Posts Tagged ‘teaching outside’

Tips for Teaching Groups Outdoors

Teaching kids outside is a great time. It can be a fun day of exploring and learning about the natural world. But if leading a group outdoors gives you anxiety, here are a few helpful tips from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology BirdSleuth program that can help you out.


Outdoor Teaching Tips

What’s Keeping you Inside? Tips for Leading Groups Outdoors

By Barbara Jacobs-Smith K-12 Education Team Resident Teacher Advisor
This blog is the first in our series on Outdoor Education.

As teachers and leaders of young people, I think we have an obligation to take children outside to learn whenever it’s practical to do so, even if it takes us out of our comfort zone. Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor educator or new to taking groups outside, here are some general tips and techniques that can make leading a group in the great outdoors a positive, successful, and rewarding experience for everyone.


1. Plan ahead

As the leader, it is very important that you feel comfortable and confident. Before you go out with the kids, go out by yourself and scout the area. Walk the trail or explore the habitat. Consider where you’ll stop, how long you’ll spend, what features are noteworthy, and concepts that are applicable to the area. What questions can you pose to children, what activities lend themselves to the area, and how will you encourage structured interaction with nature? Make note of any potential hazards. Spending some quiet reflective time in the space you’ll be using can help make it feel like an extension of your own classroom and increase your comfort level teaching there.

2. Set clear expectations

Very young birders are

You no doubt have established expectations for student behavior in your classroom. It’s just as important to do this for the outdoors. Rather than a long list of rules, each starting with, “NO” (No talking, No running, No pushing, No interrupting), keep the list short and positive. “Stay on the trail. Remain with the group. Use materials responsibly.” Spell out the specific guidelines for the group when moving from one place to the next. This can be as simple as explaining that the group must travel as a sandwich. The leader is one slice of bread. Whoever is at the end of the line is designated as the other slice of bread. Everyone else is the yummy fixings that make up the sandwich. We must stay between the two slices of bread because we can’t have our sandwich falling apart!

3. Be a scientist

Third grade students making observations in the field.

When in the field, students should behave as the scientists they are, collecting data, making observations, whatever it is that you are expecting them to do, and doing so in a manner that is serious and focused on the task. It helps if students understand the purpose of their being outdoors. “You act differently when you’re outside for recess than you do when you’re outside for science.” Before you take the group outdoors, lead a discussion with students about specifically how it should look, feel, and sound differently.

4. Stealth mode

There is a time and place for quiet discussion and conversation between scientists working in the field. There is also a time for silence. When you are traveling along a path or through an area, it is far more likely that you’ll observe animals there if everyone is as quiet as mice, owls, or ants. You can call it moving in “stealth mode.” If animals hear a large group of people lumbering along, they will clear out, reducing the chance of seeing the creatures that live in that habitat. Students should understand when they hear you announce, “We are now in stealth mode,” this means silence is in order. Use your vision now instead of your voice.

5. Send them off, but bring them back

Sometimes, an outdoor trip involves giving children instruction and then sending them off to explore or complete an activity. To do this, you must be sure that: a.) you have their attention as you give instruction, b.) when it’s time, you can get everyone to come back to you quickly and easily, and c.) you know that everyone is back. When you send children off to find or do something, in order to bring them back to you quickly and efficiently, establish a “signal word.” As soon as they hear the word, students must stop what they are doing and return to you as quickly as it is safely possible. The word “magnet” works well. You can tell them that when they hear you say “magnet” they magically turn into pieces of metal, and you become a magnet; they will immediately become strongly “attracted” and have to return to you as quickly as they can. Finally, count your group regularly. You can pair children up to help them keep track of each other. “Do you see your buddy?” Make sure you know how many kids you are meant to have and always have that many. No more. No less.

