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Outdoor Learning Expert: Enhance Student Motivation


In the book Moving the Classroom Outdoors, author Herbert Broda provides real-life examples of how teachers can effectively incorporate outdoor learning into their lessons. Moving the Classroom Outdoors retails for around $23 and is available on the Stenhouse Publishers Web site.

Broda teaches education at Ashland University in Ohio. Though he’s a professor now, he began his teaching career in grade schools. When his sixth-grade class went to a resident outdoor education camp, his interest in outdoor learning was sparked. Recently, Education World caught up with Broda to talk about teaching outdoors and how it can benefit students. Here’s what he had to say.

Education World:  Your interest in outdoor learning was piqued on a school trip with a class of sixth graders. Once that happened, what became some of your favorite ways to incorporate the outdoors into learning?

Herbert Broda:  Although outdoor learning can be utilized in nearly every content area, I enjoy using the outdoors especially in the areas of language arts and math. The outdoors can be a powerful venue for honing both creative and descriptive writing skills.  The outdoors pulls at all of the senses and makes it easy to focus on detailed observation and description.

Many aspects of math can be complemented well through outdoor instruction. The schoolyard is a great place to gather information for graphing and data analysis activities—much more interesting than graphing numbers from a table in a textbook! Geometry lends itself well to outdoor learning, as students find angles and shapes in nature. Measurement and estimation activities are also easy to plan for the schoolyard.

EW: For some people, their experience with outdoor learning is limited to a springtime English class spent writing outside. Could you explain the concept of outdoor learning briefly?

HB: Put most simply, outdoor learning is just the utilization of the outdoors as an instructional tool. It is another way to teach or reinforce a concept. For example, if the concept of parallel lines has been taught indoors using print materials and visuals, it can be very powerful then to take students outdoors to find examples of parallel lines in nature. Outdoor learning makes abstract concepts more concrete for students when they find examples in the natural world.

I coined the term “schoolyard-enhanced learning” to emphasize that outdoor instruction can take place right on the school grounds—no need to travel. It is also important to keep in mind that schoolyard-enhanced learning can be used in all content areas—not just science.

The outdoors can be used in two ways:

  1. As a venue, or place to go, for learning. For example, reading a story or holding a discussion outside uses nature as a venue, but not as something being studied;
  2. As a source of content. Going outside to find geometric shapes in nature utilizes the outdoors as a content source.

EW:  You mention time as being one of the most frequently mentioned barriers to outdoor learning and quote a North Carolina teacher, Sarah Palmer, who talks about it being a matter of using time differently. What do you suggest teachers say to the question of time being an issue (such as it taking away from lessons that directly address those standardized tests).

HB:  Especially over the last 10 years, much research has been done to evaluate the effects of outdoor learning on academic achievement. The results strongly suggest that good indoor learning coupled with good outdoor instruction increases student scores on many standardized achievement tests. So, going outside doesn’t take time away from lessons addressing standardized testing concepts; utilizing the outdoors for instruction can actually better prepare students for testing.

EW:  How can outdoor learning enhance a student’s understanding of the material? Does it better reach some or all students?

HB:  Outdoor learning is just one of many instructional methods that can be used to teach a concept. The outdoors provides opportunities that are difficult to duplicate inside a classroom. The physical change of pace and place that happens when teaching moves outdoors is motivating in itself. Students (and teachers!) need variety. By going outside occasionally, we add the unexpected and the variety that can capture student attention.

Unfortunately, some students have developed a negative attitude toward the classroom as early as the middle grades. Going outside can serve as an attitudinal “reset button” for these students. I have often seen students who have trouble with a concept indoors suddenly “get it” when they are doing an activity outdoors. This would certainly be in keeping with the multiple intelligences concept of a naturalist intelligence.

Outdoor learning also is able to take abstract concepts and make them concrete and observable. It’s a start to explore the concept of “camouflage” indoors with pictures and definitions. How much more compelling, however, to go outside and see the multitude of ways that camouflage occurs in nature. 

Of course, no single instructional strategy is ideal for everyone. Outdoor learning is powerful, but it needs to be used in combination with a variety of other teaching methods.

EW:  You’ve visited many schools and nature centers to see their outdoor learning programs. Was there one that really stood out for you as being the most ingenious? What was it?

HB:  In writing Moving the Classroom Outdoors, I met with more than 70 people at approximately 30 schools, nature centers and schoolyard greening organizations in eight states and Canada. Every school and center was very different in terms of focus, facilities and conception of outdoor learning. It really would not be possible to cite one as the most ingenious. Some did amazing things in terms of staff development regarding outdoor learning; others focused heavily on using the talents of parents and community members, and some channeled amazing energy from staff members into developing and constructing unique site enhancements. 

Related resources

Book Review: Moving the Classroom Outdoors
Outdoor Learning: Integrating Tech (excerpt from Moving the Classroom Outdoors)


Article by Sarah W. Caron, EducationWorld Social Media Editor
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