A Rich Outdoor Classroom…

- April 27, 2021 -

WORDS: Jenny Miller

Children are young humans, and like adults, they tend to love learning when the subjects are personally meaningful; even if we don’t grasp something right away, our interest makes us want to keep trying to learn more. Typical classroom environments, bound by approved curricula and standardized testing, can’t focus solely on subjects children enjoy.

But when certain fields don’t come easily, the outdoors provides a rich classroom for children. Any subject can be transferred into that environment with a little creativity, injecting some new energy – and even a bit of whimsy – into subjects your child may be struggling to understand and absorb.

Outdoor classrooms have been put to the test

The COVID-19 pandemic put outdoor classrooms in action by necessity. It also turned homes into classrooms, deploying parents as educators for their school systems. Taking a break from homeschooling studies by stepping outdoors provided a much-needed reprieve and emotional benefits, but also, as noted in this journal about outdoor education initiatives in the UK: “Outdoor learning shows great potential as a tool for health promotion and improving educational outcomes and a key component for the development of children.” Moreover, teachers also reported having a renewed sense of purpose and increased job satisfaction.

“Doing” is a great method of teaching: You learn more about cooking by cooking. You learn more about what plants grow best in your climate by planting and caring for plants. Observing is also a great way to learn and can be inspiring, particularly in a supportive and interesting environment conducive to learning. This makes nature such a great “teacher” – it provides a rich, sensory experience and plentiful opportunities for observation and doing or performing activities.

Tips for the trek outdoors

It’s not all daisies and sunshine, of course – you need to be mindful of the practical challenge’s nature presents where you live. Weather-appropriate clothing and measures keep learning distractions to a minimum, so don the raingear if sudden downpours are the norm, and bring along sunscreen, other sun-protective measures, and water if your environment more closely resembles a desert. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, but if you’re likely to surprise a few snakes or disturb some fire ant piles, then boots are a smart addition.

In fact, observing animals in nature — even those in the backyard — is often an awe-inspiring activity for children. Even the lowly ant earns new respect when children discover their strength, their social structure, and how hard the females work! Other common animals that are likely nearby include squirrels, gophers, and several bird species.

Taking brief field trips to areas known for other abundant wildlife, such as deer, or even domestic animals such as horses, cows, or llamas, can also enhance the overall outdoor learning experience. Search for any farms in your area that welcome visitors for hands-on experiences with animals; it’s become one way for struggling farmers to earn additional revenue.

Igniting STEM with some STEAM

The importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education as an economic and gender equalizer has received more interest over the last several years. And while it may not seem obvious, the outdoors provides the ideal setting for an interest in science and technology, particularly with art integrated into the mix to stir creativity, stoke curiosity, and lead students along a path that encourages change and innovation in what is called the STEAM model.

There are plenty of online courses and programs to get your child started with STEAM, and you likely have easy access already. If you have PBS, get your child started with NOVA, which does a fantastic job of integrating science and technology into nature. For a larger arts infusion, visit the Kennedy Center ARTSEDGE Digital Resources for free lessons and fun exploration guides.

Let learning gather some STEAM

Learning is a lifelong activity. Fostering excitement for learning early in childhood provides an excellent foundation for future success. Taking advantage of our online technology and free resources, and the classroom right outside our doors makes it accessible for every child.

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