6. Have what you need and know what you don’t


Before you go outside, think carefully about what you are going to do and what you want to accomplish, so you know exactly what materials you are going to want to bring. When it’s time to leave the building, be sure you have everything you need gathered together and ready to go. The less materials and equipment students have to carry in their hands the better. If there are items children must have in order to do an activity, carry a backpack or, if the terrain allows, pull a wagon containing that equipment. If you plan to make trips into the field on a regular basis and there are certain pieces of equipment you want children to have each time they are outdoors, you may want to find a local business that has cloth bags with their logo on them. Ask for a donation of enough bags for every student (or groups of two or three), being sure to explain your desire to take students outside for science, and perhaps the compelling reasons for doing so. If you’re successful in getting the donation, be sure to follow up with a written thank you for the business to post. Are you short on clipboards for kids to use outside? Make clipboards out of a piece of cardboard or old personal-sized white boards with binder clips at the top and a rubber band at the bottom to secure paper to the “board.” Be sure to take plenty of extra pencils in case of loss or breakage. What you are unlikely to have when in the field is access to a bathroom. If that is the case, it is important to remind everyone (no matter what their age) to use the restroom. Making a stop at the bathrooms on your way out of the building can eliminate (no pun intended) emergencies that can bring you in from the field before you’ve accomplished your goals.

7. Bring along technology

Apps like Merlin are a great tool to help with identification of birds and other species

If you have a smartphone, you can turn it into a terrific resource with the use of one or more of the handy apps (some of which are available for free) that can help when trying to identifying unknown species and/or answering puzzling questions. (Free apps to ID: birds – Merlin; trees – VTree. Check the app store for free or Lite versions of field guides specific to your state or area.) A camera is an excellent tool to use when documenting what students are doing, capturing candid photos of them at work, “collecting” samples of what was observed, documenting unknown species for identification later, and video recording their “process.”

8. Know it’s good not to know all the answers

Nature journals can help give focus to a trip outdoors.

Don’t let a concern about not knowing the name of every plant or animal species you might see or the answers to all the possible questions kids might ask keep you inside. On the contrary, embrace the teachable moments that exist if you don’t know everything. These are priceless! Not knowing everything gives you authentic opportunities to

model for kids exactly how to find the answers. If someone asks a question to which you don’t know the answer, tell the group, “That’s a terrific question. Let’s write it down to research later.” This demonstrates to students that you’re a learner right along with them.   With some thought and careful planning, you can successfully lead groups of children outdoors safely and provide a positive and enriching experience for them and for yourself. You will be able to bring nature alive for students, and give them the authentic experiences that will start them questioning and wondering about the world around them! Happy trails! Barbara

This blog is Part 1 of a series around engaging and teaching students outside. Click here for Part 2: Creating an Outdoor Classroom and here for Part 3: Citizen Science in Your Outdoor Classroom . You can also watch our video “Nature Walks: Five Steps to Success” below. 



Schools Get the OK to Take Their Classrooms Outside

The following press release which was posted in December 2015 marks a great stride forward for environmental education. There has finally been federal recognition of the importance of taking children outdoors. The No Child Left Inside bill (also known as the Reed-Sarbanes bill) gives schools the flexibility to strengthen environmental education programs. This is a huge win given how test and performance-driven academic standards have pushed the direction of education in this country.  It’s good to see that things may be changing a bit for the better. That this mindset may not always exist and that we can give future generations of students a greater range of education programs that will create more environmentally-aware adults.



12/09/2015 —

New K-12 education law empowers states and schools & includes ‘No Child Left Inside’ provision to strengthen environmental education and outdoor learning

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Congress passed a new K-12 education law that empowers schools, promises more flexibility for states, and reduces the reliance on high-stakes testing in public schools while maintaining strong oversight of student achievement.

Included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan bill that replaces the widely-criticized No Child Left Behind Act, is a key provision co-authored by U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) that will strengthen environmental education programs in schools across the country.

The Reed-Sarbanes bill known as the No Child Left Inside (NCLI) Act authorizes funding to help states create environmental education plans and support outdoor learning programs and integrates environmental literacy activities into other key programs.  The Every Student Succeeds Act will allow school districts to integrate environmental education into their programs for well-rounded education as well as their afterschool programs.  The measure will support environmental education and hands-on, field-based learning experiences in participating schools nationwide.

Reed and Sarbanes have been working together since 2007 to pass NCLI to help states and schools build environmental literacy programs, strengthen teacher training, and provide competitive grants to allow schools and non-profits to pay for quality outdoor education programs.

Research by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) shows that children who are allowed to get outdoors during the school day are more attentive in class and better off socially and physically.

“Environmental education can have a positive impact on kids’ health, academic achievement, and understanding of the natural world.  This bill represents a major step forward, giving schools new opportunities to engage students through environmental education,” said Senator Reed.  “Teaching children about the environment and giving them a hands-on opportunity to experience nature should be an important part of the curriculum in our schools.  This new law will free up critical resources for environmental education to inspire the next generation of scientists and conservationists.  It’s a smart investment in our children and their future.”

