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!
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.
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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