As the world has navigated itself through the Covid-19 pandemic we as teachers have had reinvent how how classroom looks and operates. The most difficult piece for me was the switch from outdoor interactive learning to 100% online learning. I took this as an opportunity to better my own skills in the world of digital learning as well as guiding the parents through the wonders of outdoor learning and cross curricular learning at home. When the BC government announced that schools would re-open part time in June, I felt a sense of relief as well as apprehension about what this new hybrid model would look like. Surrounded with an amazing team of teachers and support staff, our little outdoor school felt successful and calm. We now face going back in September, full time with restrictions in place. I am thankful for my ability it take the students outdoors each day, and I want others to know that they don’t need an outdoor learning program to take their kids outside. I have personally been doing this for years and have seen the increase in engagement and understanding in my students around various subjects. We are now facing a time when being indoors, close together is not the ideal. Being outside not only engages and connects the students to their curricular subject concepts but it is much easier to maintain a social distancing space when there isn’t 4 walls confining you.
The main question I have been asked is “How do I successfully teach outside?” Although I don’t have all the answers I can give my insight into what allows me to feel successful as an outdoor educator.
If you are thinking about taking your students outside, whether it’s once a week or everyday for a certain amount of time, clear communication to parents and your administration staff is key. In the past I have had a early September meeting with my admin about my plans to take the kids outside for a portion of their learning day. They may ask for some more clarity as to what you will be doing. Be prepared with some ideas and key curricular concepts. Admin also needs to know that you will be taking the students out for safety reasons. The second group that needs clear communication is your students parents. I always take the opportunity to introduce the concept in my back to school email and then invite any parents that need more clarity or questions answered to discuss further, giving them more detail and having the discussion about what your outdoor learning time entails.
I write this and it’s 25 degrees and warm so the thought of bundling up is the furthest thing from my mind. That being said proper clothing is EVERYTHING when it comes to being outside consistently. This goes with the communication piece. Parents need to know which days you will be taking your students outside and have a list of weather appropriate clothing that their child will need. I am outside everyday so the students are required to bring their outdoor gear everyday. I also tell parents, do not go spend a fortune on outdoor gear. Thrift stores and consignment stores are great for boots, rain coats, rain pants, and winter gear. This goes for teachers as well. Invest in good waterproof clothing. If you’re body stays dry, the rain can be some of the best teaching days.
3. Take it slow:
I personally like to start my outdoor learning year with the social emotional piece. A large part of all outdoor learning is about connection. I start with a sharing circle, this can be personal sharing or more directed sharing (what do you notice about, what sounds do you hear, etc) Get to know your school yard. Gillian Judson’s A walking curriculum, is a great resource to get out and start mindful walking. (you can find her link in the resource section of this site). Start slowly, go easy on yourself. Commit to one hour, once a week and build from there. Look at the curriculum and think about how you could tie in different concepts. As you go, your mind will start to shift and ideas come easier.
4. Reach out:
The single greatest growth in my outdoor learning career has been the collaboration and conversation I have had with colleagues who are doing the same thing. Outdoor learning has always been there but in the past couple of years it is finally coming into the spotlight. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions. In my resources page there is a list of websites that will connect you to an amazing network of environmental/outdoor educators. All of them are happy to answer questions, talk and collaborate.
5. Keep your mind open:
Whether you have a gravel field or forested park surrounding your school, there is always a story and learning opportunity to be found. Be willing to have something planned, and the students find a mound of worms that have peaked their interest. Follow their lead. You will never regret it and their learning will be enriched. You can indeed fit all subjects into outdoor learning. Think cross-curricular. Everything is connected and our curriculum is written that way. Make it your own.