that is the fastest way to ensure they will never do it again. Be their guide on the side and their biggest chearleader. Encourage, comfort, and engage. Above all, lead by example.
When I first started Forest Fridays, the only resources I had in abundance were enthusiasm and blind optimism. I knew some basic environmental ed principles from my college days in the student sustainability club, but by no means was I an expert or seasoned practitioner in the art of connecting kids with nature. I assumed that I would figure it out as I went, but I quickly realized that I was going to need some help. Since those early days I have learned a lot about how to leverage community resources which are often readily available yet seldom utilized. The kicker? They’re usually free. Here are my top three tips:
1. Invite experts to visit. If you do not have the requisite knowledge about a particular subject or skill but want your students to learn it, consider seeking out an expert in the field. Most people who are passionate enough about something to become an expert in it will be happy to spend an hour or two talking about it to kids. For example, my class is currently learning about how Native Americans in our area have historically used native plants for eating, cleaning, and healing. We read several books that vaguely touched on this topic, but it wasn’t really coming alive for the students until my co-teacher invited a member of the local Ohlone tribe to come talk to our class. She was so excited about this opportunity that she brought along her sister and a friend as well as a big collection of artifacts and tools made by her tribe. The information and firsthand experiences she was able to share with us were so much richer and more impactful than anything I would ever have been able to teach my students.
2. Borrow materials and equipment. How many times have you gotten super excited about doing an activity or project with your students only to discover that it requires a specific piece of equipment that you either can’t get or don’t want to spend the money to buy? I found myself in this situation a couple years ago when I wanted to teach my students how to bird watch. While they of course could’ve just looked for birds with their naked eyes, I knew the experience would be so much richer if they had binoculars. I balked at the thought of paying hundreds of dollars for a class set of binoculars, though. I decided to contact the Presidio Trust, the non-profit organization that works out of the Presidio National Park, to see if they had any birding equipment we could borrow. Sure enough they did, and a few weeks later a naturalist from the Trust came to meet us at Forest Friday with a class set of binoculars in tow. It turned out that several of my students didn’t like using the binoculars and preferred looking without them, which made me extra glad that I hadn’t busted our budget to buy brand new sets. The icing on the cake? I didn’t have to find a place in my already-crowded classroom to store them.
Resources vary by city, but a good first stop is your local parks and recreation department. Many public library systems also have tool-lending programs. Local birding organizations or hiking clubs may also be a good resource.
3. Partner with other teachers/schools/programs. Perhaps the best and most valuable resources we have are our peers. If you have an idea for an activity but aren’t quiet sure how to flesh it out or put it into action, then talking to another teacher can be just the ticket.
Alternatively, kids can learn so much from visiting other children’s schools, parks, and neighborhoods. The possibilities for collaboration are limitless: compare and contrast plant or animal species, teach each other about the local flora and fauna, engage in neighborhood clean-ups or planting projects, and so much more. If leaving your school feels like too much, consider partnering with another class on your campus. My first grade class recently partnered with the sixth graders to do some research about water pollution. Having the older students present allowed us to do more sophisticated work than we otherwise would have, and the sixth graders got authentic practice conducting research.
Take the networking one step further by partnering with a local organization or group. The Presidio Trust frequently needs volunteers to help with their native plant restoration projects, so we now have an annual planting day where my first graders are put to work replanting entire hillsides at a time. The relationship is mutually beneficial, as the Trust gets much-needed manual labor and my students gain firsthand knowledge about what plants need to survive and thrive.
Organizations like Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and Lions Club often have good volunteer opportunities.
No matter which community resources you decide to leverage, remember it never hurts to ask. The worst that can happen is they say no, but in my experience the answer is most often yes. Happy networking!
It was a beautiful sunny spring day with not a cloud in sight, but half of my class showed up to school on a recent Friday in rain boots. No, they had not been misled by the weather forecast: they were mud-puddle ready.
