Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
This is a great time of year to take learning outdoors! Learning outdoors can and should happen all year long, but in my neck of the woods, the sun is finally shining. It is springtime, and at last comfortable enough to be outside without 3 under layers and a snowsuit.
So let's take learning outdoors! This post offers strategies, tips, and activities for outdoor learning. Get kids that would otherwise be cooped up indoors learning out in the sunshine instead!
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I have always been an avid outdoors-woman. I was raised with parents that valued and encouraged outdoor play and experiences. An appreciation for learning 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 career working with endangered species.
Then I became a high school biology teacher and I'm now a stay-at-home-mom raising two young children to love and appreciate nature as well.
I have been feeling on edge and foggy brained lately, and when I feel that way I know it's from one of three things: 1) stress, 2) not enough physical activity, or 3) not enough time spent outside.
This time, it was all three. So! My family and I hopped in the car and headed south to Whitewater State Park. It was just what I needed and just what my children needed.
Study after study has shown the benefits of spending time learning outdoors, especially for young people. The benefits are so powerful that I enrolled my 5 year-old in a nature school. It changed her life.
It's odd that we live in a time that books need to be written about the benefits of being outside. Why do we need convincing?
At any given moment we find ourselves with screens at our fingertips. Many students in the US study nature using online simulations and textbooks rather than experiencing natural areas first hand.
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, in the home or at school, in my opinion.
As I flip through photos of my recent adventure in Whitewater State Park, I appreciate the number of learning experiences packed into two days. My children put their hands in the dirt, bonded with their father whom they get little time with, inhaled fresh air, gazed at the stars free from city lights.
My 5 year old walked close to four miles and my darling 2 year old climbed on everything. They learned how to build a fire! They found and made their own walking sticks. They practiced reading a map. They observed and inquired about the natural world.
In just two days my children were able to do all of this learning outdoors - gaining content knowledge, 21st C. skills, character, and social emotional skills - with no plan, textbooks, lesson plans, lectures, note-taking, or testing.
It was just them. Just us. Just the great outdoors.
When I was still teaching at a public experiential high school, much of my curriculum focused around being outside of the building.
As a small, student-led project-based learning school, we were fortunate to have the encouragement and resources to take learning beyond the walls of the classroom - out to the parking lot, to the local river basin, and even trips abroad through our school educational travel program.
Homeschoolers, experiential educators, and stay-at-home-parents like myself have the flexibility to embrace nature-based learning. If you are home with your kids, get them outside if you don't already in any way that you can.
If you are a public school teacher that has the flexibility and support from the district to take learning outdoors, I sure hope you're doing so.
If you are an educator that is confined to the classroom, check out some activities for outdoor learning below that could be done right on school grounds.
The photos in the slideshow below show my students enjoying various outdoor learning experiences. Many of these photos are from highly beneficial educational trips taken through our travel program.
If you are not looking for activity ideas but are more interested in developing an experiential program around learning outdoors, check out my free 10-point checklist for developing an experiential learning program.
How to Take Classroom and Homeschool Learning Outdoors
Take every opportunity to get your students learning outdoors. There are a lot of activities for learning outdoors.
But you don't have to have an outdoor learning activity in mind to bring learning outdoors. You could simply bring whatever you had planned for the classroom outside. If you have a lesson that could just be moved out onto the grass, do it.
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 activities for outdoor learning.
Take Reading Outdoors
Do you want to get your children and/or students learning outdoors? Inspire the urge to explore, or simply the desire to chill in some fresh air for a few minutes, with books.
Check out this list of great reads that inspire a love of (or at least a respect for) the outdoors. The lists vary by age and purpose.
Take Writing Outdoors
What's great about writing is that you can 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.
Take Social Studies Outdoors
Take Math Outdoors
There are a lot of resources out there for implementing math activities for learning outdoors. Most of them are for elementary aged students, a few for more advanced math concepts.
Take Science Outdoors
Science learning outdoors is a no-brainer, in my opinion, especially for biology. Simply bring students outdoors, let them observe their surroundings, ask questions, and design experiments. If you're looking for some other creative outdoor learning experiences, check out these science activities for learning outdoors.
Cross-Disciplinary Learning Outdoors
As an experiential educator, I think it is vital to note that if you can integrate subjects, do! I wrote this post the way that I did, breaking learning activities into subjects, because I understand that many of you, especially high school teachers, teach a specific subject.S
Some of those subjects were not even included in this post!
But taking learning outdoors naturally crosses disciplines. If your students work in a garden, for example, they are gaining math, ecology, and design content knowledge. They are gaining skills in team-work, problem-solving, task-management, creativity, and more.
If you can, take experiential learning outdoors; learning that is real-world, subject integrated, authentic, and hands-on.
For example, I've mentioned project-based learning. Have students design and execute their own project-based learning experiences that require being outdoors or involve natural concepts in some way.
Experiential learning activities can be implemented by any teacher that teaches any subject, and the learning experiences can be designed for learning outdoors.
Experiential Learning Depot's experiential learning activity tool kits are the perfect resources for this approach to learning outdoors.
You might be thinking, "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 no time at all. You might also consider again starting a student travel program at your school.
You can also consider incorporating the weather and climate into your lessons. Test snow or rain for acid using a pH kit. Calculate relative density of snow, ice and water. Paint in the rain. Write in the outdoors on a snowy day! Even tough weather days inspire curiosity and creativity.
Taking learning outdoors doesn't have to be complicated. I hope are able to browse and put to use some of. the resources included in this post. Good luck to you, and as always, if you need additional information, resources, or have any questions, please reach out!
Experiential Learning Depot Activities for Learning Outdoors
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9/15/2018 10:15:57 pm
Great article Sara. I will use some of your suggestions. I actually have had the same reasons for working with both my Scouts and students on planning outdoor activities and travel. In about two weeks, we will get ready to fly to Germany! I hope our students will come back inspired to keep on traveling. We both know that it not always works out that way.
9/16/2018 08:47:29 am
Thank you, Andreas! What an exciting opportunity to take students to Germany. I've found that they are always inspired by travel in the long run. Not always right away, as they are thrown into an environment that they are not always comfortable with in the moment. And that's the beauty of traveling with students. Whether it inspires them to travel more or not, I think you're right, it depends on the student. But I do know it always inspires life-long learning. Thank you for your thoughts! The best of luck to you and your students on your trip to Germany. I would love to hear about it and see pictures upon your return.
7/5/2021 03:24:55 am
Loved your piece about outdoor classrooms.
Experiential Learning Depot
8/23/2021 08:21:17 am
Thank you! And thank you for reading.
5/27/2022 04:27:07 am
An outdoor class room and nature learning spaces are great ways to encourage learning outside for your kids and engage in outdoor sensory play.
Taking the classroom leanings outdoor is one of the most important things that the school should do. This can actually help students to learn better and much more faster. I think this a great article and many people will learn something new from this article. Thank you for sharing this interesting article with us.
8/18/2022 05:49:32 am
Beautiful!! Thank you so much for this lovely article. I do agree that taking outdoor classes is a very good strategy. This will create curiosity and enhance creativity. I have a kid who is about to join school and I will definitely try your ideas.
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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.