“Mr. D., that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”
The trials and successes of a classroom without walls
By Greg Derbyshire
he above feedback, made by a grade 8 student, is one of many similar comments made to me by students and parents who recognize and appreciate the opportunities provided by outdoor experiential education. That’s why I took students outdoors when I was a classroom teacher. Not for the accolades or ego stroking, but for the knowledge that I reached many students in a way that can’t be done inside the walls of a classroom. Few of us need to be informed of screen-time statistics when it comes to our modern society. A growing body of research is supporting what many of us know inherently, and the long-term impacts of the loss of exposure to the natural world are mounting. We now know that connecting with the natural world benefits many aspects of our being. Physical, social, spiritual, and mental health improve when we spend more time outdoors. Bullying decreases, ADHD symptoms are reduced, and social and cultural barriers diminish. For many of us, we know that we have an obligation as teachers to expose our students to the outdoors; it may be the only opportunity many of them get.
The last class of my indoor teaching career was one of the nicest groups of grade 7 and 8s I’d had the pleasure of working with. They were energetic, creative, and enthusiastic. They weren’t, however, good listeners. During the first couple of weeks of September, I tried to help them develop better listening skills.
The usual strategies didn’t work; being late for gym class bothered them, but didn’t change their attentiveness.
With some trepidation then, I prepared them for a study of our schoolyard and the adjacent vacant land. The grade 7’s would investigate biodiversity for the Interactions in the Environment science unit and the grade 8’s would review the above, plus collect plant and water specimens for investigation with microscopes for the Cells unit.
Prior to going outdoors, we reviewed the expectations. Each small group would carry a clipboard, worksheets, scrap paper, pencils, measuring tapes or metre sticks and numerous zip-lock bags for collecting samples. Members of each group were to stay together and work together, solving problems on their own if possible.
I knew this class might be a bit challenging in an outdoor setting because of the struggles we’d had with listening skills in the classroom. But it was much worse than expected. Groups split up, metre sticks were used as swords, pencils got lost, and worksheets didn’t get filled out properly. And, that was just in the schoolyard! With thirty years as a classroom teacher under my belt, and with considerable experience at outdoor education centres, leadership centres and summer camps over the previous thirty-five years, I had no idea a group could be so frustrating. Despite the schoolyard behaviour, we moved to the adjacent vacant land and continued our study. When we finished our work and lined up at the school door to go back inside, I shared with them my dismay at their blatant disrespect for their peers, for me, and for the learning opportunity, which they had just spoiled. I told them that I had never had such a challenging group in all my years teaching outdoors, and that my experience that day was much like trying to herd cats. They knew Iwas upset, so they followed my instructions to return to class, sit down,open their reading books and remain silent.
I sat down at my desk to plan my lecture on respect and listening skills. After fifteen minutes, I asked for their attention.
Instead of my lecture though, I instinctively asked them to share what was good and what wasn’t so good about their outdoor learning experience. A few students offered the correct observations about poor listening skills and a general lack of following instructions. A couple of students suggested that the hands-on learning was a lot of fun. Then, the comment I’ll never forget: “Mr. D. – that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”
I paused. It was obvious that many other students felt the same. “Why then,” I asked, “were you so out of control out there?” It took some time, but some students shared that they seldom, if ever, went outdoors for anything but recess and gym class. They just couldn’t control themselves with the perceived freedom; it was too much like recess, despite having clipboards and worksheets in hand.
Even with this frustrating outing, the learning that followed was substantial. We spent many quality hours preparing plants for pressing, identifying species, mapping study plots with species variety, comparing schoolyard plots with vacant land plots, preparing slides for looking at samples through microscopes, identifying microscopic invertebrates, and preparing reports for presentation. Just one afternoon of outdoor learning provided plenty of extended learning opportunities in the classroom, and set up anticipation for future forays into outdoor experiential education.
In fact, the outdoors became our classroom without walls. Students began to ask if we could go outside to learn. We did. Over the course of the year, we left the classroom for language, math, history, geography, science, physical and health education, and the arts. The outdoors became a natural place to learn. And they became better learners as a result.
