Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Take Learning Outdoors
I have always been an avid outdoors-woman. I was raised with parents that valued and encouraged outdoor play and experiences. My second home growing up was a family cabin up north. When home from school for the summer my mother basically told me and my siblings to go outside and not to come back inside until dinner. All of our family vacations were outdoors. We had pretty strict video game and television rules. Even when we were in a position to break those rules, we would more often than not choose to be outside. An appreciation for the outdoors was so instilled in me as a child that I went on to get my degree in wildlife ecology and spent the first part of my adult career working with endangered species. Then I became a bio teacher, and now am a stay-at-home-mom raising two young children to love and appreciate nature as well. My children are the light of my life, and of course I want whats best for them. Their mental and physical well-being is my top priority, and I know spending time outdoors is the ticket.
The last few weeks I have been feeling on edge. Groggy. Foggy brained. And because I'm a stay-at-home-mom, my children and husband take the brunt of it. No one likes when I'm in "a mood". When I'm feeling that way, I know it's from one of three things: stress, not enough physical activity, or not enough time spent outside. In this particular case, it was all three. So! We hopped in the car and drove to the North Shore to camp at Gooseberry Falls State Park. Well, we didn't just "hop" anywhere. If you know me, you know that I am not a spontaneous person. I require diligent planning, and this trip was no different. It was great timing though! I really needed it, and so did my family. It was just what we needed to reflect, relax and refresh. Was it just a vacation that I needed? I don't believe so. I took a vacation with my family to an indoor water park over the winter, and as fun as it was, it was certainly in no way relaxing or reviving. There is something to be said about being in the great outdoors. I feel it, and research says so!
Study after study have shown the benefits of spending time outdoors, especially for young people. Harvard Medical School published a report in 2010 stating that spending time outdoors may be the prescription for better health. Stanford reported in 2015 that taking regular nature walks may lower risk of depression. Amazon is loaded with books dedicated to the simple idea that the human brain is wired to be outside: "Go Outside and Come Back Better" by Ron Lizzi, "The Nature Fix" by Florence Williams, "Balanced and Barefoot" by Angela J. Hanscom, "Vitamin N" by Richard Louv, and "Last Child in the Woods", also by Richard Louv. The list goes on and on. National Geographic published an awesome article titled "We are Wired to be Outside". It gets at the same point I've already made, that nature can be therapeutic. Cultures around the world have various practices and traditions that utilize this thinking. Check out the article for examples, such as the Japanese practice of "forest bathing". If you aren't yet convinced of the benefits of spending time outdoors, read a couple of the books or articles mentioned. Or think back at some of the books you yourself have read. Think of the classic story of the tormented adult, living in a world of stress and chaos, working a job they disdain, looking for a way out, a way to reinvent themselves, start over. You know the ones - "Wild", "Heroes of the Frontier", "Flat Broke with Two Goats", "Into the Wild". All great books with characters that find their way by getting outside! The innate human connection to nature is so profound for some that they will go to extremes to get that "high" as "Into Thin Air" and "Blind Descent" illustrate. My children's favorite books are those that take place outdoors or involve animals. Children have an intrinsic connection with, curiosity of and appreciation for nature. If you haven't noticed, I love books! But that's not what this is about. Keep reading...
