The ‘new’Outdoor Classroom: 10 tips for success

I can’t help but to laugh about the ‘new’ craze for lots of schools wanting to create an Outdoor Classroom. It’s absolutely not funny as to why everyone is now into this, as we approach the 2020-2021 school year in a global pandemic; but having taught outside for most of my 23 year teaching career, I have understood the benefits of being outside for a long time. It is very exciting to now see this being more legitimized by so many others. I often have colleagues and friends tell me “well that’s the nature of what you teach.” To a certain extent, there is no question they are correct. Teaching Ornithology, Oceanography, Astronomy, and Meteorology definitely lend themselves to being outside in the field. However, I push back that you can create an outside classroom for whatever it is that you teach. Whether it’s a field trip or just getting your students outside the building for a class or two, here are my 10 biggest tips/ideas that I have learned, that I hope will be helpful if you are planning on getting your kids outside this school year.

  1. Allergies, Nurse and main office related check in: Be sure to go through your rosters and check in with your school nurse well in advance, before you take your kids outside. If your students need an epipen or inhaler or whatever else, be sure you know that. If your students are older, say middle school/high school, they are aware of this and often times will have it with them. That being said, still be vigilant about making sure they have them. You don’t want to be away from the building and have a student that needs immediate help, not be able to get it. Along that same vein, but sure to have at least band-aids with you if not a small portable first-aid kit. It’s short money that will be huge peace of mind for you. Finally, the ‘main office’ must know you are going outside. If a student is going to be dismissed or the office is looking for a student and they have no idea where you are, that’s a problem. Get or bring a walkie talkie should you need one.
  2. Parental/Caregiver permission Each year, at the beginning of the school year, I have my student’s get parental permission that they will be outside the building many times during class hours. I want caregivers to be aware of this and be sure that they are comfortable with it. I do my best to make going outside “voluntarily mandatory” because the classes I teach just are not the same if we are inside for the majority of the class.
  3. Have a purpose and a goal: While it’s nice to ‘get out in nature’, having a stated goal or purpose for what you are doing outside is just good teaching. Share that goal with your students. Have it written down. For example, with my Ornithology classes, we’ll talk about what our ‘target birds’ are before we get out into the field. If you’re thinking, “well that’s easy, you teach a class about birds.”, here are a few other examples that will obviously vary with grade level and engagement. Math: Our target goal is to estimate the amount of leaves that are on a certain tree and to measure their growth over the next month. History: Let’s look at the landscape of where where we are now and then research what this place/school location looked like 200 years ago and how it has changed. Create a map of the current space and compare it to maps from the past. English: We want to observe as much wildlife as we can and write and essay about that wildlife from a first person voice about what the animal’s life is like in the area that we observe it. If you are creative about ideas, it can really be limitless of what you can do.
  4. Scout and what it’s going to look and sound like: I can’t emphasize this enough. If you are planning on taking your kids outside of the building for class on your school’s property, scout the physical layout first. Look for broken glass, a bee’s nest that might be somewhere on the route, animal droppings that are in the area (geese are notorious for this!) and any potential hazards that could make the experience a negative one. Also, check in with your building maintenance people to see if they will be mowing the grass or painting lines on a field or whatever. A well intended lesson can go south quickly when surrounded by weed-whackers and lawn mowers. (yes, this has happened to me)
  5. Check the weather, but don’t let the weather limit you: Seems obvious, but if you are with your students at your furthest point away from the building and a thunderstorm hits that you didn’t explore was going happen, you put yourself and your students in a really difficult position. I love this site here to know the best weather in your area. Don’t be afraid to get kids out in the cold or the hot weather also. Maybe limit the experience a little in extremes, but getting out there in some of those conditions will build some group camaraderie and give them a new experience.
  6. Warm/cool, dry and comfortable: My friend Patrick Torrey has been an outdoor educator his whole life. He shared with me the warm/cool, dry and comfortable motto that is crucial to both your success as an educator and the joy of the experience for your students. If you and your kids can stay these 3 things, it’s going to be an overall better time for everyone. So give your student’s and/or their caregiver’s plenty of notice if you know it’s going to be hot or cool and they need to be dressed appropriately. If you face some equity issues when it comes to dress, be sure to share with them that you can help provide anything they may need to keep student’s warm/cool, dry and comfortable.
  7. Don’t force it: If whatever you are studying doesn’t seem to make a natural fit for the out-of-doors setting, then don’t do it. You know your curriculum and your students best. “Getting outside, just to get outside” takes away from the experience if you are just ‘wandering’ or ‘stretching’ what it is your are trying to teach.
  8. Be aware of the sun: This seems like a no brainer, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed well-intentioned teachers bring kids outside, sit the kids down and then try to teach their students while their kids are facing/looking into the sun. This is one where you need to have some situational awareness and be sure that you are facing the sun, if you can’t find a shady place to teach.
  9. Keep kids moving: While it’s great to have kids outside, think about how your can teach your lesson while walking or moving at the same time. For example, if you are teaching about word problems, kids can walk for 10 minutes with a small, socially distanced group and come up with a couple word problems involving what some of their observations they are making from the world around them. Then, when your class regroups, they can discuss them with the larger group and solve them in a stationary place. So, add a movement element to it, other than the walking outside and inside of your school. That movement will stimulate brain activity and help in the creativeness of your kids.
  10. Eliminate technology: Bringing your students outside, just to then have them do work on their laptops or phones is the total antithesis of why you want to go outside. They spend enough time on their screens and if you have a remote portion of teaching, that will open even more time on devices. Get creative with a field notebook and something to write with and give them a chance to be screen free.

Even if it’s one class a month, the benefits of being outside with your kids in this Covid-19 world are innumerable for their emotional and physical health. Now, more than ever, they will appreciate the importance of this time outside and they can learn a great deal with you as well.

About the Author: Stephen Maguire, M.Ed, has been teaching at the middle and high school levels for over 20 years. He currently teaches science electives at Scituate High School in Scituate, MA. He is also a professional speaker and consultant, facilitating professional development for teachers and summer camp staff across the country. He resides in Scituate, MA with Jess, his wife and their four children; Nolan (10), Emmitt (8) Greta (7) and Scotia (6). You can find out more about his work here

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