Lesson Plans for Teachers

Get Outside: Teaching Tips

Learn strategies for building community, using nature in lessons, and getting your students outdoors.

Be prepared

When planning a trip outside, make sure you think ahead and bring what your students will need, such as:

  • a refillable water bottle
  • sun protection: hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen
  • snacks
  • comfortable shoes
  • clothes that can get dirty!
  • whistles
  • identification (including school name and phone number)

Before you plan a trip outdoors, make sure you check with your school’s policy regarding permission slips. You may need to start gathering these weeks ahead of time, so make sure you plan ahead. In addition to making sure your students are prepared to have a great time outside, it is important to ensure that you are prepared as well. Other items you will want to have include the following:

  • emergency contacts for your students
  • first aid supplies
  • whistle

Training

Safety comes first, so if you are planning on working with students outdoors, make sure your first aid and CPR certification is up to date. There are lots of places that can help you get certified. Check the Red Cross for a class near you.

Outdoor education tips

Check out these great tips for teaching outdoors adapted from Andrew Foran’s captivating book Quality Lesson Plans for Outdoor Education.

Natural spaces as natural classrooms

  • Use natural divides such as trees, foliage, and rivers to create an effective outdoor classroom.
  • Natural spaces help provide a sense of authenticity for the learning. Go beyond the notion of “If you can teach it outside, do it” to teach the skills in the environment that was intended.

Risk assessment of site

  • The teaching site should be free of residual risk and with clearly established boundaries.
  • Where risks exist, they should be highlighted to the group and management strategies should be in effect.

Large-group management

  • Large groups should be broken into smaller groups or stations.
  • You should be able to observe all groups from a central area, though the groups may be somewhat separated by natural divides.

Natural teaching aids

  • Use what is accessible to aid your delivery, such as using hands and knuckles to demonstrate topography.
  • Use a variety of strategies to help your participants learn: visual cues (diagrams, checklists), analogies related to the topic, appropriate personal stories that depict learning moments that participants can relate to, focused group discussions that draw out participant knowledge, skill demonstrations, etc. 

Sun

  • The sun should be in your eyes, making it easy for participants to see you.
  • In cold climates, select a site where sun shines on participants’ backs for a warming effect.
  • In hot climates, avoid the sun if possible by moving to a shaded area.

Wind

  • Wind should carry sound to participants; it should be moving from you toward participants.
  • In cold climates, avoid windy teaching sites because of the cooling effect of wind.
  • In hot climates, wind may help cool participants, making them more comfortable.

Water in, water out and thermoregulation

  • Adequate water-in, water-out breaks should be provided, allowing participants to maintain healthy hydration and thermoregulation.
  • Check participants to make sure they are dry, and if they are damp, insist on changes of clothing.

Safety

  • The activity must be delivered in a manner that is safe and that participants perceive as safe.
  • This assessment depends on the group’s maturity and skill level, the terrain, and the technical challenge of the outdoor lesson.

Specific strategies for teaching in the outdoor classroom

  • Teach in outside places that are authentic to the lesson.
  • Participants have expectations for the activity; do not lose sight of the activity as a means for authentic learning.
  • Participant interests can be sparked through firsthand experience, a necessary aspect of the experiential process; be sure to match the activity challenge to the age of the participants.
  • Participants require outdoor leaders who are knowledgeable, informed, interested, and attentive—show enthusiasm during the session regardless of the weather.
  • Develop a sense of community; a safe, fun, friendly environment for learning and practicing new skills.
  • Move the focus from competitive aspects to skill performance; focus on progression with positive support by providing constructive feedback.
  • Know the outcomes for each activity. This will allow detection (what is not quite right) and correction (skill adjustments to improve performance).
  • Be prepared for each lesson: Have safety checks in place, reminders for updating participants, equipment inspected, and the instructional site confirmed and inspected.
  • Participant engagement is essential; keep it fun but in a structured format to maximize learning time in the field.
  • Use visuals and a hands-on approach for demonstrations—promote a sense of doing.
  • Participants pay less attention to long speeches. Use simple words and phrases in discussions.

Recommended Reading

Sharing Nature With Children: The Classic Parent’s and Teacher’s Nature Awareness Guidebook, by Joseph Cornell
As Joseph Cornell's classic title approaches its 20th anniversary, Cornell has drawn upon a wealth of experience in nature education to significantly revise and expand his book. New nature games favorites from the field—and Cornell's typically insightful commentary—will make the second edition of this special classic even more valuable to nature lovers worldwide.

Interdisciplinary Teaching Through Outdoor Education, by Camille J. Bunting
Interdisciplinary Teaching Through Outdoor Education provides teachers and recreation and outdoor leaders with outdoor activities as well as the expertise to expand students' understanding of the outdoors and develop their character. Units are included for challenge initiatives that don't require a ropes course, front country camping, back country camping, land navigation and more. 

Discovering the Naturalist Intelligence: Science in the Schoolyard, by Jenna Glock, Susan Wertz, and Maggie Meyer                        
From the publisher: This teacher resource will help define naturalist intelligence and explore its potential, identify naturalist traits in students with an observational checklist, meet national science standards, and strengthen students' use of the naturalist intelligence with more than 30 outdoor lessons. Each lesson includes a list of intelligences used, literature entry point, curriculum extensions, assessments that check for understanding, reflection prompts for journals, and tightly formatted directions for teachers.

Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids & Grown-Ups to Get into Nature and Build a Greener Future, by Judy Molland                        
Get Out! is chockful of ideas to get families, classrooms, and groups outside and learning about nature.

Hands-On Nature: Information and Activities for Exploring the Environment with Children, by Jenepher Linglebach, Lisa Purcell, and Susan Sawyer                         
From the publisher: This book provides information and activities to assist educators and parents in exploring the local environment with children. The book is grouped around five themes (Adaptations, Habitats, Cycles, Designs of Nature, and Earth and Sky), fact-filled essays introduce each subject, followed by field-tested, experiential activities that engage students in learning about the natural world.

Let's Go Outside! Outdoor Activities and Projects to Get You and Your Kids Closer to Nature, by Jennifer Ward                        
From the author of I Love Dirt! comes a new selection of outdoor games, projects, and adventures specifically for families with children ages 8–12.        

The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally, by David Elkind                         
From the publisher: Today's parents often worry that their children will be at a disadvantage if they are not engaged in constant learning, but child development expert David Elkind reassures us that imaginative play goes far to prepare children for academic and social success.

Connecting with Nature: A Naturalist's Perspective, by Robert Stebbins
Connecting With Nature offers advice on performing accurate observations and field reports and understanding natural selection, along with an array of activities to capture the attention of students of all ages—from imitating animal sounds and tracking animals to creating a school garden and photographing birds.

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