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.
Here are ten tips from Stanley Mikles, science teacher, Hill City Secondary School in northern Minnesota:
- Train 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.
- 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!
- Safety is discussed, not dictated. In 18 years, I have never had a serious injury in my classes.
- 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.
- 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.
- Establish a rally point (central meeting place) for each event.
- Use a signal to meet at the rally point. I use a cow call that kids can hear for miles.
- Field journals are required. No journal entries for the day equals a zero.
- Teams are good, sometimes. I have to know my students to make that call.
- 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 how’s.
Here are ten tips from Mark Studer, Bemidji Middle School in Minnesota:
- Have the kids establish the outdoor “rules” that they will live by for the year the first week and have all agree to them (thumbs up is fine)
- If you need to warn more than once about behavior – just send them in to sit in the classroom. Don’t get mad – just tell them you are sorry but they are going to have to go in – and continue with your class. Kids respect that and are much more likely to give you their “undivided” attention once someone has been sent in. And I follow up with a short phone call to the parent to chat with them.
- Have them bring their science notebooks and always have something for them to do in the science notebook, whether it is a journal entry, or notes on something you are talking about or a sketch, or other observation.
- When I am speaking, I tell them to huddle and to make sure they are not any more than “two deep” around me. Works fairly well.
- I take time for “teachable moments” when we run into something outside that is unexpected like the walking stick (insect) that a student found while we were sitting discussing ecology – we all got a look at him and discussed the term “mimicry.”
- Teach them how to observe with “soft eyes” looking not just in a specific spot but focusing on everything at the same time. Helps them to see movement and the bigger picture.
- For an initial trip outdoors in the fall, position them along a trail so they can’t see each other and have them sit and observe with all their senses their surroundings while they are perfectly still.
- I carry a small backpack with me when I go out – I carry an anemometer (wind meter), thermometer, extra pencils, rulers, first aid pack, clipboard, magnifying lens, water bottle, candy, field guides, binoculars, and anything else I think might be useful.
- Don’t be discouraged if every time you take your kids out things don’t go perfectly. Reflect on the event and make a few notes on how to make it better the next time. Then go out again!
- Take your students out in the winter as well. Just do it.
More Tips for Teaching Outside
Attend a PLT workshop and become comfortable teaching outdoors – in urban, suburban, and rural areas.