Ten tips for successful outdoor learning

“Did you like going outside? OF COURSE!! I love going outside – it’s my only escape from stress.” -Sierra Club BC Education Program participant

Just like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the 2005 publishing of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods was a catalyst for change. By coining the term “nature-deficit disorder”, Louv began a much needed conversation about our children’s connection to nature. Why are our children spending more time in front of a screen than they are outside? What are the impacts of this indoor lifestyle on our children’s physical and mental wellbeing? And most crucially, how can we reconnect our children with the natural world?  Nobody has taken on this last question with more urgency than teachers. The research is clear – students learn better when learning takes place outside.

And yet, the majority of a student’s day is still spent inside. As teachers we know that nature provides a more stimulating learning environment than the standard four-walled classroom, so why are we still stuck inside?

With this question in mind, our Education Team has compiled a list of tips to help you feel more comfortable taking your own class outdoors.

Kirsten Dallimore. Photo by K. Zolotas.

Environmental Educator Kirsten Dallimore. Photo by K. Zolotas.

Ten Tips for Successful Outdoor Learning

1. Temperature Checks

Going outside should be a positive experience for students. If a student is too cold (or too hot, thirsty, wet, tired…) they won’t have a positive experience. Taking care to ensure the physical comfort of students is important. That doesn’t mean you should stay inside during freezing weather, just make sure everybody is properly bundled – including yourself!

2. Ask questions

Evaluating experiential, inquiry, or play-based learning takes some creativity. Use questions, peppered throughout an activity to evaluate learning. For example, you can ask “What kind of berry are you picking?” as a simple way to evaluate that student’s learning. At the end of an activity provide debrief questions that allow students to reflect upon what they just learned.

3. Embrace volume…

Let’s face it, there is no such thing as a “proper outside voice.” If you are worried about getting your students’ attention in a large outdoor space, consider bringing a whistle or, better yet, develop a special signal. You could even try mimicking a bird call! (Chickadee-dee-dee!)

4. …and energy!

Your students are excited and invigorated – meet them at their level!

5. Ask an expert

If you aren’t yet comfortable taking your class into nature by yourself, invite somebody to lead a program for you. You will surely be inspired and gain some confidence from community organizations, like Sierra Club BC, that regularly bring nature into classrooms and classrooms into nature. Inviting Aboriginal elders and community members to lead a program for your class can be especially meaningful. School District 61’s Aboriginal Nations Education Division, for example, connects Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations community members with schools to lead students on interpretative hikes about native plant species and their medicinal uses.

6. Have a safety plan

While learning outside presents some risks that do not exist indoors, pro-active planning will ensure these risks are managed. Explain boundaries clearly and use a buddy system if students are freely exploring. Be aware of any allergies and always have an Epi-Pen on hand. If you are travelling a distance from your school, bring a first-aid kit and a cell phone with you.

Kirsten Dallimore with Heritage Elementary students in Prince George.

Kirsten Dallimore with Heritage Elementary students in Prince George.

7. Use nature as your teacher…

If our goal as educators is to prepare students to be active and responsible citizens, we should be engaging them in the natural world that they will be stewarding. This could be analyzing the effects of settlement or resource development in BC, or learning about sustainability. Do a scavenger hunt in a nearby forest, searching for natural signs of climate change vulnerability or adaptations. Have students find their own outdoor sit-spot. Make a connection to the arts by having students draw what they can see from their spot, or, take on the perspective of a bird, bug or animal and draw what that creature might see.

Sierra Club BC’s Education Program website is full of resources to help you bring nature into your lesson plans.

8. …or as your classroom

Who says the Canadian Parliamentary System has to be taught at a desk? Bring those worksheets outside and find a comfy spot on the grass. As students breathe in fresh air, stress decreasing and memory capacity increasing, you might just have your best Civic Studies lesson ever!

9. Going outside shouldn’t be a “reward”

Time spent outside shouldn’t be sold as a reward or as a special privilege. Access to fresh air and a learning environment conducive to student success is a right and should be treated as such. Outside learning can flow seamlessly with what is being learned inside and can easily become a regular part of your school day.

10. HAVE FUN!!

Don’t forget to make it fun. If it’s fun, it will stick!


Adapted from an original article by former Sierra Club BC Education Team member Kim McCrory. First published in BC Social Studies Teachers’ Association’s Dimensions (January 2014)