Benefits, Barriers, Basics and Beyond
As suggested above, there are dozens of benefits to outdoor experiential education. Students get more exercise, they socialize more, co-operate more and learn more.
They are exposed to new venues for learning where staff can share their expertise. Some students, who might find desk learning a bit of a struggle, shine in the outdoors; they often take leadership roles in groups – something they would not normally do inside. In my experience, students become motivated to work well together so that they don’t lose their outdoor learning opportunities.
The different venues open up different ways of learning. Most will know of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, (Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,1993).
There are now nine recognized intelligences: logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and existential. I am convinced that outdoor experiential education can support and enhance all nine intelligences.
Recently in education, differentiated instructionhas been touted as the way to reach more of our students. Take them outside, then! Some will thrive. Some will be challenged. All should benefit in their own ways.
There are, however, a few barriers to taking classes out regularly. A single permission form for a year of local outdoor excursions may not be allowed at some schools. On the other hand, many schools and boards are moving toward being “paperless,” so trip-specific permission forms could easily be completed electronically. Depending on administration, specific school and classroom compositions, the availability of volunteers may be a barrier. None are typically needed if you are staying on school property, and possibly if you are going “next door.” Other outdoor resources within walking distances would require volunteers. Individual schools and boards will have their specific requirements.
As is suggested by my “herding cats”experience, individual class dynamics will impact on the quantity and quality of outdoor experiences. Teachers must recognize the uniqueness of each class and the individuals within it, and plan accordingly. The reality is, some classes may not be able to get out as often as others. Regardless, the benefits of outdoor excursions will be palpable.Whether you’re a novice outdoor educator who needs support, or the experienced teacher who can provide that support, there are a few basics to keep in mind. The list below is a starting point. Adjust it as you see fit for each activity to suit your specific needs. The more experience you get at this, the easier it is.
- Get to know your local resources, (schoolyard, woodlots, vacant land, urban studies opportunities, talented parents or other adults in the community who might be able to help you with specific aspects of outdoor learning).
- Get to know your board and school policies and procedures for outdoor excursions; complete any required paperwork. Perhaps a generic permission form for occasional excursions close to school would suffice for those outdoor teaching opportunities that present themselves throughout the year.
- Arrange for volunteers, if needed.
- Know your students; what are their strengths and limitations?
- Plan the activity for your chosen curriculum area and topic, and gather materials and supplies.
- Carry out that plan; take those kids outside!
- Debrief the students to find out what they liked and didn’t like, and what they understood and didn’t understand. This feedback will prove very useful for future outings.
- Do follow-up activities to solidify learning.
Beyond the basics, here are some ideas for developing a network of outdoor educators within your school and district.
- Consult with colleagues to learn the basics.
- Share your ideas and experiences at regular meetings.
- Create outdoor activity resource documents specific to your schoolyard and local resources, (saved on your school’s server, of course). All teachers can contribute to it.
- Combine classes for some of your excursions. This is one way to team up experienced and inexperienced teachers, and more appropriate student groupings may be easier to arrange.
- Be an advocate for outdoor experiential education whenever you can.
So, why bother?
From my years of experience in the outdoor education and recreation sectors, I’ve seen what a difference going outdoors can make. Beyond all the wonderful benefits stated in research, there’s something that happens to children when they spend time outdoors. Their eyes soften. They begin to see the world in a different way. They’re more centred and at peace. They discover a part of themselves they didn’t previously know. What more could you want for your students?The bottom line is, if you don’t make the small effort to take your kids outside, who will?
Greg Derbyshire is a recently retired classroom teacher with the Grand Erie District School Board in Ontario, Canada. His many and varied outdoor interests and pursuits continue to occupy much of his time. More recently, his interest in promoting the benefits of outdoor experiential education has inspired the creation of a new venture, It All Comes Naturally.
This article first appeared in Stepping Into Nature, a publication of The Back to Nature Network, a multisectoral coalition oforganizations and agencies working to connect children and families with nature. The Network was established with the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation through a collaborative partnership between Royal Botanical Gardens, Parks and Recreation Ontario and Ontario Nature.