Open-Air Learning - ASCD
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May 1, 2018

Open-Air Learning

Taking your class outside offers more than a change in scenery—it can inspire new ways to teach and learn.

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Instructional Strategies

It's one of the first nice days of spring. The classroom is stuffy. The students are distracted anyway, so you decide to teach the class outside. It's the same lesson on Shakespeare or long division, only with bugs and wind and traffic noise. A new setting can offer a breath of fresh air for students and teachers alike; but if you plan ahead and leverage your surroundings for learning, the outdoors can be a transformative educational tool.

Studies show that bringing students outside to learn has both cognitive and physiological benefits. For example, researchers in Norway and Germany found that students who had an outdoor lesson once a week exhibited lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than students who only learned inside. Multiple studies also point to an increase in learning retention: Swedish researchers, for instance, found that high school students who had outdoor lessons in math and science interacted to a higher degree with their peers and retained the material better months later than students who studied similar content indoors.

Teachers who have embraced outdoor learning say that when they teach outdoors, their students reap those benefits and more. The setting fosters hands-on, experiential learning and results in more student-driven lessons and nimbler teaching skills. They find students are more enthusiastic about what they learn, and that enthusiasm stays with them when they return to the classroom.

So why aren't more teachers stepping outdoors? One small survey, conducted at an elementary school in South Carolina, offers a hint. Cynthia Gardner, an assistant professor of education at Lander University, found that teachers worry about meeting curriculum standards, supervising students and keeping them on task, encountering unexpected hazards, and being inexperienced with outdoor teaching protocols.

"The benefits have to outweigh the costs," counters Jennifer Fee, project leader for BirdSleuth, a citizen science project from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Through surveys, Fee discovered that teachers were drawn to Cornell's program because they yearned to get their students outside and the school's scaffolded lessons helped them do that.

A Universal Teaching Tool

This desire to teach outside isn't limited to science teachers. "I've taught math class outside, social studies, and reading," says Rob Marohn, a 4th grade teacher at Pike Lake Elementary School in Duluth, Minnesota. And it's not just elementary school teachers. "It's really worthwhile," adds Dylan Bate, an English teacher at Green Mountain Union High School in Chester, Vermont. "It has changed the way I teach."

Even the most urban settings can offer sites for teaching outdoors, says Brad Rumble, principal of Esperanza Elementary School in Los Angeles. Rumble has overseen the restoration of natural spaces at two urban schools. At Esperanza, a strip of concrete at the edge of the school parking lot, once filled with trash and barbed wire, was replaced with a native plant garden. "This school is five blocks from the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles," he says. "It can be done anywhere."

Although some teachers believe that their classes are simply safer indoors, Rumble says, "I have done this work at two campuses, and there have been zero incident reports from our habitats, not even one bee sting."

The first time that Marohn brought one of his classes outside, he was so nervous that he only allowed half the students to enter the woods, where they had to keep in sight of their partners, who were standing in the field nearby. Since then, Marohn has won state and national awards for excellence in outdoor education.

The best way to get started, he says, is to "do something very simple." Marohn suggests taking the class for a walk, then having students write a poem or a paragraph about what they experienced. Marohn and Bate have found that this exercise results in inspired writing. Students observe their surroundings more closely, knowing that they need a subject to write about. And writing immediately after the walk means the experience is still vivid.

Barbara Jacobs-Smith, a 3rd grade teacher at the Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, takes her class out at least once a week during the school year. The science curriculum she teaches on phenology, the study of natural phenomena, lends itself well to outdoor learning.

Jacobs-Smith recommends exploring a potential outdoor classroom first without your students. What might inspire inquiry and questioning for the planned lesson? She looks for different habitats, such as wetlands or grasslands, for science lessons. An interesting tree or a pond might inspire creative writing. School gardens, with so much to measure and count, lend themselves to math lessons, she says.

Once the learning objective is established, turn your attention to the logistics. Are there possible hazards, like poison ivy or a steep drop-off, that students will need to avoid? What resources, such as an app to record observations, do you need to teach in that space? Jacobs-Smith has students carry cloth bags that hold a plastic cushion to sit on, a pencil, and other gear needed for a particular lesson.

For teachers who are eager to bring their classes outdoors, administrators with different ideas can be a barrier. Despite his teaching awards, Marohn still had to win over a new administration at a new school. He did that by starting small, with short trips outside, and keeping a tight rein on his class's behavior. Bate says that although he hasn't had any problems with his administration, he thinks that outdoor lessons that are aligned to the curriculum should reassure any leader.

Sometimes it's the teachers who need reassurance to venture beyond school doors. "Just because I'm interested as a school leader, doesn't mean every teacher is going to share that level of interest," says Rumble. "[But] teachers know they have permission to go outside, and that, in fact, I encourage it."

The Art of Discipline

Two schools of classroom management thought guide teachers who routinely take their classes outdoors: One believes that a student's behavior should be the same in any learning environment, while the other holds that learning outdoors opens up the possibility of new, and better, behavior.

