This is an update to a previously published article. As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted countless traditional learning environments, many schools and educators have begun to move classes outdoors. But as Project Learning Tree educators know all-too-well, taking lessons outdoors offers many more benefits than just increased ventilation and space for social distancing — numerous studies show that students are more engaged and enjoy subject materials more when they are taught outside!
Whether your move to hold classes in nature is mandated, suggested, or entirely optional, we encourage you to consider the following tips from seasoned educators in Florida who reinvigorated student learning by creating outdoor classrooms:
Students at Littlewood Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida enjoy their outdoor classroom, thanks to a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and a GreenWorks! grant from Project Learning Tree. The outdoor classroom includes seating for 24 students, as well as bird feeders, bird baths, and native plants that provide food and shelter for wildlife.
The students were involved in many aspects of creating the outdoor classroom; from site planning and design, through installing bird feeders, planting native species, developing adopt-a-tree signs, and creating steppingstone mosaics.
Teachers are thrilled to have this outdoor space where students can be immersed in learning about nature. They observe bird behavior, calculate the dollar value of trees, measure plant growth, and collect data on seasonal changes.
Training and Resources
To help teachers take maximum advantage of the outdoor classroom, myself and Ms. Whitehead, a Littlewood teacher, organized teacher trainings for them. Nancy Peterson and Annie Oxarart with Florida Project Learning Tree provided instruction from PLT’s PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide and GreenSchools Investigations Guide. Ms. Whitehead and I also held another workshop which included tips for success with outdoor learning, a teacher’s perspective, and an introduction to the outdoor exploration backpack program. These experiences really helped teachers take maximum advantage of not only creating, but also using, their school’s outdoor classroom.
The backpacks include ready-made lessons that incorporate bird, tree, and other nature themes and they are available for teachers to check out. The backpack materials feature some of PLT’s most popular activities to do outdoors, along with student pages and other supporting resources. The highlighted activities include:
Steps to Take When Creating Your Own Outdoor Classroom
Here are some tips and lessons learned along the way:
1. Get buy-in. Start with approval from administrators and buy-in from teachers. When I started the school’s Green Team with Littlewood teacher Ms. Whitehead, we worked together to involve other teachers and the school’s administration as we developed plans for the outdoor classroom.
2. Assemble a team. Develop a Green Team of students, teachers, administrators, parents, and volunteers who can help with the project. Invite PTA members and team with local agencies and organizations who can provide resources and expertise. For example, contact your PLT State Coordinator and staff who work at local nature centers or parks. Or, click here to find your regional U.S. Forest Service Conservation Education Coordinator who can put you in touch with local outreach educators.
3. Assess the site. Conduct PLT’s GreenSchools School Site Investigation with your “Green Team.” This will help you map your school site, inventory the plants and animals, and assess ways the school grounds can be used for outdoor learning. As you select a site for the outdoor classroom, consider one that includes shady areas for classroom space and sunny areas for native plants to attract birds and butterflies.
4. Engage volunteers. Volunteers make the difference! Reach out to parents and community members to find volunteers who can assist with the outdoor classroom plan. Littlewood was able to receive assistance from:
- A local landscape architect helped students envision what the site would look like and incorporated their ideas into a final drawing
- The art teacher helped students make mosaic stepping stones and tree identification signs
- Parent volunteers helped make the tree sign bases
- A local graphic designer developed a bird sign
- A local master gardener and the landscape architect helped students plan a pollinator garden
5. Seek funding. Reach out to local businesses for donations of materials, such as building supplies, birdfeeders, wood chips, and so forth.
6. Have a lot of patience! Be prepared for it to take longer than you may have originally thought. The end result will be well worth it!
Want a little more inspiration to help you get started on an outdoor classroom for your school? Check out these additional resources:
Outdoor Learning A Solution for Schools During COVID 19 Expert Panel Recording:
View the North American Association for Environmental Education’s recording of a panel of experts (outdoor educators, administrators, and a pediatrician) who share the hows and whys around outdoor learning as a response to reopening in this uncertain time.
North American Association for Environmental Education’s eeGuidance for Reopening Schools:
NAAEE offers recommendations for schools to reopen or modify procedures amid COVID-19 restrictions and social-distancing, including ways for schools to repurpose and maximize outdoor spaces to be most suitable for instruction.
Turning Education Inside Out: How Green Schoolyards Can Help Make Schools Safer This Fall—and Improve Kids’ Lives Permanently
In this special feature article from the Children & Nature Network, author Jay Walljasper paints a picture of what Back-to-School 2020 could like all across America—with green schoolyards offering a safer, more equitable middle ground in the wrenching decisions over in-person vs. online instruction.
Outdoor Infrastructure Planning Strategies for Taking Learning Outside as Schools Reopen
Download tools and resources from Green Schoolyards America for assessing and configuring your outdoor classroom, including a cost estimate tool and the ability to request assistance from a landscape designer in your area.
Building Outdoor Classrooms: A Guide for Successful Fundraising:
Focus on Forests and TD Friends of the Environment Foundation joined forces to outline a helpful guide to inspire educators to get started on an outdoor classroom with tips for ways to create strong funding applications to support.
PLT’s Top Ten Tips for Teaching Outside – Early Childhood:
There is a lot to consider for teachers taking students outdoors for the first time. These top ten tips and tricks for preschool educators are sure to keep both students and educators engaged and excited to learn outside.
PLT’s Top Ten Tips for Teaching Outside – Elementary:
Cynthia Freeman, a teacher at Dowling Urban Elementary School in Minneapolis, Minnesota shares her top ten tips and tricks for teaching outdoors and connecting Elementary-aged students with nature.
PLT’s Top Ten Tips for Teaching Outside – Middle and High School:
There are lots of benefits for students learning outdoors and connecting with nature. But many teachers are uncomfortable with the idea or hesitant to try it out. Hear two teachers in Minnesota’s top-ten tips for beginning to teach outdoors.