5 Tips for Embracing Outdoor Learning in Any Setting

 (M.K. 2016/Flickr)

In a year when all schools look different from usual, some teachers are embracing the outdoors as their classroom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention included outdoor learning in recommended strategies for schools to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and research has shown positive instructional outcomes from such methods. Long-time outdoor educators also tout the social and emotional benefits. But getting started can feel daunting. Below are five tips from experienced teachers for trying outdoor learning in any setting.

Look for possibilities in different spaces

Becky Schnekser is teaching K-5 science fully outdoors this year at a private school in Virginia Beach. She has the advantage of a well developed outdoor classroom, but that’s not a prerequisite. “Any outdoor space is an opportunity, whether you have a beautiful wooded area or you have concrete jungle,” she said. From sidewalk math to history walks to socially distanced singing, educators are finding ways to teach outdoors across environments and subjects. It takes thinking differently, which, as Schnekser pointed out, teachers are already doing because of COVID-19. “There are ways to take advantage of that. You just have to flip a little dimmer switch in your mind,” she said. 

Pack like you would for a field trip

When she’s teaching, Schnekser wears a toolbelt that could give Mary Poppins’ purse a run for its money. In it, she keeps duct tape, scissors, a refillable water bottle, gardening gloves, an extra mask, sticky notes, a screwdriver and more — all in easy reach. Even if you’re just going outside to read a story, it’s a good idea to carry a canvas tote bag with essentials such as a medical kit, cell phone and hand sanitizer.

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Footwear is another consideration. Ditch heels, Schnekser said. Comfortable shoes are a must. Students, too, will need to wear clothing to match the weather. When Cornelius Minor taught in New York City public schools, he kept extra coats and boots in the classroom so that his language arts students could leave the building every day, come rain, snow or sunshine.

Plan for physical distancing, of course

While it’s easier to maintain six feet of separation from peers outside, designing classes for coronavirus safety still takes planning. Educators are using individual mats or even painted lines on concrete to help students maintain their distance. 

Those precautions can bring other challenges, though. In a virtual course for teachers about outdoor learning, New York City-based educator Kass Minor noted that physical distancing can make it harder for both kids and adults to hear, especially in urban settings. She suggested adopting classwide hand signals or student-created visual cue cards to help communicate common messages, such as “I have an idea” and “I need to use the restroom.”

For Schnekser, the pandemic has prompted her to restructure hands-on activities. In field studies, “a lot of times you're in the same space, rubbing elbows,” she said. This year, instead of having students try all aspects of a project, she has assigned them to specialized tasks to limit contact with materials and peers. The upside to the change is that it’s more authentic to how scientists operate in the field. “So it has actually forced me to be more purposeful and intentional with what I'm doing with my students,” she said.

And here’s a fun idea from Minor: foam pool noodles are “a game changer” for physically distanced outdoor games like tag, she said.

Connect children’s curiosity to content

While distractions like street noise can be planned for, others will be unexpected. In those cases, improv skills might come in handy. If a bald eagle flies overhead while your class is outside, you might pause to watch the eagle and then pose a question to connect children’s curiosity to content. If you were reading "The Mouse and the Motorcycle," for example, you might ask, “If this was a book about an eagle, would it ride a motorcycle or something else?” In other words, “find a way to embrace it, rather than fight it,” Schnekser said.

Choose your own adventure

In her virtual course, Minor described three levels of outdoor learning. The baseline level includes practices that may already occur in many schools: field trips, recess and traditional lessons held outside in good weather. The next level involves using outdoor experiences to generate questions or ideas, such as taking photos as story prompts. The third level entails thematic units in which students examine environmental or neighborhood issues.

Minor encouraged teachers to consider their students’ cultures and experiences in their planning and to be gracious with themselves in this difficult year. Any of those three levels is a good place to be, she said. “Simply being outside is a really powerful pedagogical move for children or any person, for that matter, during this time."