Outdoor Classroom Resources? | NAAEE
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Outdoor Classroom Resources?

Hi all!

I'm exploring the idea of creating an outdoor classroom for the high school I teach at. We have walking access to a nearby forested park, and I think having an outdoor meeting/teaching space might do a lot in encouraging other teachers to take their students outside. I've organized a diverse group of teachers to start discussing ideas and planning, but I'm looking for a little bit of guidance. I have a few quick questions/requests:

1. From people who have worked on something likes this before, what were some of the major challenges or issues that came up that you didn't expect? Solutions?

2. What are some good resources for high school-specific outdoor classrooms? There's a lot out there on EC playscapes, but I can't find much for secondary ed.

3. For those that have done this, what were some strategies you used to help adopt use of an outdoor classroom in the long term across a building or district? I know I can see the value and uses of such a space, but how do you show those to other teachers who might already be busy?

I appreciate any and all assistance you can provide. Thanks!

1) Challenges to teaching outdoors include curriculum standards, daily schedule, supervision of students, potential hazards and lack of knowledge about effective outdoor instruction. Here are a few tips to address these and other barriers to teaching outside:

• Attend a Project Learning Tree (PLT) training and become comfortable teaching outdoors – in urban, suburban, and rural environments. (Project Learning Tree has over 40 years of expertise providing training, curriculum and resources to support teachers engaging in nature and outdoor instruction with students.) https://www.plt.org/trainings/attend-a-training/
• Get buy-in. Start with approval from administrators and buy-in from teachers.
• Have the students establish outdoor “rules” that they will live by for the year and have all agree to them. Discuss and review potential safety issues.
• Train your students to be in the forest/swamp/field/school yard and advance outdoors by short steps. It takes some time to build respect and trust.
• Make accommodations for less capable students. Arrange for a paraprofessional to escort students with special needs.
• Take time for “teachable moments” when you run into something outside that is unexpected.
• Teach students how to observe with “soft eyes” looking not just in a specific spot but focusing on everything at the same time. This will help them appreciate nature’s “big picture".
• Don’t be discouraged if every time you take your students out things don’t go perfectly. Reflect on the event and make a few notes on how to make it better the next time.

2) One valuable resource that you can use to engage your students in the development of an outdoor classroom while assessing your school outdoor campus is the PLT GreenSchools Investigations. (https://www.plt.org/custom-login/?target_page=green_school_register) Once you register, you have unfettered access to all 5 investigations (Energy, School Site, Environmental Quality, Waste and Water) In the School Site Investigation students will:

• Explore the outdoor school site and the broad variety of activities that it can be used for
• Observe and record plant and wildlife species around the school
• Assess gardening and composting possibilities on the school grounds
• Investigate the presence, health, value and benefits of trees
• Determine if changes to the school site would encourage the use of outdoor space for classes
• Learn how school grounds are being maintained and if sustainable practices are being used
• Develop student conceived plans for improving the school site

3) Provide examples of success stories and scientific research that highlight the many benefits of outdoor instructional engagement. The Children and Nature network reveals several research studies that glow about how nature, hands-on learning, and authentic experiences can:

• Improve test scores, attendance, and attitudes toward learning
• Positively affect student physical, social, interpersonal, and aesthetic development
• Alleviate symptoms of ADHD and ADD
• Help ELL learners learn new vocabulary
• Improve student health
• Allow students who learn differently from others to become leaders and shine

This quote is from a HS student whose teacher utilized PLT with his students doing phenological studies - “. . . I had so much fun in science this year. The field study was really fun, even though that lab report was kind of scary! . . . never, ever, ever stop the way you teach, because even though it’s a lot of work, it’s preparing us for real life.” https://www.plt.org/educator-tips/experiences-help-students-become-scien...

Hi Nathaniel! There is a free webinar on this exact topic coming up next week on Thursday, February 21!

One of the webinar's leaders is Natalie Crowley, co-moderator of the Early Childhood EE eePRO Group (https://naaee.org/eepro/groups/early-childhood-ee) and an expert on outdoor classrooms. The other is Amy Butler of the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, VT.

Learn more and register here:
https://naaee.org/eepro/learning/webinars/webinar-how-start-outdoor-clas...

Hi Nathaniel,
As Maxwell mentioned above, Amy and I will be talking about this on our webinar next week, but in the meantime here are a few ideas for you.
To start, I recommend checking out the discussion that Amy led a couple months ago in the Early Childhood EE group-- linked below. She addresses some of the challenges you might face, and she also talks a bit about secondary ed.
In terms of other common challenges, getting buy-in from key stakeholders (administrators, parents, the students themselves) can be a bit tricky (but isn't always!). My advice is to do your homework ahead of time and prepare a research-based proposal that anticipates most of the questions/concerns they might have. Risk is a big issue for schools, so you'll want to be prepared to explain how the benefits of an outdoor classroom outweigh the risks, and how you plan to mitigate any potential risks. The Children & Nature Network Research Library (linked below) is a wonderful resource for finding research to support the benefits of outdoor classrooms. If parents are giving you any pushback, I recommend inviting them to join you for a trip to your outdoor classroom. Likely they will be so impressed/excited that any fears or concerns they had will fade away.
I use a similar strategy to get other teachers at my school excited about outdoor education: invite them to join you for a class! It really is hard to deny the greatness of a program like this once you've experienced it yourself and seen how positively it impacts the kids.
Another great resource I recommend is Jon Young's book, Coyote's Guide to Connection to Nature. I consider it to be the "bible" of outdoor ed, and it will be a tremendous resource for you in terms of establishing routines and curriculum.
Hope to see you on the webinar next week!
Best,
Natalie

Thanks for all the advice! I'll check into Green Schoolyards. It looks like most of they're programming is in California (I'm in WI), but their online resources look solid.

I'll check into the webinar. We might be doing parent-teacher conferences that evening, but I might be able to jump in and at least listen for a bit.

RE: getting buy-in, that's where I am now. I've managed to put together a group of educators interested, and I'm working on a school-wide needs assessment survey right now. I've gotten admin ok to at least explore the idea, and I'll be putting my research proposal together to get everyone else on board. I feel pretty comfortable/familiar with the research.

Thanks again for all the resources!

Hi Nathaniel,...Here are two model public high school programs here in Vermont that emphasize place based learning and have outdoor classrooms. Vermont is a challenging climate to be learning outdoors in and these programs have made it their focus to be spending most all of their curricular time outdoors. Feel free to contact me if you have questions! (Editor's note: One of the links was removed due to a broken link.)

Thanks for the links!! Those programs look very interesting, and kind of highlight what I run into with EE/outdoor classrooms at the high school level. I'd really like to see this outdoor classroom used school-wide, but the programs that seem to be the most successful at integrating EE on a wide scale are usually smaller alternative-ed or charter school programs. It seems like in a standard high school, outdoor classrooms tend to be utilized most by science teachers but avoided by everyone else.

Do you know of any "typical" high schools that have been able to incorporate outdoor classroom usage on a wider scale? I realize this is getting out of the realm of just coming up with an outdoor classroom, but it's been something I've been exploring for a while. Maybe widespread integration of EE in secondary ed just requires a whole different education framework, hence the prevalence of alt-ed and charter schools?