Ready to mix up your routine a bit? It’s time to take some of your lessons outdoors. The benefits of outdoor learning go beyond giving one another some space (hello, pandemic teaching). It’s been shown to increase school performance both academically and socially. That’s why when at all possible, I’m grabbing my students and expanding my classroom walls.
Want to know more about WHY you take your lessons outdoors? Are you a little hesitant to take your lessons outdoors because you’re not sure where to begin or if you’re simply looking for some new ideas for learning al fresco? Read on!
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The Benefits of Learning in the Great Outdoors
Yes, learning outside may cause distractions, BUT it can also boost creativity and promote inner calm and peace. (In both students and teachers.) Also, it has been proven that when students learn outside, they are more focused and productive in their next indoor lesson.
The benefits of learning outdoors are not just academic. There are social-emotional benefits, as well as the opportunity to experientially learn some basic life skills. Outdoor learning has been shown to increase conflict resolution, problem-solving, and cooperation. Students also get the chance to practice skills like, how to dress appropriately for the weather, how to cross streets, or in the case of one of my students, that you need to flip rocks away from yourself when turning them over in case of snakes.
This all sounds great but how do you do this with elementary students? Here is our outdoor learning strategy!
1. Have a “Grab & Go Out” Bag
If you happen to notice nice weather out your windows or even just weather that your students have the clothing for, get outside! However, it can take FOREVER for students to pack up their pencils, workbooks, notebooks, dry erase boards/markers, worksheets, books, and whatever other materials your lesson requires. Instead, keep a Grab & Go folder or bag prepped. Usually, a cheap tote is all you need but cheap individual cinch bags are pretty cool if you have the means.
Fill your tote or the bags with some pencils, clipboards, post-it notes, dry erase markers, and personal dry erase boards. You can use plain paper in a sheet protector and add it to the clipboard to make it easy.
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What else will be in the “Grab and Go Out” bags?
A good idea would be to use the Lucky Little Toolkit. Start by referencing it and using it during indoor lessons. This gets students familiar with having all their resources in one place. Then when the mood (or good weather) strikes, you can tell them to grab their toolkit and they’ll be ready to go. The toolkit is portable, making it a great option to take outside! In a binder, it will hold their papers in place in a nice fall breeze. Want to read more about the Lucky Little Toolkit? Check out this post HERE to learn more!
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2. What can be taught outside?
Outdoor learning doesn’t have to be a huge production. Depending on your location the outdoors might be a basketball court, an empty lot, a field, a forest, or a frozen creek. Take what you’re already doing and modify it slightly. Here are some ideas for teaching the four core subjects outdoors.
Math In The Outdoors
One of the greatest things about taking math outdoors is that it provides an opportunity to really show kids that math is everywhere. The skills they’re learning in class are used every day in real life. Here are some of my very favorite outdoor math ideas.
Use chalk to draw number lines on the nearest pavement to practice mental math, open number lines, or skip counting. If you have the space, make really long numbers lines and let them physically skip count. Super engaging and memorable!
Create your own base 10 blocks from natural or man-made materials around you for place value lessons. I taught at a school next to a meadow so we used small pebbles for ones, dried grass for 10s, and chunks of broken concrete for 100s.
If you’re a 3rd grade teacher or an end of the year 2nd grade teacher arrays can be easily done outside. You can go on an array scavenger hunt and have students walk around outside and find arrays out in the world (real-world math, yay!) and document them. Or build arrays using found objects. Our playground was filled with wood chips so that was my go-to. You can use snowballs, acorns, pebbles, anything!
Measurement & Data
Practicing data collection and graphing is super simple outdoors and adds another taste of real-world math. If you live near a busy road you can collect data on the colors of cars that drive past your school. Is your school more rural? Collect and graph different types of vegetation or kinds of birds you see- use what you have!
Measurement is really fun outside and can help make a somewhat abstract concept nice and concrete. When you’re teaching distance map out the lengths and have students walk them. Walk a mile or a kilometer together to see how it feels when compared to walking a meter or a couple of feet. Or try building paper airplanes and throwing them as far as you can and measuring their distance. For capacity, grab a tote of water and let them play with containers that are labeled. They’ll get hands-on experience with milliliters versus liters. I love having them compete in mini-games to fill different containers and letting them self-select which unit they think they should use. For weight, give them a post-it note with various weights and have them find things that weigh that much. They can use real scales or practice estimation.
Another one for the 3rd grade teachers or for your high achieving 2nd graders, present and solve a real-world problem area problem. Pretend you’ve been tasked to buy paint for a big wall in your school. Ask your students to measure the dimensions on the wall and help you figure out the area of it so you can buy enough paint.
All 1st & 2nd Grade Math Standards
Want something quick and easy? Attach Toothy Task Cards all around your outdoor space and let them solve them in the fresh air!
Literacy in the Outdoors
Taking literacy outdoors can be as simple as having your class read aloud outside. Will some of your students get distracted by a bee that inevitably decides to swoop in over your class? Certainly, but students get distracted by playing with the eraser on their desk, too. Like most things little learner-related, the more you do it the less novel (see what I did there?) all the outdoor distractions become.