“ESSA is a tremendous victory for advocates of environmental education who’ve fought long and hard to expand outdoor, hands-on learning programs,” said Congressman Sarbanes. “Numerous studies show the positive effect of experiential outdoor learning on student development and academic achievement. And if we can better connect youth with the outdoors, then we can help inspire the next generation of environmental stewards. I commend my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for passing a comprehensive education reform package that has immense benefits for students, teachers and schools across the country.”

NCLI would provide federal grant funding for teachers who design and implement environmental education programs in, and importantly, outside of the classroom. By encouraging new environmental curricula, the bill would also cultivate partnerships and strengthen relationships between school districts, colleges, environmental nonprofits, parks and other community-based organizations.

NCLI was backed by a strong, grassroots coalition of hundreds of community groups nationwide.  At the direction of the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA) and in collaboration with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Rhode Island was among the first states in the nation to fully develop an Environmental Literacy Plan (ELP), opening the door for potential federal funding that will help to equip teachers with the skills, knowledge, and confidence needed to integrate critical environmental and science learning into their curricula.

ESSA has already been approved in the U.S. House of Representatives and now that it has passed the full U.S. Senate today by a vote of it will be sent to the President’s desk, where he is expected to sign it into law.


Student Driven – How an Outdoor Classroom Came to Holt, MI

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

That quote by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead came to mind as I read this article. It should never be underestimated what one small group of passionate people can do. This is especially true of children. Youth often get overlooked when it comes to large-scale community projects and ideas. Their young age and inexperience often puts them at a disadvantage, their voices overshadowed by those of authority figures. Yet it only takes one to actually listen to accomplish great things.

That is exactly what happened in Holt, Michigan, where an abandoned playground space at a local middle school became something the students describe as “magical.”

Holt’s outdoor classroom born of creativity, generosity

Curt Smith,, Lansing State Journal

September 15, 2015 Original article

HOLT – There’s a new classroom at Hope Middle School, and it has no windows.

It lacks walls, too, and the closest thing to a ceiling is a pine tree keeping young learners in the shade during still-summery September days.

And the kids love it. In fact, it was their idea.

Not too long ago, that open space on the south side of the school was a playground for a day-care center. The facility moved on, and the playground was dismantled.

Only scattered woodchips were there to mark a place where children once had fun.

But Hope students saw an opportunity and were bursting with ideas. An outdoor classroom won out.

Youthful energy and creativity – and a local business’s generous donation of money and labor –  made it happen.

Putting it together

Katie Bielecki, who teacher English language arts and social studies, said Hope kids had been mulling possible uses for the space for about three years. When an outdoor classroom appeared to be the way to go – “for their learning and the betterment of the school,” as Bielecki put it – they planned, drafted budgets and even wrote grant proposals.

The work paid off with $1,400 in grant money from the Holt Education Foundation, which partners with the school district to sponsor innovative classroom projects.

And it wasn’t just work. The kids were learning, too.


Hope Middle School sixth-graders get the school’s outdoor classroom ready for the school year. The open space gives them a place to learn, plan and gather. (Photo: Rod Sanford/Lansing State Journal)

“This became a project-based learning for them,” said Kristin Hundt, who also teaches English language arts and social studies. “They wrote grants, which was language arts. They measured the space, which had a math connection. We talked about what kinds of plants and what kinds of living organisms could be out here to connect to science.”

Aiding in the other disciplines are Kellie Huhn and Danielle Smith, who teach math and science.

But the skills were needed from outside the classroom and in the spring it came from just down the street.

Enter Hayhoe Contracting Services.

“One of my staff went to the school to look at a different project,” owner Amanda Hayhoe-Kruger said. “Katie kind of took him aside and said, ‘I have an idea for an outdoor classroom’ and was wondering if we’d be interested in hearing more about it.”

When it came time to meet, the children’s zeal impressed the businesswoman and teachers alike. Sketches and diagrams indicated just what the students were looking for.

“She answered their questions,” Bielecki said of Hayhoe-Kruger. “She was inspired, I guess, by their passion and knowledge, and that they had done some homework before this meeting.

“Sometimes we underestimate the power of kids.”