The point is that nature is awesome, and it's odd that we live in a time that books need to be written about the health benefits of being outdoors. Why do we need convincing? We currently find ourselves in an environment of screens at our fingertips. Our children and students studying habitats using online simulations. Now more than ever we need to foster in our children an appreciation for the outdoors and provide opportunities for our children and students to spend time outside. That cannot just be on parents. Educators need to do more to get students outside. I am not saying that screens should be completely thrown out of the picture. As I sit here writing this blog, I clearly have some appreciation for technology. But screens should not replace outdoor time, physical activity, or opportunities to create, imagine and explore. Excessive screen time can severely compromise a child's ability to develop a healthy self-concept (specifically girls according to Leonard Sax in "Girls on the Edge".) I observed this on a daily basis with my female students when I was teaching. Social media sucked the life out of them. Excessive screen time can also be damaging to young people, more boys than girls, when real environments and experiences are getting replaced by imaginary ones, also according to Leonard Sax in "Boys Adrift". Boys are replacing real experiences with simulated ones, predominantly with video-games. Screens are not the only obstacle to children enjoying nature. Fear is another obstacle. Media has stirred up irrational fear by highlighting stories about abduction (which is rare by the way). One of my favorite Podcasts, Invisibilia, focuses one episode on fear. They talk with a man named Roger Hart who wanted to study children in their most natural setting. The outdoors. In the 1970's, he studied 86 children in a small town in Vermont, between ages 3-12 for 2 1/2 years. Without getting too wordy, the moral of the story is that he found that the parents of this population were "unmotivated by fear". Abduction was not a concern in the 70's. The children basically ran the town. They didn't have physical boundaries they couldn't go beyond, vs. at my home where I have trouble allowing my children to leave my eye site let alone my house, yard or block. So, yes, fast forward to today, and parents like me are the norm. Roger did some digging and found there are NO MORE abductions today than there were 50 years ago. So why the fear? Media. And what's the problem with that? Parents and teachers aren't allowing their children as much time outside. They are crippled by fear, irrationally believing that screens are safer than being outside. Ok, maybe that's not completely irrational. They probably are. How could one get physically hurt or kidnapped for that matter if they are indoors playing video games? It does hurt them in other ways, however, and I don't need to tell you that. Kids need to take healthy risks to grow and learn. There is such thing as "healthy risk", says Heather Shumaker, who wrote "It's Ok to go Up the Slide". "Nurture Shock" by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and "Free Range Kids" by Lenore Skenazy are books with similar views and practical approaches to finding a balance. As a parent and educator, I know how hard this can be. But read my words, and those of the hundreds of books on this topic. Let them go outside! Make them go outside!
As I flip through photos of my recent family camping trip to Gooseberry Falls, I can pinpoint moments that couldn't have happened under any other circumstance. My children put their hands in the dirt, dipped their toes in the ice cold water of Lake Superior, bonded with their father whom they get little time with, inhaled fresh air, looked at the stars completely free from city lights. They took naps through the sounds of waves lapping on the shoreline. My four year old walked close to four miles and my darling 2 year old climbed on everything. I watched as this experience helped by youngest build confidence. They read books, real hard cover books, under the stars. My children only had each other and the world around them, so there was little time or need to bicker. They bonded over new and exciting experiences. They played cards by the fire. They learned how to build a fire! They found and made their own walking sticks. They learned how to read a map. They looked for big foot, observing their surroundings, getting in tune with their senses, and looking for "clues". They built on their family relationships, learned important life skills, tested their limits, used their senses and imaginations. In just two days my children were able to do all of this, learn all of this, with no plan. No textbooks, no lesson plans, PowerPoint lectures, no note-taking, no testing. Just them. Just us. Just the great outdoors.
When I was teaching, much of my curriculum focused around being outside of the building. As a small, project-based, community school, we were fortunate to have the encouragement and resources to take field trips, sometimes even large school trips. I've taken students camping at local State Parks, we've camped among the wolves at the Wildlife Science Center, I've taken students backpacking along Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore. I've traveled with students to the Black Hills, Colorado, Hawaii (twice), Costa Rica, Florida, California, Madeline Island, and others. All with an outdoor focus, which makes sense, as I am a biology teacher. The biology emphasis however wasn't really the point. I wasn't interested in my students walking away from these trips with a clear definition of a "biome". The purpose was exposure to new environments, developing an appreciation for nature, self-reflection, relationship building and more. I took students to Hawaii in 2012, and to this day they are bonded for life. They didn't know each other when we left home, and were best friends by the time we returned. Teachers (and parents), if you can, take your students on outdoor trips, camping if possible, or on day trips to a local park. If those opportunities are few and far between (or impossible for some), at a minimum take them onto school grounds for lessons. And for goodness sake, educators, DO NOT TAKE AWAY OUTDOOR RECESS from elementary students. Our children's health and wellness depend on it!
At this point you're probably thinking that this post is to provide book suggestions about the benefits of being outside! It is not, although I hope you find some of the books mentioned interesting and consider reading them. All great reads. The actual purpose of this post is to give educators ideas on how to inspire appreciation for the outdoors, and work outdoor time into your already existing curriculum. Check it out!
Books that Inspire
Ok, I'm not quite past books yet. I think you know by now that I believe books make the world go round! They can fix everything. They can teach any concept. They can solve global issues. And this is no different. Want to get your children and/or students outside? Read books with them that give them the urge to explore, or simply the desire to chill in some fresh air for a few minutes. Check out these lists of great reads that inspire a love of (or at least a respect for) the outdoors. The lists vary by age and purpose.
