Spending time outdoors is becoming less common as students watch their phone, tablet, and TV screens more and more. For Louv (2008), students today suffer from what he calls “nature-deficit disorder” and can be linked to a rise in obesity, academic and social problems, and diminished time outside. Outdoor studies have a very long history and can be a gateway to learning literature, art, culture, history, and, yes, science. In recent years, outdoor learning has experienced a resurgence as educators recognize its potential for re-engaging students across the curriculum.
Reconnecting students with natural experiences not only decreases symptoms of stress and anxiety, but also helps them thrive cognitively, physically, and socially. Going outside to explore nature up close and personal inspires students to reflect on what they see and feel, giving them a rich sense of place as they put into words and sketches what it all means to them.
Studies have documented many of the benefits of taking learning into the outdoors; building content vocabulary and making it stick are derived from the multitude of visual and tactile learning opportunities that are associated with what students experience. And, they are more likely to remember as they explore, ask questions, interpret what they find, drew conclusions, make sketches, and communicate what they have learned. These acquired skills prove helpful across the curriculum and throughout their lives.
Learning becomes more authentic, relevant, and locally based which fosters “word and content awareness” in a lively and fun way as students talk, listen, and reflect. For example, as they read or write about the common threads that bind art and culture, poetry and painted landscapes, or flora and fauna in forest ecosystems, students are given permission to ponder and dig more deeply.
Learning in the outdoors offers students contexts to make meaningful connections and compels them, according to Finley (2015), to figure things out as they engage in productive and purposeful struggles. It is in these struggles that students are placed in situations in which they get to refine their thinking, build academic vocabulary, synthesize ideas, and generate new knowledge and understandings from multiple points of view in different situations.
In outdoor settings, students are immersed in interactive, interdisciplinary processes that stimulate their curiosity and creativity and capitalize on the synergy between expanding their content learning and academic vocabulary (Reinhartz, 2015). It happens more naturally on the stage where oral language, reading comprehension, and writing become integral parts of the content and linguistic fabric of transformative teaching and learning.
But just taking students outside is not going to yield the many benefits cited; outdoor time takes as much preparation as does teaching inside classrooms. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Set expectations and group students into teams before going outside and prepare them to use their senses, be respectful to the outdoors, and determine what to wear.
Use backpacks to store field journals (can be student made or purchased), clip boards, supplies, and trash bags.
Recruit and involve volunteers from the arts, sciences, social sciences, and humanities as well as grandparents and retirees from the community to provide support and to bring extensive real world experiences to the outdoors.
Contact non-profit organizations—Audubon Society, botanical gardens, and museums—that have outdoor events for students.
Check out these resources by grade level:
- Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World, J. Rothman (2015). MA: Storey Publishing. Art and science mingle in fascinating visual tour of nature’s wonders through drawings, diagrams, and dissections.
- Firing Up Firewise Curriculum, 2016 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Look through these great websites for ideas:
- Handbook of Nature Study
- Introducing Poetry and Pictures—Weather to enrich the learning outdoors
- Arts and Culture about Clouds, Weather, and Climate
- Our Poetic Planet: Poems That Describe the Earth
Use games to promote learning. For example, here are 7 Great Outdoor Activities for Your ESL Students.
At first glance, learning in the outdoors looks heavy on science, but being among plants and animals does contribute to meaning making and cross-curricular coherence. Consider how art and culture connect to clouds, weather, and climate. Or how inspiration for writing poetry and painting comes from ones’ surroundings.
Take Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “The Sun Comes After Rain,” or “The Sky is Low, The Clouds are Mean” by Emily Dickinson—and how poetry and paintings come together in the “The Grand Canal” by Joseph Mallord William Turner. This painting features altocumulus clouds above the canal and city. After viewing Claude Monet’s painting of the “Field of Poppies” in which there are puffy cumulus clouds, students will be inspired to write their own poems or paint their own landscapes as they sit among blooming flowers in the spring or trudge through the snow in the winter.
As educators, our motto should be, “Leave no students inside; let them flourish academically while enjoying the outdoors!”
Finley, T. (2015). 4 things transformational teachers do. Retrieved from
Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 9781565126053
Reinhartz, J. (2015). Growing Language Through Science: Strategies That Work https://us.corwin.com/en-us/nam/growing-language-through-science-k-5/book243826#reinhartz