Students & the Outdoors

The outdoors aren’t what they used to be, at least to recess- and physical education-deprived youngsters in schools across the country. We have found schools and teachers who provide outdoor learning and see super results in engagement and interpersonal contacts. And we hear Richard Louv’s call for learning in Nature.

Kids venture into the Georgia woods

In 2011 middle grades ESOL teacher Kelli Bivens found a way to bring her black and brown students together: lead them into the woods near Athens, GA to learn about Nature and build bonds while blazing a trail. With help from a volunteer with wilderness camp experience, Bivens reached out to elementary through high school kids along with her Coile Middle School students in a neighborhood where gang involvement was a lure. The call of the outdoors provided a healthy alternative.

Bivens reports, “That was the start of Coile Serves, which is the formal name for the student organization that a group of students founded. Since then, Coile Serves has created a community garden, started a school-wide hiking club, and this year, we are organizing and facilitating literacy classes for and with families in town.”

A 5,000 sq ft lab, just outside the school door

Across the continent, L.A. County students at Leo Politi Elementary just walk out the school door to encounter native plants and animals. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant and shovel-ready environmental students from a nearby high school have replaced a section of the urban school’s grass and concrete yard with a 5,000 square-foot garden. Since the garden took hold several years ago, the percentage of students scoring proficient or above on annual science tests is up six-fold as kids observe and write about the world outside their windows.

Want a game plan for surveying the flora and fauna in your school’s neighborhood? Visit the NYT Learning Network for a detailed lesson plan. Kids will pick up math skills along the way.

Venturing further afield

You can also look into the Smithsonian’s eMammal project to learn how your students can use motion-detection cameras to catch wildlife (and domestic cats) moving around your school’s neighborhood and then provide their observations to scientists. The Washington Post reports on how Students become ‘citizen scientists, track D.C.’s wildlife with cameras in a story by Michael Alison Chandler.

To see STEM in action in Earth’s atmosphere, read The High Hopes Project: A Model For Global STEM Learning as STEM facilitator Brian Crosby reports on a fully developed middle grades project that tests the atmosphere, with help from multiple partners.

How to immerse students in Nature

Read about the advantages of providing students with outdoor play and education in the introduction to Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.  You’ll also find resources on activities that can be adapted for the outdoor classroom — and a link to the Child & Nature Network, an organization Louv helped found. Learn about Louv’s 2012 book for all ages, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, at his website.

Find Nature online to support outside study

For project ideas and succinct guides to some of the smaller life-forms likely to be found outdoors, try the California-based To see inquiry in action, visit Mrs. Clayberg’s sixth grade class to observe their snail project, hosted by the Tree of Life Project. For students who want to scope out the vertebrate critters in their backyards (or on the other side of the globe), introduce them to the Map of Life from Yale and the University of Colorado at Boulder. With a little practice, kids can track down a host of creatures.

Susan Curtis

Susan Curtis is co-editor of In a long career, she has taught middle grades students, worked in human services, edited a variety of publications and wrangled the reference desk in libraries.

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