Today was the best day ever. 

As an educator, or human being for that matter, doesn’t that statement just make your steps a little lighter? Your heart a little warmer, and disposition a little happier when you know you were a part of what made the day special for someone else? 

This year, I have transitioned to exclusively teaching outdoors, and the phrase, “Today was the best day ever,” is used a lot by my young scientists. I teach K-5 science in Virginia. Transitioning to being exclusively outdoors has been one of the best decisions I have made. Like any classroom, every day is not perfect. There are plenty of days where things go wrong. Still, I can tell you the engagement and authenticity of my curriculum has never been stronger.

Being able to connect to nature, have a change of traditional classroom scenery, and opportunity to observe environmental changes in real time has benefitted my learners and me as a professional. Although I “only teach science”, I can assure you that being outdoors is great for all subjects and learners of all ages. Also, I don’t “just teach science”, I teach all subjects. Good teaching is cross curricular and immersive and the outdoors can enhance that in many ways. 

For me, nature is the inspiration and I weave in my specific content standards within what nature provides. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Nature Journaling

This can take on so many different forms, be taken in many different directions, and can serve a multitude of instructional purposes. For my learners, this is sometimes directed by a specific topic of observation I would like my learners to do and sometimes is left open ended. This depends on my goal for the specific time. I have recently connected nature journaling to student social-emotional learning. We spend time in nature focusing on a word. It could be a feeling like “anxious” or descriptive “athletic”, or anything in-between. Using this word, learners then observe the nature around them and create a sketch integrating their natural surroundings and the word. In this example, you can see bird tracks, a mud puddle, vines with flowers, and flying insects connected to the word overwhelmed.

STEM or STEAM Challenges

Do you ever incorporate these concepts in your classroom? What if we tied the challenge to the outdoors? I have a lot of plants in my laboratory (classroom) space that thrive outdoors in warmer months but need to be inside or in a greenhouse for the colder months. While studying plant classification and adaptations, I wanted my learners to create greenhouses for some of the plants so we could keep them outdoors with us year round. To complete this challenge, they needed to measure area, perimeter, and volume in order to design, build, test, and modify their greenhouse ideas. Perfect integration of math concepts they would see soon with their general education teachers as well as a real problem to solve. These are currently set up in our outdoor space, being tested by changing weather and wind!

More Outdoors

A common misconception of outdoor education or teaching outdoors is that you need an elaborate or even deliberate setup. This could not be further from the truth, you just need the outdoors. Simple observations of a space are a great start–what is here? What is not here? Using an outdoor area for independent reading time is another great introductory opportunity for the outdoors. You can BYOS (bring your own seat), BYOT (bring your own towel), or just sit on the ground! I’ve seen many configurations from tree stump stools, cutting boards, milk crates, and overturned buckets. The outdoors is really what you make of it.

Today’s blog post was written by Becky Schnekser, 5th Grade Teacher at Cape Henry Collegiate. Need some inspiration? Want to connect further? You can find her on social media @schnekser or via email [email protected] Be sure to check out her project: Blue Apple Project, “What’s in Your Water?”

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