Top Ten Tips For Teaching Outside
by Laura Duffey, PLT State Coordinator for Minnesota, originally for PLT's Branch Newsletter in 2010
Early Childhood (from Marlee Meshbesher, preschool teacher at St. David’s Center near Minneapolis)
1. Before going outside with your students, get to know your area’s outdoor spaces on your own.
2. Ask someone who is familiar with nature in your area to identify the plants and animals. The only ones you have to worry about are the dangerous ones. I’ve never found a dangerous plant or animal on our school property.
3. If there are truly serious hazards, remove them. (Such as broken glass, poison ivy, etc.)
4. Maintain an extra clothing box to supplement kids’ clothing. I’ve added some adult-sized hats, mittens, and boots for parent volunteers who also forget.
5. The first time out with children, do something simple. Let them learn their boundaries.
6. Establish a consistent schedule for going outside. Teachers complain that there is not enough time. It takes a few weeks, but eventually I can get a room of 4-year-olds to be dressed to go outside in under 10 minutes.
7. Make sure you inform parents that their children WILL get dirty, and that they must be dressed in play clothes. If parents want kids in fancy clothes, tell the parents to bring the fancy clothes when they pick up their child.
8. Let the children play and explore. But also give the children something to do to stay focused on the lesson. We do storytime outdoors (they sit on carpet squares), or I give them sand pails to collect nature items to sort.
9. I once taught in a school that had only mowed lawn and a tree. At first glance, outdoors looked pretty boring so we didn’t use it. I’m learning how other schoolyards and nature centers are spicing up these kind of surroundings, such as: leaving logs, stumps, and fallen trees around for climbing; “planting” surprises such as bones, cones, and stones; installing weatherproof trunks for outdoor supplies (child-sized rakes, snow shovels, sand pails, binoculars, carpet squares, rain boots, etc.).
10. If you’re still nervous, “Just do it!”
Elementary (from Cynthia Freeman, Dowling Urban Elementary School in Minneapolis)
1. Do the “Earth Manners” lesson, PLT’s PreK-8 Guide Activity 87.
Have students sign a contract. This gets saved in their notebooks. It
has worked so far!
2. Remind students that it is not recess. If they act like recess, I remove one minute from regular recess. I still keep them outside, but they might have to sit on a bench and reflect.
3. Their notebook is their document of involvement. Since I have more than 400 students, I use this record to gauge their understanding, care, attention to detail, etc.
4. Create an outdoor classroom by laying down sheets or blankets. Later, you can create something more permanent with rocks or plants. Find a quiet place, away from hubbub.
5. Give each child a colored piece of paper. Ask each child to search for items that match that color. (See Activity 5 “Signs of Fall” in PLT’s Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood). This activity slows kids down and allows for intense focus. Amazing conversations ensue!
6. Get as much support as you can, such as from your local Department of Natural Resources, a nature center, community speakers, and parents.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for contributions from parents and the community.
8. Read The Lorax, outside. It’s politically incorrect, and they love it. (Great discussions.)
9. For ELL students, the outdoors is a great place to develop word banks.
10. Document the process. You are building a new program, and what you are doing matters!
Secondary (from Stanley Mikles, science teacher, Hill City Secondary School in northern Minnesota)
your students to be in the forest/swamp/field/school yard. This process
begins my first day of each semester. We advance outdoors by short
steps. It takes some time to build respect and trust.
2. Every excursion should have a well-defined purpose and well-defined expected outcomes. Having said that, the purpose of the excursion does not necessarily have to fit with the topic you are studying. Sometimes surprises open the doors for discovery!
3. Safety is discussed, not dictated. In 18 years, I have never had a serious injury in my classes.
4. Make sure students have the necessary clothing for the environment and the weather. Over the years, students have abandoned coats, gloves, hats, and boots to a point where I have a room full of the stuff. As winter comes, I remind them to get ready. We can’t go if even one kid shows up in a t-shirt and shorts. That’s when I pull from my jacket and boot collection.
5. Be motivated for the work at hand. I find that if I am having a “bad day” and I let it show, it rubs off. On the other hand, my passion for the topic builds passion in my students.
6. Establish a rally point (central meeting place) for each event.
7. Use a signal to meet at the rally point. I use a cow call that kids can hear for miles.
8. Field journals are required. No journal entries for the day equals a zero.
9. Teams are good, sometimes. I have to know my students to make that call.
10. Make accommodations for less capable students. Arrange for a paraprofessional to escort students with special needs. Brief your paraprofessionals on the what, why, where, when and hows.