Top Ten Tips for Teaching Outside – Early Childhood

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. I asked a few Minnesota teachers – one preschool, one elementary, two secondary – to give me their “Top Ten” tips for colleagues who have never taught outside. 

Early Childhood

Here are tips from preschool staff at St. David’s Center near Minneapolis for taking early learners outdoors.

  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. poster-to-show-young-children-how-to-dress-for-winter-snow
    Poster to show young children how to dress for winter and snow.
    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!”

More Tips for Teaching Outside

Attend a PLT workshop and become comfortable teaching outdoors – in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Check out the Appendices in PLT’s Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood guide, for example “Playing It Safe Outdoors”, “Taking Neighborhood Walks”, “Setting Up an Outdoor Classroom”, “Encouraging Unstructured Outdoor Play”, and more. 

Get more tips from Minnesota elementary and secondary teachers.

Laura Duffey

Laura Duffey

Laura Duffey is Minnesota PLT State Coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources – Division of Forestry.

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