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How teachers can bring learning outside

Sunlight coming through a tree

As both a teacher and a mum, I am passionate about spending more time outside. It bothers me that children spend so much time sitting down. They are created to move.

Many of these children go from sitting down in the classroom to sitting down in an office job. It is bad for our health. In her recent book ’52 Ways to Walk,’ Annabel Streets writes about the many benefits of walking. She advocates for taking every available opportunity to go outside and move our bodies.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been asking myself how I can implement some of these changes in my classroom. Although I may be just a relief teacher, I can still make a difference to the students I work with. I can make intentional choices and small tweaks to the daily routines that can make a positive difference. We all feel better with more outside time.

Memories of outside lessons

I have fond memories of my teachers occasionally letting us sit outside to learn. I remember using metre … to measure around the oval. We used syringes and water during science. We tested paper helicopters by dropping them off the high parts of the playground.

We had scavenger hunts with our buddies. We collected leaves and bark to make collages in art. We wrote poetry on the oval. We had a senior Biology lesson outside in the sunshine, just because.

I was so grateful for my teachers for these moments. I was the type of kid to stare out the window and long to be outside. I’m still that person. I just can’t help it. I wasn’t made to be kept inside.

I want to be that type of teacher for my students. I want to be remembered as the teacher who let us go outside. Who trusted us to continue learning outside the four walls of the classroom. Who allowed us to move our bodies and breathe in the fresh air.

What types of learning can be moved outside?

There are many small tweaks we can make to our daily classroom routines to enable more outside time. Here are some ideas:

Reading

Although reading is important, it doesn’t need to be done inside. Silent sustained reading is regularly used in classrooms as a way of bringing calm after break times. It can enable teachers to assess students one-on-one, listen to them read or test them on sight words.

Perhaps you can maintain the same routine but simply try it outside? Students could sit on outdoor benches, a spot on the playground or under a tree. Students could read by themselves, with a partner or in small groups. They could read their readers to a buddy and share a library book together.

Phonics

Most Junior Primary classes use the Heggerty program to develop phonemic awareness skills. This resource is a script read out by the teacher and requires student participation and actions. Although it is not specified that Heggerty be implemented with students cross legged on the mat, this is almost always what happens.

Why not do this outside under a veranda, under a tree or on the basketball courts? Even simply standing up can be a nice change. Students are doing the same routine but in a different place. They love it.

Fruit break

Most schools in Australia offer a short healthy snack time about an hour into the school day, often known as Crunch and Sip. This is a fabulous time to head outside for ten minutes. Students can enjoy some Vitamin D and fresh air. Even if it is raining or hot weather, there are often areas undercover that provide adequate shade.

Literacy

Literacy is a fabulous subject to do outside. Students can write their spelling words in chalk or complete their written activities outside. Students can bring out their books to work on in the shade. Encourage them to use their five senses to record what is around them. They can brainstorm ideas and then write a story, exposition, poem or journal. Students can edit their printed work outside.

Maths

Students enjoy having a chance to spend maths lessons outside. Students can estimate how long something is and then use equipment to measure. They can take turns lying down on the courts and draw around a partner and see how tall they are. Students can count objects and put them in groups of ten. They can play maths games like addition snap under the veranda.

Students can find objects outside to put into patterns. They can order things from biggest to smallest. Students can write numbers in chalk. They can use scales to compare the weight of different objects and test if an item sinks or floats. Students could work in pairs to go on a maths scavenger hunt in an area of the yard, using clipboards to tick off what they find.

Science

In science lessons, students learn by observing and engaging with the world around them. Use some lessons for working outside to categorise living and non-living things. Students can compare different types of materials that make up the playground. They can collect samples and conduct simple experiments.

Students can observe how shadows move and change. They can observe the clouds and the different formations that occur. Nature journalling could be completed as a regular activity, helping to combine science, literacy and art.

Show and Tell

Show and Tell or Sharing doesn’t have to be done in the classroom. Consider moving this routine outside. Rather than speaking to the whole class, it could be done in smaller groups instead.

Eating time

I find that eating lunch outside helps to break up the day. Rather than watching a cartoon for 10-15 mins on the smart board, students talk to each other when they are outside. It keeps crumbs out of the classroom reducing the load for cleaners and the risk of vermin.