Hayhoe-Kruger agreed: “They were super excited that there were actually adults other than their teachers who were willing to take the time to listen to them and help them with it.”

Giving back

Her company ended up donating $6,000 in labor and materials. Old car and equipment tires were used as table bases, and stools and benches were made from trees cut down after a storm. There are raised beds for gardening.

“Amanda and her group were just amazing,” Bielecki said.

“I live in Holt, my business is located in Holt, I grew up in Holt and just decided this would be a great way for us to give back to the community,” Hayhoe-Kruger said.


Weeding is the priority as the Hope Middle School (Holt) sixth graders in teachers Kristin Hundt and Katie Bielecki’s classroom clean up in the school’s outdoor classroom to help get it ready for the school year (Photo: Rod Sanford/Lansing State Journal)

In all, including the grant money, about $7,500 was spent on developing the outdoor classroom. Bielecki said there’s still $900 left to inspire more ideas.

The work was finished by the end of spring break, giving Hope students about six weeks to plan, study, learn and gather outside.

With the current school year just underway at Hope, the outdoor classroom has been used only once so far. Weeds, thanks to a rainy summer, were evident.

On Monday, about 30 sixth-graders were pulling them.

Still, the place is a hit with the kids.

“I think of it as more of a study place after school,” said Leilani Ibrahim, 11. “It’s really creative.”

“It’s like a magical place. It’s like a fairy tale,” said Alshoun Jones, also 11.

“You can read, learn and just treat yourself out here.”

Project Learning Tree Needs YOU!

One of the challenges of any outdoor/environmental education program is the constant pressure to adapt to current school curricula standards.  After all, if educators do not feel like the material will fit in with what they are required to teach their students, why would they want to use it?  So it is up to those of us on the more environmental side to keep up as best we can to provide engaging, easy-to-use, accessible, low cost options for incorporating important environmental topics into the classroom setting.

But we can’t always do this alone.  Project Learning Tree, one of the most widely known and used environmental education programs in the country, is looking to update its K-8 curricula to more thoroughly incorporate the increased need for STEM education (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  They are seeking the input of educators who have used their current Activity Guide to give them insight as to what works, what doesn’t and what could be added to make this new curriculum the best it can be.  The 10-15 minutes you spend on their survey may very well shape the way the next generation learns about our environment.

The below letter is from the coordinators of Project Learning Tree program.





Dear Educator,

Project Learning Tree® (PLT) has been one of the most widely used environmental education programs in the United States and abroad since its start in 1976. Using the forest as a window on the world, PLT’s ultimate goal is an environmentally literate citizenry.

The last few years have brought significant changes to education. Innovative technologies are transforming classrooms and schools, while an increased need for STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) and the recent release of new curriculum standards—including New Generation Science Standards and Common Core State Standards – present both challenges and opportunities for educators. At the same time, critical and complex environmental issues such as climate change, energy, the expanding human population, and declining ecosystem health underscore the importance of being informed and involved.

To help educators tackle these challenges and issues, PLT has begun a 3-year project to improve its most widely-used resource, the PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide. Called “PLT’s Next Generation,” this project will result in a PLT program that could look and function differently from the current guide.

We’re interested in knowing what aspects of the current PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide do or don’t meet your needs, and your thoughts on possible new features and topic areas. We invite you to participate in a brief (10-15 minute) survey, which you can access here:




We are also asking for your assistance to distribute the survey to other educators. It’s important to us that a wide range of perspectives are represented in the survey. So, whether a person is a seasoned PLT educator or is new to PLT’s programs, and whether you teach pre-schoolers or pre-service teachers – we will value your input. Please send this note and survey link to your networks, professional colleagues, or co-workers. We want to hear from as many people as possible. The results of the survey will be used to guide the development of the Next Generation of Project Learning Tree. Your opinion does matter!


All responses to the survey will be strictly confidential. We will not ask for your name or email address and, to further protect confidentiality, will use the results in summary form only. Please respond to this survey by September 16, 2013. If you have any questions about it, feel free to contact Jackie Stallard at 202-463-2754 or Look for a summary of results of the survey on our website,, in October.

We deeply appreciate your participating in our survey. Your input will help to provide the best environmental education possible for the next generation of learners.


Kathy McGlauflin, Senior Vice President of Education

Al Stenstrup, Director of Education Programs

Jackie Stallard, Manager of Education Programs