TIPS FOR TEACHING IN NATURE

One of the most exciting ways to teach your students about the natural world is to take them outdoors. Digging in the soil, scooping up handfuls of stream water, and observing animals in their natural habitat are all stimulating activities sure to tap into your students’ natural curiosity. But some teachers are intimidated by the idea of leaving the classroom and venturing into less familiar territory. Some don’t consider themselves well trained enough to lead outdoor activities. Others are concerned about the safety of their students in less predictable environments. The good news, though, is that a few simple steps can make all the difference in ensuring your degree of comfort and the benefits your students reap.
  1. Start small. You don’t have to schedule an all-day field trip to a wildlife refuge to begin learning about nature. Start with a visit to a small corner of your schoolyard. Look at the plants that thrive in asphalt cracks or the insects crawling on schoolyard plantings. Even just sitting on the sidewalk, your students can make observations about weather, vegetation, stormwater runoff, and more.
  2. Get help. You may be surprised to know how many basic outdoor activities can be facilitated by someone with no scientific expertise. You don’t need to know the names of plants or birds, for example, for your students to begin describing them in nature journals. Still, if you want to ease your transition to the outdoors, consider beginning with help from someone with more experience. Another teacher in your school, a knowledgeable parent, or a visiting naturalist can all help you begin exploring the outdoors with your class. Learn by their example, then ask for their guidance in devising strategies and plans for future explorations when you’re on your own.
  3. Plan ahead. You can minimize many of the challenges of outdoor explorations by planning ahead. Make a visit to the site you wish to explore a day or two in advance. Determine the exact area your students will explore. Make a sketch of the site. Decide what activity you will do, what materials you will need, and how long you will spend outdoors.
  4. Prepare your students. Let your students know ahead of time that they will be spending part of a class period outdoors. Show them a sketch of the site and point out the places they can and cannot go. Encourage them to dress in casual clothes and comfortable shoes, and to bring a jacket in case of rain or cold. Remind them again the day before the outdoor class period and give them a weather forecast.
  5. Be flexible. No matter how well you plan, things probably won’t go exactly as you expect. Be prepared to adjust your plans to suit the needs of your students, the weather, and other unpredictable elements. At the same time, be open to unexpected opportunities that might come your way. Maybe one of the students has found a bird that has fallen from its nest. Maybe the school grounds have just flooded. Perhaps someone from the city has come to plant new trees by the parking lot. You probably won’t regret scrapping your lesson plans to take advantage of such rich real-life learning opportunities.
  6. Have fun. As much as possible, try to relax and have fun outdoors. If you’re having a good time teaching, your students will have a good time learning. And hopefully, the fun will come naturally!