Those students who finish eating quickly could keep chatting or with permission, play a game nearby like handball or basketball. It allows those who need extra time to continue eating where they are, rather than rushing to grab their lunch box and exit the classroom.

Relaxation

It is common for junior primary classrooms to schedule relaxation time after lunch or recess. It helps transition students from loud, excitable play to being ready for learning. Many feel overstimulated or just sleepy, not dissimilar to many adults after lunch.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with watching a relaxing nature clip on the screen, why not try letting students sit underneath a tree or find a quiet shady spot to themselves? There they could simply sit and daydream, looking up at the sky, cloud watching. Some students might find it relaxing to sketch or journal. A small part of your classroom budget could be spent on blank notebooks for this purpose.

Art

Art is a fabulous subject to move outdoors. Students can use clipboards or art books to sketch and draw. They can paint with watercolours at outdoor tables. They can walk around the yard and collect items for a collage or autumn leaf picture.

Students could study artists like Monet who took great inspiration from nature and worked outside. They could each research a famous artist who used nature as their source. Students could draw or paint something meaningful to them in their school yard.

Design and Technology

I remember building a marble maze that had to keep it moving for as long as you could and figuring out how to build a strong bridge out of paper. These were fun group challenges. Provided you have some undercover areas and it is not windy, these sorts of lessons can be moved outside. It also helps to keep the mess off the classroom floor.

Buddy time

In many schools, buddy time is an important lesson of the week. Older students are paired up with students from another class. This helps to build relationships across different ages, develop confidence and leadership skills and improve oral language skills.

Buddies could sit in the shade and read together, complete a nature scavenger hunt or fly paper planes. They could bounce a ball to each other, complete some interactive maths tasks or collect items for collage. Buddies could draw with chalk, sketch a tree or design a playground together.

Brain Breaks

I believe that brain breaks are so important. When we go to Professional Development or training as adults, the day can seem to drag. The topics can be dull. It’s tiring to concentrate for long periods. Our legs get stiff and we are craving our next cup of coffee.

It’s important for teachers to become students again to remind us of how hard it can be. Allowing students to have outdoor breaks to move their bodies is incredibly valuable. Simply doing a lap around the oval or courts or walk and talk gets the blood pumping and allows the brain to recharge. Let students do extra laps if they have lots of energy.

When we head back into class, there is a new level of engagement. Those who were in the blue zone (tired, lethargic) seemed to have more energy upon return. Those who were in the yellow and red zone (fidgety, can’t sit still, loud, can’t keep hands to themselves) appear to be more regulated. This comes as no surprise of course, but sometimes it feels easier to stay in the classroom. Silent ball and heads down thumbs up require no preparation or movement. It’s faster and children like it, but how much benefit do they really provide?

Consider taking Think, Pair, Share outside. Instead of turning to talk to their partner on the mat, students could run a lap of the oval (think), walk a lap whilst discussing what they will write on (pair), sit under a tree as a class to discuss the ideas (share). This method allows both the brain break, the movement and the oral language required before independent writing.

I recently saw a timetable that scheduled a ten-minute fitness break every 45 minutes. This doubled as a toilet break. This reduced the otherwise frequent interruptions that occur and students knew exactly when they would next get a break. They didn’t need to hassle the teacher about when they were getting fitness or the teacher having to squeeze in time for it. Routine scheduled breaks worked brilliantly for this class.

Resources

If you’re looking to do more reading or access resources on getting children outside, here are some ideas.

Nature Play SA resources, conferences and free printables such as 51 Things To Do Before You’re 12.

1000 Hours Outside by Ginny Yurich has free printables to track hours spent outside and an app to download. They have a range of resources on their site. She has the books 1000 Hours Outside: Activities To Match Screen Time With Green Time and Until The Streetlights Come On.

Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children by Angela Hanscom

Little tweaks, big changes

As educators, we can make a difference. We can engage our students in different ways without compromising on academic standards. We can try new ways of doing things.

Over the last twelve months, I’ve been on a journey to take my classes outside more. It’s opened my eyes to the little pockets of time throughout the day. As long as our students are engaged, we can move learning outside. We can involve our class in the process and talk about the reasons why. We can give them more ownership of where learning takes place.

Even as relief teachers, we can make little tweaks to our timetable to allow for more outdoor learning. What a difference this can make in the lives of the students in our care.

Melanie Wegener

Thoughts? I’d love to hear in the comments below or connect with you over on Instagram or Facebook.

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