7 Outdoor Teaching Strategies

Hannah French Outdoor Teaching Hero

If you want to read more about the outdoor classroom in Western Massachusetts described below, visit the Forest Learning Blog. For Hannah French's full story, listen to her episode on Teachers in America.

On a crisp September morning, way back in 2018, my co-teacher and I led our third and fourth grade students down a winding woodland trail. The class was bubbling with excitement. We were eager to arrive at our destination: a hilltop in the middle of the forest, surrounded by scraggly hemlock trees and hobblebush. When we arrived, students helped to clear a small area on the hilltop and carry logs to create a seating circle. It was the beginning of our first forest classroom. All Fridays after that (aptly named Forest Fridays) were devoted to outdoor learning. Our class would hike in the forest, write in nature journals, make nature observations, read in the woods, and play outdoor games related to math, science, and social studies. The students even had “Forest Choice Time,” which is what we call free play in the woods. Needless to say, Forest Fridays became one of the most exciting and meaningful parts of our week.

In the fall of 2020, as the COVID pandemic continued and our school planned to reopen for in-person learning, we saw an opportunity to expand our outdoor learning program. Research has detailed the benefits of outdoor learning for students of all ages, and we knew that germs would be less likely to spread outside in the fresh air. Thus, we began to develop a new outdoor classroom. We wanted a space that was closer to the school building so that it would be easy to get to on a daily basis. The chosen area sits just beyond the tree line, in sight of the playground and soccer field. With help from community members we were able to clear brush and set up seating stumps just in time for the start of school. Then we were off and running!

One year later, our outdoor classroom is better than ever. We start the day in the classroom, where we use our technology that we can't take with us into the forest. Then we head to our outdoor classroom, where we now have multiple teaching spaces. There are tables fashioned from recycled wire spools, second-hand camping chairs, student hammocks, student-built forts, and, most recently added, a fire pit. It took a lot of hard work, and a strong commitment to spending time outside. Now we’re in our forest classroom on a daily basis, often for full days—lunchtime included!

Interested in beginning an outdoor classroom of your own but not sure where to begin? Here are seven tips to get you started on your outdoor teaching journey.

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The beginnings of Hannah's first forest classroom.

Tips for Teaching Outside

1. Start small, and be patient.

Getting started with outdoor teaching can seem like a daunting task. The good news is that you can start small! Maybe this means you’re only outside for morning meetings, or that you’re heading out with your students one day per week. As you start to spend more and more time outside with the group, you’ll start to realize what you need in order to be successful. For example, we quickly realized that we needed to hang up tarps for shelter on rainy days. We learned the value of durable clipboards, and the importance of well-made sit-upons. These are needs we couldn’t have predicted. It took time and experience outside to know what would help our students manage long stretches in the outdoor classroom. In short, the development of an outdoor learning space and the routines that go with it will take time, and will vary depending on the needs of your class. Start small, and be patient with yourself.

2. Root the learning in place.

If you don’t have access to sprawling forests and trails, that’s okay! Ideally, most outdoor learning is place-based learning. This means hands-on, project-based learning that’s rooted in all things local: history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art related to that place. Place-based learning can happen anywhere.

Your students could read articles about local plant adaptations and study what’s growing in the sidewalk cracks. They could make maps of local green spaces. They could even put on an outdoor play about a localized historical event, grow their own garden, or complete a service learning project. Recently, our students helped add mulch to the town library’s garden. See if you can find other nature-based educators in settings similar to your own, and check out what they’re doing for inspiration.

For hands-on activities for your outdoor (or indoor) classroom, try out these free downloadables from HMH's Into Science. With the "Flower Power" Student Worksheet and Teacher Guide, you and your students can learn about the different parts of a flower.

For a lesson on how water is transported through a plant's stem system, download the "Slurp" Student Experiment and Teacher Guide.

3. Stay flexible and make outdoor experiences relatable.

Nature can be unpredictable, so be flexible, and remember that things might not always go the way you plan. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to take your students outdoors, and you don’t have to love the rain to be outside on a rainy day. Model a positive attitude and be honest with your students about your knowledge and feelings. Statements like “I’m not sure what kind of insect that is; how can we find out?” or “I’m bringing my rain boots tomorrow because the forecast says rain, and I don’t like it when my feet get wet” demonstrate to students that you’re all learning and growing together. You can also use read-alouds to provide windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (see the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop) about different experiences in outdoor settings and spark thoughtful conversations with your students.

For a free FUNomenal Reader from Into Science about how tree sap becomes syrup, download Sugaring Season and the Sugaring Season Teacher Guide.

4. Make the outdoors accessible.

Before heading outside, ask yourself what kinds of clothing and gear your students will need in order to be comfortable and successful during outdoor class time. Will they need a rain jacket? Snow pants? Hats? Sunscreen? Water bottles? Communicate these needs to families, and make sure that students come prepared. Remember that these asks may pose a hardship for some, and ask yourself how you will ensure that each student has access to such items. We’ve secured extra gear and outdoor clothing through grant funding and donations of secondhand items. We even offer knit gloves (we call them “writing gloves”) to students on chilly days to keep hands warm during nature journal time. Whether they don’t own warm mittens or they just forgot theirs, our students are able to sign out what they need to borrow on a daily basis!

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Left: A stick fort that was carefully constructed by a group of students. Right: A student keeps their reading work on a clipboard.

5. Evaluate hazards and plan for emergencies.

It’s a good idea to evaluate the outdoor spaces you plan to utilize for hazards or things that have the potential to cause harm. For example, to keep our forest classroom safe, we’ve had some dead trees cut down, and we’ve posted “no hunting” signs at the edges of the school’s property. These are hazards that may pose serious dangers if left unchecked. If the outdoor space is too dangerous, don't teach there! We’ve never had an emergency scenario in our outdoor space, but we have a clear forest classroom emergency response plan just in case. We also work with our administration and local emergency services to ensure that we’re minimizing hazards in spaces like our fire pit (we have a fire pit safety plan too). Lastly, we check for ticks at least once a day, singing our tick check song and adding any ticks we find to our tick tally! We’ve found six so far this fall.

6. Allow appropriate risks.

One of the great things about outdoor learning is that students are able to take appropriate risks, such as balancing on logs, swinging in hammocks, playing with sticks, or climbing trees. This kind of risk-taking can help students gain self-confidence and develop gross motor skills, among other things. However, as the adult in charge, it is up to you to set clear limits and help students evaluate their own risk-taking. Our students aren’t allowed to climb higher than five feet (my height) in a tree, and for anyone to play with a stick, it must be shorter than their height. We also try to ask questions like “What’s your plan for that stick?” or “How are you thinking you’ll get down from that spot?” to guide decision-making while allowing students to maintain their own agency. The creativity, collaboration, and love of the outdoors that we witness as a result of this approach is priceless.

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Spring 2021 in one area of the outdoor classroom. Ever-evolving, the space has changed a lot even since then.

7. Build community and connections.

It’s especially important to remember that you don’t have to do this all on your own. Do any students have family members who are willing and able to help clear a space in the forest? Are there any community members who can teach about a specialized topic like knot tying or composting? Maybe you need chaperones for a walk to a local park or more hands to help tie up some tarps. I’m grateful to have a supportive administrator and a fabulous co-teacher who share my vision.

Inviting others to be part of outdoor learning in these different ways can build community and increase program buy-in. Finally, connect with other educators doing this work. There is so much incredible outdoor learning happening already, and once you start to make connections you can visit classrooms, attend conferences, share resources, and discuss ideas. Check out the Inside-Outside Network for Nature-Based Educators and the Natural Start Alliance for starters.

See you outside!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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