Overcoming Fears About Teaching Outside: One Teacher’s Story

MN-Bay View Elementary School-Rob Marohn-leading students on hiking trailI’ve come a long way in my journey as a fifth grade teacher. I used to be stressed out about taking kids outside, but now I look forward to doing it every day. Along the way, my skills in instruction, classroom management, and curricular understanding have grown, and so have the projects themselves.

In my college experience, they scare you about liability, litigation, and student safety. Amidst all of this, 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. Bay View Elementary is located near the boreal forest of northern Minnesota.  We have a beautiful 40-acre School Forest that is now enrolled in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ “School Forest Program.”  This was an unused resource before I came to Bay View.

My very first time teaching a class outside still sticks with me. I had them partner up – one person stayed behind on the lawn and the other student ventured into the forest to collect items for a nature mobile.  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 and I would come and rescue them. No rescues were necessary! I was stressed out tremendously, but the children had a lot of fun and I experienced the value of teaching outdoors.

A Buddy Program With Younger Students

MN-Bay View Elementary School-Rob Marohn-students looking at logInitially, most of my formal outdoor lessons were either from Project Learning Tree or Project WET.  Much of the content was new to me, but these wonderful lessons are very well written, easily taught, and fun for the students. I implemented a “Buddy Program” to spread the learning to younger students at our school.

One of the things we did was visit a kindergarten class once a week. Most days, we hiked through the School Forest together. During these walks, my fifth grade students showed the kindergartners what they learned about in the forest. By listening to how the fifth graders explained what they learned to the younger students, I learned a lot about how I could improve.

Gathering Supplies for Teaching Outdoors

I’ve commandeered a school storage room and filled 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 exploring the forest throughout the year. 

An After-School Forest Club

I started an after-school club for all grades because I wanted everyone to experience playing and learning together outside in our own School Forest. For our first activity we played Capture the Flag and invited students and their parents to come and play. We had a lot of fun!

The after-school club allowed us to get comfortable using our “outdoor classroom.” 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.

Learning Beyond the Classroom

Beyond the classroom setting, my friend David McNamee and I worked together to organize camping trips for kids and parents.  Our first overnight camping trip took place in our School Forest.  You don’t need a school forest for an outdoor overnight experience – just a playground or outdoor space.  We cooked dinner, played games, tracked wildlife, and gave the families an experience they will remember for a long time.

Since then, I’ve taken students and parents on two-night stays at an environmental learning center. Dave and I have also taken parents and students on wilderness canoe trips in northern Minnesota. These trips not only include the basics of camping, but also include journalling, 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 treeNew Opportunities for Outdoor Experiences

More teachers are participating in the Buddy Program because 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 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.

Students Convert Bus to Run on Biodiesel to Reduce Emissions

UT-City Academy-Biodiesel1Our school bus ran over 3,000 miles last year on biodiesel—fuel the students made themselves in science class as part of an environmental learning project.

Students started discussing alternative fuels while studying global warming and pollution.  That’s when they came up with the idea of making their own biodiesel fuel from used vegetable oil for our school bus to reduce our school’s CO2 emissions. We received a start-up grant from Toshiba, followed by a GreenWorks grant from Project Learning Tree to continue the service-learning project and share it with others.

Fifteen students in the green school committee and more than 30 other students at City Academy in Salt Lake City made over 250 gallons of fuel from used vegetable oil collected from a local restaurant.  The school bus shuttled students to the nearby mountain, a green demonstration house, a local recycling facility, on dozens of field trips for various classes, and even to an environmental youth conference in Los Angeles. 


Learning by doing

Students were in charge of soliciting used vegetable oil donations, working with the Health Department to adhere to qualifications for oil collection, collecting the oil, making the fuel, filling the bus, and doing outreach and presentations to other groups about biodiesel.  They get real, hands-on applications of chemistry and biology concepts.  They learned mechanical skills as they maintained the bus and the biodiesel processor. They honed their math skills as they calculate recipes for biodiesel. They also practiced reading, writing, and editing from making and distributing promotional materials.

UT-City Academy-Biodiesel2Students designed a PowerPoint presentation and a hands-on demonstration that they took to four local schools and four conferences.  Sharing their work with others and showing off their accomplishments helped them realize what a unique and powerful project this was.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the year was our summer Breakout trip to Los Angeles.  We were invited to present at a Green Ambassadors conference where we met some leading scientists and biofuels experts—and got free tickets to the movie premier of the environmental documentary, The Eleventh Hour.