One of the best features of our outdoor classroom in the Presidio National Park is that every winter, after a few heavy rainstorms, a giant, muddy swamp forms in one corner. The water typically gets up to the kids’ knees during the height of the wet season, and it stays terrifically muddy well into the spring. Hence the rain boots on the otherwise warm and sunny day.
On a typical afternoon, the activity of choice for the swamp area is to splash and stomp around, seeing how high you can wade before you get water inside your shoes. Some children also enjoy poking sticks in the mud to see what lurks beneath. But on this particular Friday, a new activity emerged: submerging hands (and, in a few cases, arms) in the mud, then chasing other non-muddied children (mostly girls) who feigned horror at the idea of getting mud on themselves.
The original mud-bathers was a group of boys. A cluster of girls stood by, watching closely but staying a safe distance away from the mud. Shrieks of “ew!” and “gross!” were heard at regular intervals. And then one of the girls broke from the pack, walked into the swamp, and dipped her hands right into the muck. “This feels so good!” she called back to her friends. They exchanged looks with each other, equal parts shocked and amazed at the boldness of their fellow female. Mere seconds later, the whole group was elbows-deep in the mud, laughing uproariously and chasing after all their classmates. So quickly had this activity transformed from a “boys only” game with the boys pitting themselves against the girls, to one where gender was inconsequential and the jubilation of the experience overshadowed any previous notions of how boys and girls “should” play.
Although this was certainly not the first example of how nature play breaks down gender barriers and stereotypes, it was striking to me how visceral and visual it was. The very act of being in and with nature seems to empower children to act more freely and without the hangups and encumbrances they grapple with in the classroom and on the school yard. Girls who would never join the boys-only soccer game at school are happy to build a dam in the river with a co-ed group of children. Boys who insist that the only acceptable recess activity is playing tag will be the first to initiate a game of “family” in the forest. Nature makes children freer and allows them to bring their full, authentic selves to the proverbial table. For this, I am grateful.
These are just a few of the things I heard– and promptly ignored — from my first graders at a recent Forest Friday as they slowly made their way up and into a willow tree in our outdoor classroom. Some might call my lack of response negligent and uncaring. I call it strength training.
Kids who climb trees, and are encouraged to struggle and stick it out, become stronger not only physically, but also mentally.
Despite all of their self-deprecating comments and vocalizations about fear and doubt, all the kids who attempted to climb the tree that day succeeded in not only getting up, but also getting down. Yes, some took much more coaxing, encouragement, and time than others, but in the end they all did it. And then they didn’t stop telling other kids about it for the rest of the day.
As I stood below the tree and alternately acted as cheerleader, co-strategizer, reassurer, and confidence-booster, I had lots of time to reflect on the many amazing and largely intangible skills and traits each climber was honing through this process.
Strength and balance. Tree climbing is a full-body workout rivaling the most intense exercise programs in terms of its benefits for muscle development and core-strengthening. Core strength is practically an endangered species in children today, and the repercussions are serious: just think how many kids you know who are W-sitters, can’t sit up for more than a few minutes, or have trouble sitting still in a chair.
Bravery. Climbing higher and higher into a plant with unknown strength and weight-bearing capacity is downright terrifying. It takes a significant amount of courage to keep ascending when every ounce of your being is telling you to return to the nice, firm ground.
Perseverance. It’s so much easier to just give up and say no, especially when the going gets tough. It’s fascinating to see what kids do when they get to a tricky part of a climb. How will they tackle this fork in the branch? How will they get around the spiky burl? Where will they put their feet when there are no foot-holds to be found? In my experience, even the kids who declare it can’t be done manage to find a way. And once they’ve tackled that first obstacle, the subsequent struggles become much less daunting.
Confidence. Remember that kid who just moments ago was crying “I can’t do it, it’s too hard!” and begging you to get them down out of the tree? Well, now they’re on the ground, beaming from ear to ear, radiating confidence, and telling anyone within earshot that climbing that tree “was so easy!” and “so fun!” and getting right back in line to do it all again. Funny how they never seem to remember the hard parts.
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:
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!
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.
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!
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?
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.
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”).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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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.