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.
These are unprecedented times for schools, teachers, and education in general. Many schools are operating exclusively online for the time being, but if your school is offering any in-person classes, you may be encouraged to try to teach outdoors as much as possible. This can feel daunting, especially if you are not someone who has ever taught outside the walls of a traditional classroom. While it will not be possible to perfectly replicate the classroom experience outside, there are many parts of the school day that can easily be adapted to the outdoors. In some cases, they may even be better suited to the al fresco setting!
First, some overarching advice:
In general, activities that require minimal materials are best for outdoors.
If you do need materials, make sure they are portable (clipboard, lightweight whiteboard easel, etc.).
Establish ground rules and behavioral expectations for your outdoor classroom, just as you would for your indoor one.
Clearly identify and mark independent work areas for each student, a whole-class gathering space, and play areas.
If possible, create a portable “learning kit” for each student containing essential materials such as pencils, paper, coloring supplies, and any anchor charts or reference materials they will need for a lesson.
School activities that are easy to do outdoors:
Morning Meeting, class meetings, and Closing Circle
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.
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’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.
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.
As a nature-based early childhood educator, I hear all the time from parents who want their kiddos to be spending more time outdoors, but aren’t quite sure where to begin. And I get it! Unplugging and heading outdoors can feel intimidating. But it doesn’t have to. Here are my top 4 tips for helping your child connect with nature — even if you’re not a “nature person.”
1. Make Time & Space
Research shows that frequent, unstructured experiences in nature are the most common influence on the development of life-long conservation values. If you want your child to love and care for the earth, all you have to do is make time for them to go outdoors and play!
Too often, though, we overlook close-to-home natural spaces. We think of nature as being synonymous with wilderness, and forget that even city parks and suburban backyards offer fertile ground for fostering a nature connection.
Don’t feel like you have to set aside an entire day or more for a big outdoor adventure. Instead, challenge yourself to go outdoors with your child for just 30 minutes a day for a week. Start getting to know the little patch of nature outside your front door. What changes depending on the weather or the time of day? Don’t worry about having anything planned – just make time and space and let your child lead the way.
2. Learn Together
Can’t tell a maple from an oak tree or an insect from an arachnid? That’s just fine! Let your little one see that you don’t always know everything! Instead, embrace the learning process together. Modeling curiosity – and good research skills – is more valuable than pretending to have all the answers!
Find children’s books on natural themes at the library, invest in a couple of simple field guides specific to your region, and keep a list of your child’s questions and photos of interesting things you find to research together when you’re back inside.
The more time you spend outdoors, the better you’ll get to know your own local ecosystem, and the more plants and animals you’ll find yourself naturally starting to recognize.
3. Model a Positive Attitude
When it comes to spending time outdoors, attitude is everything! Disliking the rain or fearing insects isn’t instinctive – kids learn these attitudes from watching adults. It’s alright if you don’t want to touch every creepy-crawly your child discovers under a log, but try to react with enthusiasm and interest rather than “eews” and “eeks!”
Similarly, work on being enthusiastic about heading outdoors, no matter how hot, cold, or wet the weather may be. Building a deep connection with the natural world requires spending time in nature in all conditions. I think Nicolette Sowder of Wilder Child sums up the benefits of this practice best: “Encouraging a child to go outside in all weather builds resilience, but more importantly it saves them from spending their life merely tolerating the “bad” days in favor of a handful of “good” ones – a life of endless expectations and conditions where happiness hinges on sunshine.”
This may seem easier said then done, but there’s a lot of truth to the Scandinavian saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” More often than not, if we’re uncomfortable outdoors it’s our gear (or lack thereof), not the conditions, that are to blame. Sturdy boots, and quality rain gear can make a huge difference in how you and your child experience time out in the elements, and are well worth the investment!
4. Don’t Go It Alone!
Building a habit of getting outdoors regularly with your child is easier if you have support!
That’s why I recently launched Wonderkin, a monthly subscription box that provides parents with everything they need to jumpstart engaging outdoor play and learning, no matter where they live or how crazy their schedule is.
Each box is curated around a different natural theme, like hibernation and pollination, and includes a high-quality children’s book, materials and guidelines for 3-5 hands-on learning and outdoor exploration activities, and a parent “cheat sheet” to help you answer all your little explorer’s questions. Subscribers also receive exclusive discounts on premium children’s gear from our favorite brands, and access to our Insiders Facebook group, where they can connect with a community of like-minded parents. If you’re interested in trying it out, you can get $5 off your first box with promo code “NATURENAT.”
Want additional support? Find another parent to go on regular outdoor playdates with, or check out Free Forest School, an organization that provides free opportunities for young children and their parents and caregivers to explore, play, and connect in public parks across the U.S.
Emma Huvos is an early-childhood educator and nature play advocate. She runs Riverside Nature School, a nature-based early childhood program located in Charles Town, West Virginia and is the founder of Wonderkin, a monthly subscription box designed to support early childhood development by getting kids outdoors and connected to nature.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.