Tips for Taking your Students Outside

By Kim McRory (Originally published in Feb 2014)


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

As an experienced environmental and outdoor educator, the majority of my work with children and youth happens outside. Forests, fields, and beaches are more often my teaching environment than any four-walled classroom. As part of Sierra Club BC’s Education Program, I have taken over 1, 500 of BC’s elementary and middle school students outside – and that’s just since October!

Having spent so much time outdoors with youth, I can personally attest to the growing research linking outdoor learning and students’ success in school (the same research that is fueling a surge in demand for nature kindergartens in our province). As teachers, we know that nature provides a more stimulating learning environment than the standard four-walled classroom, and yet, the majority of a student’s day is still spent inside. So, why aren’t we taking our students outside?

This past weekend I brought this question to a teacher education class at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus. The class was a special program for teacher candidates who are currently working full-time in the school system (for example, as Special Education Assistants, teachers in a private institution, etc.) For two hours on a cloudy Saturday morning atop Burnaby Mountain, we explored the theoretical and practical aspects of teaching students out of doors, using activities and lesson plans from the Going Wild! program as our guide. We brainstormed wild forest products and created Seasonal Harvest Calendars inside, and engaged with the complexities of human-plant-animal interactions in our environment through an active survival game outside.

The teacher candidates noticed how engaged they and their peers were as we moved seamlessly between our indoor and outdoor classrooms, and shared their excitement to bring these activities to their own students. Many expressed a wish that there were more resources, like this workshop, to support them in bringing their students’ learning outside.

This need for support is being echoed by teachers across the province. In response, Sierra Club BC’s Education Program is committed to providing BC’s teachers with curriculum-linked educational resources that support outdoor learning. In addition, we recognize that teachers also need to feel comfortable teaching in an outdoor environment. To help, I’ve compiled a list of tips to make educators feel more comfortable taking their own classes outdoors.

Happy outdoor learning!

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, during Sierra Club BC’s Going Wild! program students play a game where they must act out picking berries. I ask students, “What kind of berry are you picking?” as a simple way to evaluate that student’s learning from our earlier brainstorm. At the end of an activity provide debrief questions that allow students to reflect upon what they just learned. I am always amazed at the real-life connections students make after playing a Sierra Club BC forest survival game. Students sometimes even surprise themselves!

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 developing 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 (Victoria)’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.

7. Use nature as your teacher…

If our goal as Social Studies 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. Analyzing the effects of settlement or resource development in BC, or learning about sustainability? Do a Climate Change Scavenger Hunt in a nearby forest, searching for natural signs of climate change vulnerability or adaptations. Exploring the forces that shape a sense of place and Canadian identity? Have students find their own outdoor sit-spot. While sitting quietly by themselves in their spot, students can reflect on how BC’s landscape has helped shaped their own identity. 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.



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