Tips for Outdoor Classrooms
BY HEIDI WAINER
The classroom management skills that serve you in your classroom are also the skills you will need to conduct a successful outdoor lesson. Teaching outside, however, requires that you take some additional things into consideration.
1. Set the stage. Before you leave the classroom, talk with your students about how they will be expected to behave during the field trip. Even if your field trip is just onto the playground, you need to remind students that this is learning time and any rules you have in the classroom will also be rules in your outdoor classroom. If you are traveling, repeat these expectations before you get off the bus. I tell students that they have three goals for the day: to learn, stay safe and have fun. Then I have the students come up with their own rules to follow to achieve those goals.
2. Comfort affects learning. Students will always pay more attention to their personal needs than what you are teaching. If you see to those needs, your lessons will be more productive. When you are teaching, situate kids so that they do not have to look into the sun to watch you. Provide adequate snack or meal time. Clue students into bathroom options at the beginning of the day; some students may never have "used a tree" before and will be uncomfortable with the idea. If it is hot, try to find a place to conduct your lesson in the shade and encourage students to drink lots of water. Always bring extra water. If the weather is cold, bring an extra jacket or hat for those students who forgot their own. (I collect them from the school's lost and found at the end of the year.)
3. Boundaries. Give specific boundaries before you let students loose to explore. "That rock" is not very specific; neither is "the juniper tree," especially if there are several in the area or your students do not know how to recognize a juniper tree. Keep your boundaries small enough so that you can easily float from group to group but large enough to accommodate all your students and include anything really interesting. You do not want the best lichen patches for your study to be outside the established boundaries.
4. Beware of down time. Most students naturally behave while they are engaged in a fun learning activity, but are unable to remember to act safely during transitions. These are also the times when resource damage often occurs, such as trampling on plants or biological soil crust. Anticipate student behaviors, address them, and discuss possible consequences beforehand.
5. Work with or minimize distractions. Nature is always tossing the unexpected our way. If a hawk flies overhead or a jeep drives by, of course the students will want to look at it. Acknowledge the distraction; let everyone look and then refocus the group. Sometimes you can even tie the distraction into the topic you are teaching. Sitting in a sandy wash is pleasant but all the kids will be playing in the sand while you are talking. I often choose to have students sit on slickrock or on a picnic blanket. If we do choose to sit in the sand, I remind the kids to keep the sand on the ground.
6. Teaching Props. Expect that students will want to touch everything they see. Keep unused materials tucked away in their boxes until it is time to get them out and model how to handle items appropriately before handing them out.
Did You Know?
Edward Abbey worked as a seasonal park ranger at Arches in the late 1950s. His 1968 memoir of this experience, "Desert Solitaire," has become a classic of desert literature.