Exposure to the Outdoors Through Student-Travel Opportunities
Ok, I know for some this is tricky, but hear me out. I taught at an inner-city school for a long time. For a variety of reasons a lot of our students didn't get outside. Not just outside of the state or country, but outside of their neighborhoods, outside of their comfort zones. It was mostly for lack of opportunity. Part of the school's mission was to provide those opportunities, that exposure to students. "Global Opportunities to Change Lives" was our motto. And they did. These experiences did and do change lives. But those opportunities have to be there. If possible, plan an outdoor school trip. Propose a travel program to your school director or school board. Highlight the benefits of outdoor time AWAY from class, away from "noise", long enough to bond with classmates, reflect on life and gain perspective. As a project-based learning school, I had most of my students plan the trips (with my guidance of course.) If that is too much too soon, plan it yourself. I use this how-to guide sheet (free) to plan trips. It is also what I assign to my students if they want to plan a trip for a project. I created this when one of my students started taking interest in school travel. Consider assigning this project to your students even if student travel is only theoretical. Just giving students a chance to explore the possibilities will inspire them. They may even go on the trip someday on their own! Here is an example of a completed trip plan project and presentation to California that one of my student completed years ago and presented to the school board. We did end up taking this trip. I also have a "Plan a Trip Around the World" PBL lesson available as well. It's similar, with 5 destinations instead of one, and is designed using PBL principles. Finally, I kept a blog of student travel experiences with my students. Check it out for outdoor student travel ideas.
Overcoming Obstacles to Outdoor Learning
If you are an environmental science or phy ed. teacher, you're probably already an expert at getting your kids outside. That is the assumption anyway. My student teaching experience was with an IB biology class, and not once did the students go outside. Not with my cooperating teacher and not with me. There were "too many obstacles", it took "too much planning", there was "too much red tape", there were "too many standards to cover, not enough time to play around outdoors", "outdoor time is a luxury". These are all obstacles that even a wildlife ecology teacher might face. Every obstacle to taking students outdoors are legitimate. But might there be ways around them? Almost all obstacles come down to subject integration and classroom management. Find tips from an excerpt from "Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard Enhanced Learning in Action" by Herbert W. Broda.
Activities to do with your Students Outdoors
At every opportunity, take your students outside. If you have a lesson that could just be moved out onto the grass, do it, even if it means modifying your plans a little. Best case scenario is that your lesson incorporates natural surroundings. This is easy for project-based learners and life science teachers. For math teachers, maybe not quite as easy. Or is it? Check out some of these fun integrated outdoor learning activities.
Top Young Adult Books to Read Outside:
Ok, so these lists of young adult novels isn't of books about being outside, but we've already covered that. These books are about teenagers, about real issues they face like bullying, sexual identity, mental illness, social media, grief, death and love. Children, young adults not excluded, do better with anything relevant to their lives or interesting to them. If you were going to read anyway, take it outside, and use one or all of the books on this list as a persuasive tool.
Best Young Adult Books of 2015 - I know it's almost four years later, but I love this list. The characters and issues they face are so relevant to teenagers today.
Best Young Adult Books of 2018 - Some fantastic books came out this year geared toward young adult readers. I love this list because the characters are diverse in their backgrounds (race, socioeconomic class, culture, gender.) I have found on a lot of "lists" that most of the main characters in young adult novels these days are female. What's that about? I know girls typically read more than boys, but now I get why. At least in part why. There aren't enough books out there that strike the chords of modern-day teenage boys. Anyway, that topic is for another day.
10 Outdoor Literacy Activities - these 10 ideas came from the book "15 Minutes Outside" by Rebecca P. Cohen. These activities are geared toward younger children.
What's great about writing is that you could do it just about anywhere as long as you have a pen and some paper. With phones, Chromebooks, Kindles, and iPads, on the rise, we can even bring along our mobile devices. Taking your writers outdoors is a great way to inspire writing topics, remove disturbances and distractions, and give them the space and peace that they need to focus. I'm always hearing about writers that move to their writing retreat for the season to finish their book, and it's usually to a cabin in the woods or villa in Tuscany, right? Nature! Check out some of these outdoor writing activities created by awesome teachers.
Examples of Outdoor Activities to get your Students Writing - these activities are good because they could be applied to all ages.