Jacobs-Smith falls into the first group. She sets expectations right way. "This isn't recess," she reminds students. "Things can go south really fast if you don't draw the line."

She does this through a combination of techniques that she uses indoors and a few tips that make being outdoors go more smoothly. For example, she has students use the bathroom before they go outside, she brings her phone to call for help if needed, and she always remembers her keys to get back into the building.

Indoors and out, Jacobs-Smith relies on call-and-response strategies to quickly get students’ attention, such as "one, two, three, eyes on me." When her classes walk on trails in a nearby forest, she accounts for each student by using analogies: She tells younger kids, for instance, that they are a sandwich. She's one piece of bread and another adult or a designated student is the other piece of bread. Each student is a sandwich filling that needs to stay between the bread slices.

Because Jacobs-Smith takes her class out weekly, "it becomes part of the routine. They love to do it."

For Marohn, "keeping discipline outside is not all that different from the classroom, but it looks different." He sets expectations, telling students whether outdoor time is for "recreation or education," but allows students to stretch boundaries when learning outdoors. For instance, he doesn't stop them from picking up a stick or a flower. He has more flexible lesson organization, adapting the learning to include what interests students. "I'm learning to let the children learn things in their own way, rather than telling them everything."

That is Bate's philosophy as well. "A lot of the discipline problems in school come from the unnatural setting," he says. "You have 20 kids in a classroom, and they have to just sit and listen." Bate teaches 11th and 12th grade English classes, including American literature and AP English, which he teaches outdoors occasionally, and a wilderness literature class that spends a lot of time outside.

At the beginning of his courses especially, Bate has students spend those first few moments outside practicing just being quiet in nature. But when the class is outside, mostly in a forested area next to the school, the work is hands-on, so students rarely get distracted or act out, he says.

"Education is moving toward teachers as collaborative facilitators of learning, and that fits perfectly with being outdoors," Bate adds. When his classes are outside, he's not the authority figure in the front of the room. He's coaching students who are figuring things out for themselves.

Marohn believes that when you allow students more autonomy and are willing to engage them in something meaningful, you establish a more honest relationship with them. They return to the classroom happy and energized (one study of an Indianapolis magnet school from researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign confirms that after an outdoor lesson, students’ enthusiasm carries over into the next activity). Far from needing to redirect distracted students, Marohn's classes are more willing to buckle down to rigorous lessons. "I was willing to meet them on their terms, so they are more than willing to meet me on my terms," he says.

New Learning, New Teaching

For Bate, Marohn, and Jacobs-Smith, the outdoors isn't merely a setting, but a tool for hands-on learning and independent inquiry.

Good readers, says Bate, can tie the abstract symbols on the page with real-world experiences. Bate makes that link for his high school students, looking for one-to-one connections between literary works and outdoor experiences. For example, while reading a novel about a troubled teen in Alaska, students literally sit in a stream meditating, as the protagonist does, and then write about the experience. Fire building is part of a series of lessons on Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire."

Bate's wilderness literature class goes outside in good weather and bad. He makes more of an effort to bring his traditional English classes outside on nicer days. In those classes, students might write after making observations about nature or themselves, or they perform scenes from Shakespeare's plays.

If that seems like an inefficient way to get through a curriculum, Bate says that it would never be his goal to merely recite lessons that students quickly forget. "If I cover fewer poems, but in a way where the kids are really engaged, then it's worth it. They go away with lifelong learning." Racing through a curriculum just to say it's been covered won't achieve that goal, he says.

Jacobs-Smith notes that the outdoor lessons don't always go as planned but that is just another lesson. You may tell your students that they should have a growth mindset, she says, but these instances let you model that growth mindset for them.

Outdoors, students are more likely to ask questions that are beyond your knowledge. For Jacobs-Smith, this may involve a bird or a plant she can't identify or an aspect of a site's history she isn't familiar with. Replying, "That's a great question, let's figure out how to answer it," provides an opportunity for skill building, she says. When students are researching the answers, everything comes together: inquiry, reading, writing, and other skills. "That's when the learning is incredible."

Jacobs-Smith notes that it's not just the students who are learning outdoors. Whether it's an unfamiliar bird or an unexpected rain shower, these experiences force teachers to ask what they can do differently or better next time, allowing them to stretch and grow.

An Instructional Pick-Me-Up

Many studies show how learning outdoors benefits students, but how does the fresh air affect teachers? "I'm happiest when I'm teaching out there," says Marohn. He also notes that he is popular with students, as are most teachers who are known for taking their classes outside.

"Teaching this way changes your thought patterns," Bate says. "Teachers worried about keeping kids under control outside haven't taken the risk of giving them more say. It might change their idea about the dynamics of control in the classroom also."

Marohn says he has been teaching long enough that he runs into his former students, now adults with children of their own, at the supermarket and elsewhere. They stop him because they always want to tell him, "Thank you for bringing us outside." They remember the details of specific outdoor lessons into adulthood. "And isn't that what education is?" Marohn asks. "Remembering?"

End Notes

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