Easy Switches: Indoor School Activities that Can Easily Be Done Outdoors

© Alyse Panitz Photography

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
  • Read alouds 
  • Independent reading 
  • Book clubs and/or guided reading groups
  • Readers Theater 
  • Sight word and/or vocabulary practice 
  • Independent writing/Writers Workshop  
  • Mental math exercises
  • Number strings 
  • SEL activities/games 
  • PE 
  • Science experiments/investigations/journaling 
  • Service projects 

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

What I Miss Most About Teaching Outside

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.