9 Ways to Take English Class Outside - Ok, I'm noticing a pattern. I like "lists". I'm obsessed with Pinterest, so there you go. This resource is intended for secondary language arts students. I like it because it does incorporate technology, which again I think has a lot of benefits, especially when the population you're working with can't live without it. And why should they? That is the direction we are headed, so let's embrace it.
Using the Outdoors to Teach Social Studies:
This resources provided by ERIC will bring you to a PDF loaded with social studies lesson plans (grades 3-10) that get kids out of the building. It's pretty creative and makes me want to teach social studies. When you get to the website, look for the "Download Full Text" link in the top, right hand corner. Click on that to get to the PDF.
Check out these additional outdoor activities from National Geographic's Education Blog - "10 Ways to Take Your Classroom Outside"
Math Activities to do Outside:
There are a lot of resources out there for implementing math activities outdoors. Most of them are for elementary aged students, a few for more advanced math concepts.
Exploring Math in Nature - lot's of ideas for practicing measuring skills.
Math in the Garden - a book with hands-on math activities to do in the garden. I like this resource because it is multi-disciplinary and get's kids' hands dirty! Downside is that it's not a free resource.
Fascinating Facts of Mathematics - this resource doesn't give details on implementing math activities outdoors, but rather explains real life applications, in this case, of trigonometry. A lot of trig concepts can be studied outdoors, like finding the height of a mountain for example.
Outdoor Math Activities for Kids - this one is geared toward pre-k and kindergarten children. Great for stay-at-home-parents. Don't forget about free-play though!
I could go on and on with outdoor math resources. There are so many learning opportunities in nature for measurement, counting, symmetry, and more. I used to do a thing with finding examples of Fibonacci's numbers in nature. The kids loved it. It is just a matter of being resourceful. A simple Google search does the trick. There are so many great free, resources out there from teachers just like yourselves.
Take Your Science Lessons Outdoors:
This one seems obvious. Why wouldn't you have your bio class outside? It's not always that clear and easy. Ecology, sure. There are a lot of awesome ideas for having an ecology lesson outside. You could simply give students a pen and a notebook and ask them to observe their surroundings, ask questions, and design an experiment. Here are some other fun outdoor bio lessons to choose from:
Free Upper Level Ecology Scavenger Hunt and Mini-Project - this gets students outside observing nature while practicing ecology terminology. The kicker is that the final product is a photo gallery, which requires that students not only go into the outdoors, but really awaken their senses in the process.
Free Upper Level PBL Project on Endangered Species - I created this project and used it with my students when I was teaching. PBL naturally gets students outside of the classroom because in theory they should be working with community experts. The idea behind this project is that students get out and actively participate in their learning rather than sitting idly by, passively taking in facts that they will surely forget after the test is over. This project will inspire a life-long love for nature and the desire to protect it.
Other science subjects like chemistry and physics can also, and should also, be done outside whenever possible. Check out some of these fun outdoor activities. What's nice about chemistry and physics is that they are just fun by nature. Right? Anyone?
Outdoor Physics Experiments - some of these look so fun, I want to do them myself.
31 Days of Outdoor Stem - I LOVE THIS WEBSITE! I love STEM, and I love Little Bins for Little Hands. It is a free STEM resource. I have used several of their STEM activity ideas with my own young children and they LOVED it. This particular resource provides outdoor STEM activity ideas for a variety of science areas (geology, biotechnology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and obviously engineering.
Teaching Secondary Science Outside the Classroom - fun ideas for the outdoors, and includes a variety of science concepts.
Alright, maybe that's enough? I should say before i wrap it up, because I know you're all thinking it. How do I get my students outdoors in the winter? I know this conundrum better than anyone. I live in Minnesota where it seems to be below zero four months of the year and we get blizzards in April. Here's what I'll say. Even bringing students outside for 10 minutes per day is better than nothing. You might also consider again starting a student travel program at your school. Finally, if at all possible, incorporate the weather into your lesson. I'm sure there are some pretty awesome science experiments that could be done in the snow or using the snow. Do a lesson on friction or velocity using sledding as a teaching tool. Using a chemical testing kid, test soil before and after rain. Test snow or rain for acid using a pH kit. Calculate relative density for for snow, ice and water. Paint in the rain! Write in the outdoors on a snowy day! Even tough weather days inspire curiosity and creativity.
With that said, we are down to very few nice days! Get outside now, enjoy the fall colors, get your students inspired BEFORE the weather takes a dramatic turn. Good luck!
Parents and educators, what do you do to get your kids outdoors?
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.