Outdoor teaching tips

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Below are a few tips to help ease concern and get more out of your outdoor lessons. Although teaching outside takes planning and implementing, so does indoor teaching, and many techniques and lessons can cross over. Ask for help, prepare yourself and your students, and most importantly have fun! The more you use the site, the easier teaching will become.

Teachable moments
  • Expect teachable moments. It's OK to temporarily stop discussing the lesson to explore the moment.
  • Allow plenty of time to stop; let students explore and discover nature on their own.
  • If you or your students see something interesting, be prepared for questions. If you don't know the answer just say "I don't know. Let's look it up when we get back." It's OK to not know the answer and learn new things along with the class!
  • Consider carrying reference books or a mobile device to research new things that students discover.
  • Bring a digital camera or have a classroom set for students to take photos they can look at it back in the classroom.

How you handle safety with each of your classes may differ depending on age of students, student abilities and behaviors, and class size.

  • Identify potential hazards and mark them. Let students know if there is a danger close to where they are working, such as a hole or loose ground.
  • Know which students have medical needs and make sure they bring any necessary medications (inhaler, EpiPen, etc.).
  • Set boundaries as necessary and make sure all students know them. For younger students, think about creating boundaries with orange flagging tape to make them easy to see.
  • Know what unsafe plants you have in your School Forest. Familiarize yourself and your students with what they look like.
  • Sometimes students might be spread throughout a part of the forest, and you may prefer to be able to observe all students from one spot. Position yourself on high ground to better see your class.
  • Do frequent head counts or create a way to know that everyone is there: before you leave the school, when you arrive at the forest, before you leave the forest, and when you get back.
  • For very young students, consider using a long rope for them to hold on to while walking.
  • Before you go outside, make sure you discuss appropriate behavior and boundaries.
  • Make sure your students and adult volunteers know the consequences of misbehavior. For example, is there a tree stump you'll use as a time out spot? Will there be a volunteer who takes a student back to school? Will they sit out of the activity?
  • Use positive reinforcement to reward the behavior you want them to exhibit while outside.
  • Have students create rules and manners for treating nature and behaving outdoors. (Possible activity: Earth Manners, Project Learning Tree activity 87)
Learning techniques
  • Use focusing tools to help engage students along the trail. Have a question, objects to spot, or hidden objects to find. Talk about these things along the way or have students ready to answer questions when you arrive at your location.
  • Give each student a journal to draw in and record information, observations, or reflections.
  • Engage students' senses to explore objects. If discussing cattails, make sure each student can touch, see, and smell one. Only allow students to taste items when you are absolutely sure it is safe.
  • Use appropriate questioning and discussing techniques. Ask open-ended questions to encourage students to make their own discoveries.
  • Have students reflect on the outdoor experience. Focus on the new lessons learned and the positive experiences.
  • Don't just make going to the forest a reward; tie the activities with indoor lessons from the same unit. The goal is to see the School Forest as part of your classroom, not something separate.
Practical tips
  • Sunglasses inhibit eye contact with your audience and should be avoided when speaking to a group.
  • Face yourself toward the sun. This keeps the sun at your students' backs and will help them keep their attention on you.
  • When leading the group on a trail, make sure you lead the students past the object you want to talk about. Stop, then go back and stand in the middle of the group so that everyone can hear you and see the object. Remember to wait for everyone to arrive before beginning your discussion.
  • Remind the class that they will be walking together as a group. Make sure no one is getting left behind or running ahead. If you have a volunteer adult, have them head up the back of the group when walking down a trail.
  • Have a signal for students to know it is time to go back. E.g. Use a whistle or signature call.
  • When it's hot outside, gather in shaded areas. In colder conditions, try to stand out of the wind and where the sun is at their backs to help keep them warm.
Tools for Outdoor Instruction

Clipboards: A class set of clipboards and pencils is essential. Pencils work in all temperatures (pens with ink can freeze).
Wagons or sleds: Invest in a few wagons and/or sleds for transporting materials to your School Forest or outdoor classroom. High-sided ice-fishing sleds work better than children's toboggans.
Sit-upons: A class set of sit-upons may calm students who may be nervous sitting outdoors. Sit-upons can be made from old yoga mats, swimming kickboards, garden kneelers, or even old newspapers inserted into a large plastic baggie.
Safety vests or hats: A class set of bright-colored vests or hats can help you keep track of your students' locations outdoors.
Flagging tape or traffic cones: Some teachers feel more comfortable if they can mark clear boundaries for their students. You can set bright-colored tape or cones to denote where you want students to be.
Ropes: Preschoolers can hold onto a long rope lead by a teacher. Ropes can also be used for measuring perimeters, marking field plots, or engineering survival shelters.
Activity kits: Create activity kits that teachers can use outdoors. Each kit should contain teacher instructions, student instructions, student worksheets (if needed), and all the materials needed to do the lesson. Common activities may include measuring tree circumference or height, journaling, soil studies, poetry, sensory lessons, water and macroinvertebrate studies, or wildlife studies.
Whistle: You need a way to call students back to home base. If you can't whistle, use a gym teacher's whistle or a loud bird call (turkey, duck, goose). Or teach students a wolf howl call and response.

Consider stocking your school's outdoor instruction tool closet with class sets of:

  • Rain boots (child-sized)
  • Compasses
  • Binoculars
  • Rain ponchos (child-sized)
  • Snowshoes (child-sized)
  • Field desks
  • Blank writing journals
  • Measuring tapes
  • Rulers
  • Air, water, soil thermometers
  • Field guides or laminated ID sheets
  • Collection containers
  • Tablets or digital cameras for taking photos

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