5 Tips for Embracing Outdoor Learning in Any Setting

Those precautions can bring other challenges, though. In a virtual course for teachers about outdoor learning, New York City-based educator Kass Minor noted that physical distancing can make it harder for both kids and adults to hear, especially in urban settings. She suggested adopting classwide hand signals or student-created visual cue cards to help communicate common messages, such as “I have an idea” and “I need to use the restroom.”

For Schnekser, the pandemic has prompted her to restructure hands-on activities. In field studies, “a lot of times you’re in the same space, rubbing elbows,” she said. This year, instead of having students try all aspects of a project, she has assigned them to specialized tasks to limit contact with materials and peers. The upside to the change is that it’s more authentic to how scientists operate in the field. “So it has actually forced me to be more purposeful and intentional with what I’m doing with my students,” she said.

And here’s a fun idea from Minor: foam pool noodles are “a game changer” for physically distanced outdoor games like tag, she said.

Connect children’s curiosity to content

While distractions like street noise can be planned for, others will be unexpected. In those cases, improv skills might come in handy. If a bald eagle flies overhead while your class is outside, you might pause to watch the eagle and then pose a question to connect children’s curiosity to content. If you were reading “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” for example, you might ask, “If this was a book about an eagle, would it ride a motorcycle or something else?” In other words, “find a way to embrace it, rather than fight it,” Schnekser said.

Choose your own adventure

In her virtual course, Minor described three levels of outdoor learning. The baseline level includes practices that may already occur in many schools: field trips, recess and traditional lessons held outside in good weather. The next level involves using outdoor experiences to generate questions or ideas, such as taking photos as story prompts. The third level entails thematic units in which students examine environmental or neighborhood issues.

Minor encouraged teachers to consider their students’ cultures and experiences in their planning and to be gracious with themselves in this difficult year. Any of those three levels is a good place to be, she said. “Simply being outside is a really powerful pedagogical move for children or any person, for that matter, during this time.”