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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Get Out of Here! Take Your Teaching Outdoors

It's officially spring time, and the kids (and probably you) are getting antsy.  It's a great time to break out of those four walls of the classroom and get some fresh air.

But wait, there are standards to cover, right?  No problem, there are many ways to incorporate the great outdoors to your lessons!

Now, one thing that I know can be a barrier for some schools is lack of outdoor space.  That can limit what your able to do while outside, but there are still many activities that can be done outside that don't require huge natural areas.

A few tips for taking the students outdoors.  

1.  Remind students that this is a learning activity, not recess.  I will leave the consequences for you to determine, but almost every kid would rather do their learning outside than inside. 

2. Be sure you are in a safe area.  If using a sidewalk or area near where cars are passing through, use caution.  I wouldn't use an area next to a major road, but if it's something like the car or bus lane for pick up/drop off, that should be okay during the day.  Just use caution and keep an eye out.

3. Always check out the area for any hazards, or ask other teachers where they go when they use the outdoor areas.  You don't have to stake it out every time you use the area, but it's good to know if there are issues like fire ants (yes, I'm from the south), or a lot of bees if you have kids with allergies.

4. Inform your team and/or the office that you will be outside.  That way if there are any early dismissals or someone tries to reach you, they will know where you are in case of any emergencies or drills.

5.  As always, take your "safety bag" or a small first aid kit with you in case you need a band-aid or a fire drills occurs.  Always good to be prepared, and no one wants to take the entire class back inside just to get a band-aid!

6. If taking paper outside, clipboards are a lifesaver.  No chasing paper around the schoolyard, and no bumpy writing from trying to write on the sidewalk.  Not necessary, but just a tip!

7. Sitting in a grassy area?  If you don't have a dedicated outdoor classroom you could ask parents to send in a few old sheets.  These could be spread out and create a place for students to sit (if the ground isn't super wet).  Some students are funny about sitting on grass, so this is a cheap way to help solve that issue.

Ideas for "Getting Out!"
Here are some ideas for taking some of your lessons outdoors.  These are just a few possibilities, and if you would like to share some ideas of your own, please do!

Sidewalk Math:  There is something to be said for sidewalk chalk and sunshine vs. pencils and fluorescent light.  Even if you're doing long division, you can give each student some sidewalk chalk and let them use the sidewalks to work out their problems.  When we did this, it was usually while we were really just getting the hang of it or as a review/practice before a test.  We didn't take worksheets or paper out, although you could.  Sometimes it was a little windy and I didn't want the kids chasing paper all over the place.  It's a great exercise in listening skills and following directions if you call out a math problem and have them write it out, then solve it.  You can put the kids in groups and have them take turns writing with the chalk.  The kids love doing geometry with this method too.  Name out polygons and have them draw them, or give them parameters like "Draw a quadrilateral that has at least one obtuse angle" and see what they come up with.  Keep in mind this is informal, but studies have shown that the more kids draw out what they are learning, the better then remember what they are learning.

Ruth Hartnup, Flickr CC

Sensory Exercises with Writing/ELA:  Whether you are working with kids to add details to their writing, doing a unit on poetry, or even figurative language, being outside can really amplify the impact of what you are trying to teach them.  Have kids just sit.  Yes, just sit.  Tell them to use their senses: What do you hear?  What do you smell?  What do you see? etc...  Have them write a descriptive paragraph about being outside.  It can really help them see why it's important to include sensory details when describing a setting.  It's fun to do a "before" and "after" writing.  The first one you can just say, "okay describe this area."  Then, have them sit, using their senses and discuss as a class what details they noticed.  Have them do the writing again, and they will be amazed at how much more detail they were able to add in.

If you are doing poetry or even figurative language, you can have them focus on something like the wind, trees, flowers.  Have them describe them or come up with a "word dump" about the item.  For example, trees might include: swaying, tall, majestic, green, brown, leafy (or bare), strong, home (for animals), etc...  This can be the great beginnings of a poem or adding personification to a writing.

Science Outdoors: As for science, there are many obvious uses for the outdoors, but even a short walk or observation time in a small area can help students exercise the power of observation and inference.  Maybe a student finds a half eaten pine cone.  Ask the students what they infer happened to the pine cone, what could have chewed on it?  It's also a great mini lesson on the inter-dependency of plants and animals, as the pine cone depends on animals (like squirrels) to spread their seeds. 

You can even have them choose a small area and find biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) factors, creating a T chart as a class, groups, or individually.

For weather, you could have a weather station, or even just go out and observe the clouds for a few days.  Have kids sketch the different clouds they see and name them.  For astronomy, we did a lot with shadows outdoors.  Choose an outdoor item or bring something outdoors and have the kids observe (and even measure - math!) the shadow at different times of the day.  Why does it change?  Why is the shadow shorter around the middle of the day? 

Map Skills: Map skills can be brought outdoors too!  If you have a large area, you could create a grid map with sidewalk chalk and have a group of students at a time stand in different spots you assign them (A, 3) you could also have them move using cardinal directions on the grid map, "2 units towards the north, 1 unit to the east".

Reading Outdoors: I remember when I was young, as a reward our teacher had us do an activity called "Pop the Top on Reading."  We were told to bring a beach towel, towel, or small blanket and our favorite book.  Back then, we also brought our own juice/water and a snack, but that's not necessary.  They may want to take their water bottles out with them, though!  We got an entire half hour or quiet reading time outside.  There was a grassy area between two of the halls in my elementary school that we were able to spread out on and read.  (We knew ahead of time when we were doing this so us fair-skinned kids could put on sunscreen...)  Now, I don't know about you but silent reading was already a part of my daily routine with my class.  The simple addition of having them bring something to sit on so you can read outside turns it into a treat for them! 

I hope that some of these ideas sparked an idea for you that you can use in your own classroom!  So many children seem to be spending less and less time outside.  If this trend continues, I feel kids won't appreciate and value the natural world as much as they do their computers, cells phones, or getting "likes" on the internet.  The more time we can spend connecting them to the natural world, the better.  They may not even realize that they are making those connections and fostering a respect and appreciation for the outdoors, but they will!

If you have any ideas for learning outdoors, I'd love to hear from you!  Comment below with activities you have done outside!


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