Students became the experts

UT-City Academy-Biodiesel3Throughout the project, students served as biodiesel experts, not just to their peers but also to other teachers and scientists interested in this alternative fuel.  They debated the merits of various alternative fuels, learned the ins and outs of making biodiesel, and, best of all, participated in a project that is making a difference in Salt Lake City’s air quality.  Chemistry and environmental science both became more innovative, hands-on subjects to the students who were involved in this project and they gained new skills and knowledge.

The local community has been very helpful and supportive, especially our volunteer mechanics and the Health Department who helped us set up a safe and legal biodiesel lab. 

The bus itself was a bit challenging at times (we go through a lot of fuel filters!), but support from the community and funds from GreenWorks helped keep the project going.  Air quality is one of Salt Lake City’s biggest environmental concerns and the project proved to be an excellent way to give students a chance to do hands-on science and get them involved in a local environmental issue.  It has helped them see that even though there are some big and daunting problems in our world today, they can make a difference.

Learning on the Tree Farm and in the Classroom

ID-Jane Thornes1Looking back, I realize that my appreciation for the outdoors, the need to learn about nature, and a yearning to take better care of our environment, stems from the way I was raised.  My family spent a lot of time outdoors, and we grew up with respect for the world around us. 

Even though my family’s home was located in the city, my free time was spent mostly along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.  We climbed bluffs, explored caves, and hiked through valleys near our home.  My hunger for knowledge was insatiable; I remember wanting to learn the name of every tree, bird, and flower.

Now, as an adult, my husband and I manage a 270-acre Tree Farm in north Idaho.  I still have the desire to identify all the plants and animals we see.


My introduction to PLT

I first became introduced to PLT when I was volunteering as a Girl Scout troop leader.  A pair of facilitators led a mini PLT workshop as part of a larger, educational training course.  Immediately I was hooked. 

The easy-to-follow approach that PLT uses to educate young minds is smart, refreshing, and fun.  Several years later, once I became a classroom teacher, I could hardly wait to enroll in a full 15-hour workshop.  With more PLT training under my belt, I wanted to share the activities not only with students, but with other educators, as well.  I became a trained facilitator and to date have conducted more than 20 PLT workshops.


PLT on the tree farm

Many different school classes, Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops, and church groups visit our tree farm. 

My husband and I offer them a variety of outdoor experiences. We’ve found that PLT provides a wonderful assortment of activities for such an occasion.  As an annual tradition, I take my fourth grade students on a field trip to our forest, where we can explore, study, and nurture the nature that surrounds us.

One year after using various PLT activities, such as “Name that Tree,” “Looking at Leaves,” “Tree Factory,” “Peppermint Beetle,” and “Invasive Species,” my 4th graders gained a better understanding of the different parts of trees and the different species found in our area.  They then took part in gathering scientific data for the United States Forest Service about sub alpine and grand firs that were being harmed by the balsam woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect.  (Read more about this by visiting Every Student Learns Outside.)


PLT in the classroom

ID-Jane Thornes5Our elementary school participated in “National Environmental Education Week.”  Each day had a different theme—earth, sky, water, and energy—and Friday was “Celebrate Earth Day!” A staff committee put together packets of activities for teachers to choose from to use in their classrooms.  Each theme (earth, sky, water, and energy) had multiple PLT activities to choose from.

For our “Celebrate Earth Day,” guest speakers addressed the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students.  Students rotated through six stations that had different hands-on, educational activities that afternoon.  The Tree Station used PLT’s “Tree Cookies” and “We All Need Trees;” the Insect Station had “Invasive Species” and “Trees in Trouble;” and the Garden Station used the background information from “How Plants Grow.” 

From sharing with students how to care for flowers and plant seeds, to calculating the age of a tree, the PLT activities used during the week offered students a chance to not only directly experience nature, but also to form life-long relationships with it – all in a learning environment.  Our students gained a wealth of knowledge that week, simply because the lessons had an environmental emphasis and the learning was hands-on.


Future plans

ID-Jane Thornes4My dream is to continue sharing knowledge about the environment with both young people and adults through a science school or nature center on our tree farm.  Such a venue would provide a perfect location for PLT and other professional development workshops.

I hope to begin with a simple classroom, but eventually expand our facilities to resemble something of a nature camp, where lodging would provide us the opportunity to host overnight workshops and trainings.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the group you share PLT with is large or small.  What is important is sharing the information available.  All PLT activities are well researched and planned.  Often we find ourselves using the same activities over and over, but I encourage you to explore the PLT PreK-8 Guide, utilize the appendices and indices to make the most of this invaluable resource. 

Branch out and try some new activities.  You’ll find they give variety and and excitement to your teaching and your students’ learning.