How to Add Outdoor Time to a Super-Packed Schedule

It’s the end of summer. You are filled with excitement and optimism for the upcoming school year, and you are overflowing with ideas and plans for how to make this the BEST. YEAR. EVER! Then, you receive your schedule and suddenly all your hopes and dreams are crushed into a million pieces and your excitement and optimism are instantly replaced with anxiety and panic about how on earth you will ever find time to teach reading, let alone take your students outside on a regular basis. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there!

A crammed schedule does not need to mean deleting nature education from your schedule. Here are some creative ways to make sure you are meeting the demands of your school’s curriculum AND still giving your students the gift of outdoor time.

Find natural areas of crossover in your curriculum. 

If you take a close look at the standards/benchmarks/objectives that you are expected to teach, you will likely find many that seamlessly translate to outdoor learning. Here are a few examples:

Standard: Count to 10

Outdoor activity: Students search for 10 pebbles in the school yard.

Standard: Retell a story

Outdoor activity: Read a book to children while sitting outside, then have them reenact the story in small groups.

Standard: Compare weight and length of various objects

Outdoor activity: Students find 3 sticks of various lengths and line them up in order from shortest to tallest.

Standard: Read and spell words with vowel-consonant-e spellings

Outdoor activity: Students write spelling words in sand/dirt or “paint” them with water on concrete.

Need more ideas? Check out my eBook Teaching Outside: 20 Quick & Easy Outdoor Education Activities for Children 

Combine outdoor time with other activities.

Most any part of your regular school day can be done outside with a few modifications: Morning Meeting, snack, Calendar Math, Closing Circle, sharing time, etc.

Many schools schedule time for non-academic activities, such as cross-grade buddies, family groups, and assemblies. These community-building times are excellent opportunities to get students outside. Check in with  other adults and staff members to see if they’d be willing to do activities outdoors during these times. For example, buddy classes could go on a neighborhood cleanup, weed the school garden, or go on a nature scavenger hunt together.

Specialist classes such as music and PE also may be able to be held outdoors. If all else fails, try to get your students eating lunch or snack outside at least once or twice a week.

Think outside the schedule.

Sometimes there really and truly is not enough time during a school day to regularly take your students outside. In that case, consider organizing a before or after-school club. Students who are interested in and able to come early or stay late can have a dedicated outdoor time to look forward to each week. If you are not able or willing to lead the club yourself, see if you can wrangle a couple parent volunteers to help. The club can be as structured or loose as you like. Many schools have minimum or early-release days once a week for staff meetings, and these days can be a great time for an outdoor club to meet under the supervision of parent volunteers.

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: 

1.MD.C.4
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

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!