8 ideas for outdoor learning

Expand your classroom and keep kids engaged

flexible classroomsThe weather is getting nicer. The sun is finally out. And you are in charge of keeping your class engaged, focused and ...inside? Ha!

Any teacher who has experienced spring in Vermont knows that students get a little wiggly this time of year. What’s a great way to harness that energy and keep students engaged with school to the very end of the year?

Get. OUT.

Can students really learn outside?

There are lots of benefits to getting kids outside to learn. Project Learning Tree, a great professional resource for outdoor education, shares these benefits:

  • Improve test scores, attendance, attitudes toward learning
  • Positively affect child physical, social, interpersonal, and aesthetic development
  • Alleviate symptoms of ADHD and ADD
  • Help ELL learners learn new vocabulary
  • Improve child health
  • Allow children who learn differently from others to become leaders and shine

What can students learn outside?

Get a solid start

Before you head out, it’s important to discuss norms for outdoor learning. What are the shared expectations? Have students share their ideas for how they will make outside learning time safe, productive, and fun. List out the shared norms and review them often, before and after outdoor classes.

Also, have a plan in mind for what to do if someone gets hurt, has an emergency bathroom trip, or if there’s a behavior issue. It’s best to head outside with another adult if you have a large class, but if you have a walkie-talkie, or are close to the school and have strong norms in place, you could consider doing it on your own.

8 ideas for outdoor learning

1. Any lesson feels better out under the sky

Have an outdoor classroom? This can be nothing more than some logs or stumps  to sit on in an outdoor space. Take any lesson outside and teach it from there. Read aloud time is perfect for this, as is writing, especially when you can use the natural landscape for inspiration.

2. Just read

Kids love to read in unique places! In trees, under trees, tucked up against rocks, spread out on the grass. Give them some freedom and fresh air as they turn the pages.  If they’re reading on devices, shade is crucial for being able to see their screens. Come to think of it, shade’s pretty crucial as an option for everything!

ideas for outdoor learning

3.  Scavenger hunts!

These can be connected to any content area and allow for running (safely!), jumping (safely!) and darting about. Students can do scavenger hunts of good deeds, items in nature, items around the school — you name it. Take your devices with you and use a wifi-free app like Goose Chase, or write your scavenger hunt with QR codes! Grab a good wifi-free QR code app like Red Laser.

4. Got science?

Get hands on with engaging science outside. Try running experiments outside and worry less about messes and carpets. Check out these Earth Day-themed ideas for science you can do outdoors!

ideas for outdoor learning

5. Invite some guests

It’s the end of the year. Kids are thinking about the future, or, at least summer. Bring in people from the community to talk about their jobs, their college experiences, their hobbies. Meet outside and have students ask questions.  This way you’re developing students’ narratives of what’s possible, doing something different and getting outside all at once. Win-win-win.

6. Design challenges, tactile spaces and tinker labs, oh my!

Consider scheduling times when students can build outdoors. They can use materials from the outdoors, or materials you have gathered to do design challenges such as these from PBS Kids. Kids will love the opportunity to use their hands and to tackle a challenge.

6. Get back to backwoods basics

Now’s the time to teach those outdoor skills like fire- and shelter-building, orienteering, and map-reading. Partner with the PE teacher, the science teacher, and others to spend a day learning outdoor skills. Students can do outdoor research and then come inside to create maps of the school campus, using Google maps and one of these tools. The opportunities are endless!

7. Don’t just think rural

Is your school close to a town center? Are there local businesses students can visit and survey? They can conduct interviews on how these businesses use math, if they compost and how much, or create a survey to share about the school and community. Students can come back and analyze the data by creating graphics to share back to the business or community.

8. Teambuilding ftw!

Your class knows each other VERY well at this point in the year.  Present them with teambuilding challenges that can be done outdoors. This a good way to celebrate community and close out the year. Students will remember trying to cross the nuclear waste river together more than they might remember that last worksheet or in-class activity.

What are your ideas for expanding beyond the classroom walls?

How can teachers schedule and organize these activities while staying sane in the last few weeks of school?


Katy Farber

Farber joined TIIE after 17 years as a classroom teacher in central Vermont. She is passionate about promoting student and teacher voice, engaging early adolescent students, sharing the power of service learning, and creating inclusive communities where joy, courageous conversations and kindness are the norm. She lives in central Vermont with her husband and two daughters and loves being outside with family and friends, listening to music, writing about the world, and jumping into Vermont ponds and lakes.

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