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Fall 2008

Getting Outside: One PLT Teacher's Story


I teach fifth grade at Bay View Elementary School in the boreal woods of northern Minnesota. This article is about my journey: from being stressed out about taking kids outside to looking forward to doing it everyday.  Along the way, my skills in instruction, classroom management, and curricular understanding have grown, and so have the projects themselves.

MN-Bay View Elementary School-Rob Marohn-leading students on hiking trailAll through college, they scare you about liability, litigation, and student safety. How could I teach in the outdoors? On top of it all, I couldn't name a single tree out there! Despite my fears, one thing drove me forward: my personal memories of the forest from my early years and all the things I learned there. Some of the more non-traditional settings were the places I learned the most! I had to become a competent educator who used the outdoors as a classroom.

Teaching outside is a natural for my school, which just happens to have a beautiful 40-acre School Forest (that is now enrolled in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ “School Forest Program”) right out the back door!  It was an unused resource before I came to Bay View and I felt a lot of pressure when I brought the concept of outdoor instruction into the formal classroom. 

My very first time teaching a class outside still sticks with me vividly. After the kids had firmly identified their partners, we approached the mowed line between the playground and school forest. I let half the children walk into the woods to look for items to make a nature mobile, while their partners stayed behind on the grass. My rule: the children must stay within sight of their partner. If they went too far into the forest, they were to sit down and start yelling. I would come and rescue them. No rescues were necessary. Yes, I was stressed out tremendously, but the children had a lot of fun and, for the first time, I experienced the value of teaching outdoors.

A Buddy Program

Initially, most of my formal outdoor lessons were either from Project Learning Tree or Project WET.  Much of the content was fresh to me, but these wonderful lessons are very well written, easily taught, and fun for the children. However, I felt that I was still holding the children back so I brought my class through the instruction, but used a “Buddy Program” as our enrichment.

MN-Bay View Elementary School-Rob Marohn-students looking at logIt started with my 5th grade class visiting a kindergarten class once a week. Usually we would take a hike through the School Forest. During these walks, my fifth grade students were to tell/show the kindergartners what they had been learning about in the forest. The younger students got to take a walk with an older student they looked up to. My 5th grade students got an opportunity to verbally express what they had been learning and the honor to share their knowledge with the younger children. I got to listen to what my students had to say. You know what? When you listen to children talk to other children, they speak truthfully.  I listened and learned a lot about how I could improve.

An After-School Forest Club

I started an after-school club for all grades because I wanted both the kids and I to get more experience playing and learning together outside in our own School Forest. The first thing we played was Capture the Flag. We came up with a simple permission slip and invited students (and their parents) to come and play. We had a lot of fun. 

The after-school club allowed us to make mistakes and get comfortable using our “outdoor classroom” while actually getting to be outside! The students and parents who attended the after-school events developed a lighter attitude: they were there to have fun and that made for better students.

Venturing Further

My friend David McNamee and I have been camping buddies for several years and together we decided to start organizing camping trips for kids and parents.  Our first overnight camping trip took place in our School Forest.  But, you don’t need a school forest for an outdoor overnight experience, just sleep in the playground.  We put participants in groups, and parents and children were asked to spend the night together. We cooked dinner, played games, tracked wildlife, and gave the families an experience they will remember for a long time.

Since then, I’ve managed to commandeer a school storage room and fill it with equipment that I’ve scrounged, bought with grant money, or found from other sources. This equipment includes full classroom sets of hip waders and snowshoes, essential for being able to use the forest throughout the year.  I’ve taken students and parents on two-night stays at an environmental learning center, and Dave and I have taken parents and students on wilderness canoe trips in northern Minnesota. These trips not only include the basics of camping, but also include journaling, lessons from Project Learning Tree, and an understanding of aquatic habitat and fire ecology. Each time we do one of these educational outdoor trips, I learn more myself.

MN-Bay View Elementary School-Rob Marohn-kindergarten students explore birch treeGrowing Opportunities for Outdoor Experiences

More and more teachers are participating in the Buddy Program (it’s a great entry-level opportunity for environmental education experiences). The School Forest Club has prospered, and a couple of naturalists come to conduct more formal after-school programs. Soon we will be adding an additional 93-acre tract to our School Forest that our municipality has given the school district. Finally, we have just completed a summer Urban Wilderness Camp for the children of our area.

This year, the first group of kindergarten students we ever brought outside are now in fifth grade. As my comfort level using the outdoor classroom has grown, I think I am finally ready for the plunge: this year I hope to take my class outside every day as part of their instruction (rain, shine, and Northern Minnesota cold). It has taken time to get here, but it has sure been fun. The key all along has been to just get outside and let the rest take care of itself.

Rob Marohn teaches fifth grade science and language arts at Bay View Elementary School in Duluth, Minnesota.  He is a 2008 National Project Learning Tree Outstanding Educator.

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