Resources: 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.
Early Childhood

Teaching preschoolers outdoors

Managing groups of young children outdoors requires strategies that differ from older grades. Try these teacher-tested strategies!

Set routines and expectations.

  • Teach children how to dress themselves for going outside.
  • Give physical boundaries using bright flagging tape, cones, or other visible cues such as “the edge of the sidewalk.”
  • Tell children what they CAN do, not what they can’t do. Examples: “Stay on this side of the sidewalk,” or “Run ahead and sit down under that pine tree.” Saying “Don’t go past the sidewalk” suddenly makes going past the sidewalk more appealing.
  • What to say to kids instead of “Be careful!”
  • Establish a call for getting attention. For example, one whistle (or hoot, or howl) means children have 5 more minutes.
Designate specific outdoor gathering spots, and name them.
  • Decorate a tree with a ribbon, arrange logs for seating, or give the large boulder a name.
  • Use your designated spot to give instructions, tell stories, or do art.
  • Lay out a blanket or tarp on which to set tools, lunches, toys, and materials.
Model respectful/safe behavior.
  • Teach how to safely collect items in nature. Give children sand pails or baggies to limit the sizes of the things they collect. Consider reading the story, Trapper, by Stephen Cosgrove, which teaches how to ethically collect items in nature.
  • Establish rules for using sticks, such as:
    • Sticks can be no longer than your arm.
    • Sticks cannot touch other people’s sticks or bodies.
    • If someone forgets the rules, everyone will put the sticks down and we’ll try again next time.
    • Learn 6 categories of risky play and what to say during risky play

Use fun songs and movement activities to move from one place to another.