Sound baskets are a quick way to add some movement and fresh air to a phonics lesson. Grab a basket or a bucket or any kind of container, write down the phonics pattern you’re working on, stick it to the side and get outside. Ask students to wander around and collect items that begin, contain, or end with that sound. I like doing a couple of sounds at once, like a handful of consonants, to keep them from getting stuck on a single sound. They can grab items or you can give them their own sticky notes and have them draw a quick sketch and put the note in the container.
Alternatively, break students into teams to build large 3D representations of the sounds they’re learning, like B/P/D, in an open space using materials they can find around them. My students built giant letters out of dead grass but use whatever is around you! After they’ve built them, play 3 Corners (like 4 Corner but with only 3 options). Shout out words with those beginning/ending sounds and have them run to the correct letter.
Go outdoors as an engaging anticipatory set when learning about setting. Talk about how setting isn’t just flat words, “the outdoors.” The setting of a story is rich and complex. Guide students to discuss their own current setting (outside). Talk about how a setting touches all of our senses. How does it FEEL outside? What’s it SMELL like? What do they HEAR? What does it LOOK like? Can they TASTE anything in the air?
There is this popular and wonderful activity at outdoor schools called The Magic Spot or Sit Spots. It’s where students take a writing journal and find a spot that calls to them. Some people say to try and find a place that matches the lines on their hands but I always tell my students to find a place that feels comfy and is away from friends who may distract them. This is a really good activity to do on a playground, if one is available to you, since there are so many nooks and crannies. Tell students that they must be “one kid length” (oh hello, surprise non-standard units of measurement practice) away from one another. They simply sit with their journal and write what they would like.
You can give simple prompts but I use Magic Spots to build writing stamina by giving minimum length and telling them I won’t read what they write during this time so they can treat it like personal journaling time. Set a timer and quietly monitor them. This is an activity that gets better the longer you do it. They inevitably find their favorite spot and many of my students said Magic Spot was the best part of the day.
For something a little more structured, try taking the Handwriting Practice Pages to their Magic Spot and working on them in the great outdoors!
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Introducing the major social studies topics outdoors is not only easy but really fun. I’ll walk you through an example of what I did in my classroom but quick ways to modify it for your setting.
First up, communities. This is one of the first standards we discuss and it’s really fun to take it outdoors. I begin by telling my students that a family of fairies wants to build a community at your school. They are small and they need help building their town. Group the students and give them some time to build what they think will be a good home for a fairy family. Then, have them write/talk about it. What did they include in their home? Go back inside or stay outside and create an anchor chart.
Introduce the terms and decide if they made an urban, rural, or suburban community. Guide them through things that make a healthy community and what they may need to add to their fairy homes & town to make it a better community for their fairy families. If you have time, let them add on!
Grab a clipboard, some paper, and a pencil, then head outside for map-making. Practice drawing, labeling, then reading maps by burying treasure for one another. Give students something small, like a new pencil or a cute eraser, or even a nice note in a baggy, and instruct them to bury it for a partner. Then, they’ll draw a map of the buried treasure for their friend to follow. If you’re on pavement and can’t dig just hide it somewhere inconspicuous.
Science is probably the category most teachers feel comfortable taking outdoors. Take the topics you’re learning about indoors and let your students go out and touch them!
How many different habitats can your students find around your school? This includes microhabitats like the weird space at the top of the slide that’s humid and dark or the empty lot across the street or the school roof! Let them explore and document. That spider egg sac under the staircase they found can lead to the next topic – life cycles! You can purposefully lead them to spiders around Halloween for a nice thematic unit and throw in the Spiders & Bats Lapbook for some structured writing.
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This one might be a no-brainer to some but remember life cycles are on full display all over the place, no matter where your school is. Take students out to collect rocks and talk about the rock cycle. Actively monitor & document the evaporation of a puddle when talking about the water cycle. The goal here is to show your students that life cycles are everywhere all the time they just have to notice them. Try adding in a Directed Drawing of a life cycle to add in some creativity and writing. This can be easily clipped onto a board for outdoor learning or done back indoors as a wrap-up.
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Biotic & Abiotic
This is a quick and almost no prep one. Grab two containers and label one BIOTIC and the other ABIOTIC. Take it outside, give your students boundaries and let them find examples of each. Tell them that they can collect evidence of biotic things too, like a bird feather, a gnawed-on leaf, or a shell.
3. Look for Local Partners
If learning outdoors feels overwhelming for you, if you need some support, or if you’re looking for something a little more official there is an entire thriving community of educators who specialize in outdoor education. Search for outdoor learning opportunities at local colleges, nonprofits like arboretums or preserves, or community zoos. If you’re lucky enough to live near National Parks or US Forest Service facilities seek out the Junior Ranger Program or Interpretive Rangers. If you Google, “Interpretive Programs near me” you should get some great hits that are often free or really low cost.
Give it a try!
The idea of outdoor learning can be daunting, but worthwhile. It allows students AND teachers some much-needed stress relief, fresh air and variety. We hope the ideas above spark your creativity. Happy teaching!