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Overcoming Obstacles to Outdoor Learning

EducationWorld is committed to bringing educators the practical tools they need to make good decisions, engage in effective leadership and implement strategies that work. To further this commitment, we have formed a content partnership with Stenhouse Publishers. EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts as part of this collaboration. Check back frequently as we feature additional excerpts from Stenhouse titles.

The following excerpt comes from Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning in Action, by Herbert W. Broda (Stenhouse Publishers, 2011). The book retails for around $23 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.

This excerpt addresses the top concerns teachers have about incorporating the outdoors into their daily lessons. For more great tips on integrating outdoor learning, see two other excerpts from this book: Outdoor Learning – Integrating Tech and Too Cold to Go Outside? Bring the Outdoors In. Also, be sure to read our review of the book and our interview with the author.

For many educators, while the concept of outdoor learning may be interesting, questions remain. Regardless of geographic location, school size, or socioeconomic level of the community, there are always doubts and concerns that are consistently mentioned as barriers to trying outdoor learning. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly mentioned stumbling blocks that I heard from educators in various regions of the United States and Canada.

Time
By far the most frequently mentioned barrier is time—and for very good reason. Follow any dedicated teacher for a day and you quickly feel the pressure and exhaustion that comes from trying to fit complex learning and testing requirements into a tight daily schedule that can change unexpectedly. Understandably, most teachers would be leery of adding anything to the day that could possibly magnify the time squeeze.

North Carolina teacher Sarah Palmer has an answer: “We need to convince people that it’s not a matter of more time, just time used differently.” For example, if the topic is measurement, terms and units can be explained indoors, followed by an extension experience outdoors to practice the concept by measuring objects on the school grounds. Instead of doing the practice inside, we have just moved it outdoors. Although it may add a few minutes to move kids from indoors to out, the heightened learning and real-world connections certainly compensate.

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“But is it worth the time?” is an important pedagogical question. A growing number of research studies are clarifying that a combination of indoor and outdoor instruction does result in improved achievement. Both teachers and students find an increased motivation that comes from a change of pace and place.

Two great sources for research showing the impact of outdoor learning on student achievement are the Web sites of the Children and Nature Network and the Placed-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative.

For some teachers the concern is not only instructional time, but also finding the time outside of the school day to maintain outdoor learning areas. That’s a valid concern and needs to be met first by starting with small site enhancements that take little maintenance (e.g., creating a simple teaching/meeting area or setting up a few bird feeders). If more complex projects, like large garden plots or bird blinds, are considered, there simply has to be volunteer help.


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Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.

Curriculum Integration
Interestingly, this stumbling block also is related to time. If the outdoors is not really related to the curriculum, it becomes an extra and therefore soaks up valuable time. I strongly support the philosophy that schoolyard-enhanced learning should not be used by a teacher unless it is directly related to curricular objectives being taught. It is encouraging, however, to look at the number of grade-level objectives in most content areas that could incorporate meaningful outdoor experiences into their instruction.

All content areas are concerned about developing process skills like observation, classification, inference, comprehension, description, evaluation, comparison, and data analysis. Outdoor activities can provide both the venue and content for practicing these skills.

The concept of using the outdoors as both venue and content is central to visualizing how outdoor learning can be meaningfully incorporated into teaching. The schoolyard can provide a venue, or backdrop, for an activity (e.g., going outside to read a story) or it can provide the content and serve as the essential element of an activity (going outside to find examples of geometric shapes in nature). Either use is valid and complements the curriculum. Sometimes just moving the class outside (venue) to do an activity that could be done indoors provides a needed energy boost. For an objective related to probability and sampling, going outside to sample the number of dandelions on the school grounds (content) can provide an activity just as effective as one done at an indoor desk.

Classroom Management
Many teachers fear that their students will immediately associate the outdoors with play and have difficulty focusing on instructional tasks. Most outdoor educators have had that bad dream of kids running wildly all over the school grounds with the teacher standing helplessly in the distance, clipboard in hand (Indoor educators experience a similar classroom dream around the middle of August, right before the school year begins). The key is to make clear your behavior expectations indoors before going outside. Then, as soon as the group is outside in the teaching/meeting area, it’s critical to go over the rules again. Here are some other tips that can make working with kids outdoors a little easier:

Establish clear boundaries. Unless you clearly specify physical boundaries, students will tend to move farther and farther away during an activity. Delineate very specifically where the activity should take place: “Don’t go beyond the sidewalk” or “Stay in the area enclosed by the trees that I have marked with strips of duct tape.”

Use the smallest useful area. When doing most observation or description activities it’s really not necessary to have students spread out over a big area. Look at the site and determine what would be the smallest area to use that would still result in an effective activity. The more widely scattered the class, the more time is spent gathering the flock at the end of the activity.

Use a signal to get students’ attention. A whistle, bell, or bird call can be an effective signal that tells students to stop what they are doing and listen to you or return to the teaching meeting area.

Meet in a circle. When working with groups in the outdoors, I have found the circle to be the most effective way to communicate. Having kids just stand in a clump invites problems. With the group in a circle, you can see everyone and minimize disruption.

Bring along a backpack or tote. Pack the supplies, books, and materials needed for the activity in a backpack or tote rather than an awkward box. Triple-check to make sure that you have everything you need.

Plan a time frame or routine. For example, five minutes to form a circle and hear directions; twenty minutes to do the activity; ten minutes to reflect and share. Although the time frame may vary as a result of unexpected discoveries, having a time frame outlined in advance can dispel some of the uncertainty that teachers new to outdoor teaching often feel.

I have never seen a teacher who has good indoor classroom management have difficulty outdoors. I have also noticed the converse: a teacher who struggles with management issues indoors will most likely run into problems on the school grounds.

As all teachers can verify, however, classes seem to have personalities. An outdoor activity that worked well with last year’s class may need to be modified drastically or even substituted for something else because of this year’s personality mix. The same reality exists inside the classroom. We modify and exchange indoor activities based on the type of class that we have at any given time. It’s critical to remember that schoolyard-enhanced learning is a teaching technique, not an end in itself. We use the outdoors when it fits best.

 

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