Teaching Outdoors

Teaching outdoors is an effective method that can supplement classroom and textbook instruction with hands-on, sensory-based experiences. This type of instruction provides an opportunity for children to develop an awareness and appreciation of the natural world...all while having fun!

Basics of Outdoor Teaching

  1. Teach attitudes, not just facts. Stress the larger concepts rather than just the names of things and specific facts. Example: It is more important to know the different roles, helpful or harmful, that insects play in the environment than just that insects have six legs, 3 main body parts, and 2 antennae.
  2. Explore together. You don’t need to know all the answers. If you don’t know the answer to a question, use the opportunity to learn with the students. Often, it is more productive if you let the students discover the answer for themselves (even if you don’t know the answer).
  3. Use the senses. Students are more likely to remember if their senses are involved in the learning process.
  4. Be flexible. Use “teachable moments” when they come up. Imagine that you are trying to teach the class about stream ecology when a deer comes to the stream for a drink. Do you ignore the deer? How do you tie the deer into your lesson?
  5. Plan your field trip thoroughly.
  6. Keep your class under control. Safety comes first! Know the rules and regulations at the field trip location. Let your students and chaperones know before the trip what you expect of them.

A child that asks “What’s that?” is usually looking for more information, not just a label or name. The same is true of you, too. Think about this scene: you’re sitting at home alone, reading. The house is quiet. Suddenly you hear a rustling sound, like dried leaves, then a high pitched squeal over a clatter of metal. You jump up in fright, gasping, “What’s that?” Are you really asking for the scientific name of the creature lurking near your house? Or are you asking for more specific information to piece together, leading to a logical conclusion: it’s only the neighbor’s cat tipping over the trash can.

Sensory Awareness Tips

  1. Guide the students to make their own observations and discoveries using their senses. Avoid telling them what they are observing.
  2. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question. Search for the answer together, and you will both learn!
  3. Use good questioning strategies to get the students thinking about their discoveries. Don’t just concentrate on what it is, get them to think about why it is. Concepts are more important than just names and facts. Remember: No living or non-living thing on this planet had a name until humans began sorting and classifying. Experience in the natural world will always be primary.
  4. Find facts later. If students are motivated, encourage them to research information when they return to school. Memories of the object can remain vivid if students jot down observations and/or draw pictures.

To learn more about teaching and learning outdoors we recommend reading Edith Sisson's Nature with Children of All Ages and Jacqueline Horsfall's Play Lightly on the Earth.

Shenandoah National Park

Last updated: April 30, 2020