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Benefits of Active Outdoor Classrooms: Q&A with Mine Centre Public School

Monday, January 30, 2017 - 15:36
elementary students playing outside in the snow

Cooler weather can be intimidating. But not for students who enjoy the benefits of active outdoor classrooms. Whatever the month or weather, more teachers are implementing outdoor learning spaces to help get students out and moving. Our interview with Mine Centre Public School fromWestern Ontario shares how active outdoor classrooms not only motivate students to connect with nature but also help them gain critical thinking skills.  

What motivated your school to implement active outdoor classrooms?

In the Kindergarten classroom, we saw the need for students to get outside more often, so we began going for hikes.  Our school is surrounded by nature; trees, lakes, rocks, animals and bush, so we took advantage of where we are situated. And noticing that some students did not feel comfortable in the forest, we wanted to change this. Furthermore, as part of the Kindergarten curriculum, we wanted to implement inquiries related to science and nature, and have a place to go to that was nearby to enable us to go more frequently. As we got our ‘camp’(outdoor education space) in place, we noticed that being outside helped students with self-regulation and a positive sense of well-being. The ‘camp’ has ultimately become a place where students connect with nature, their culture, and traditional knowledge.

What skills can students gain from active outdoors classrooms?

From our experience we noticed several skills that students could gain from being at our ‘camp’.  We walk to and from camp, helping build endurance, grit, fitness, and persistence.  Students carry backpacks with items to use, helping them learn that we work together and are building a community when we help each other.  Walking in the forest also improves coordination and balance as we move over fallen trees or climb rocks.  Many activities require fine and gross motor control as students manipulate, lift, turn, and carry items. Also, senses heighten when outdoors, whether seeing various mushrooms or animal tracks, hearing birds, smelling moss or spearmint plants, and the scent of the forest floor.

Following directions is another skill students practice when outdoors, whether they are following directions for their safety or to complete an activity. Decision making also comes into play while choosing games, which trails to hike, or picking objects for creative play. Observation skills notably improve over time, students tune into things more acutely and notice things that adults often overlook. Most students need some support with self-regulation, but being outdoors and in-tune with nature seems to have calming effects and provides a sense of well-being.

Is there anything specific teachers should be aware of when creating an active outdoor classroom? Any tips or recommendations?

We are fortunate that our school is close to a forested area.  If teachers have a choice as to where the outdoor classroom can be located, choose an open area close to the school that has a variety of trees, rocks, plants, and small animals such as birds, squirrels, deer, frogs, etc. Keep it simple -we have simple ‘lean-tos’ made from trees and branches, a unlit fire pit (for playing), and child size picnic tables.  Keeping it simple allows students to explore and make their own toys and games. I also bring along a cell phone and whistle – teachers can check out the Ontario Physical Education Safety Guidelines “Outdoor Guidelines” to help in preparation.  Students are taught when the whistle blows they must return to the open area.

Additionally, we often discuss respecting nature; not picking or removing plants, flowers or rocks. Also, we always bring a first aid kit, binoculars, magnifiers, diggers, paper, pencils, guides (trees, plants, birds, animal tracks, flowers), and toy dishes. And to protect us from all sorts of weather, we have a collection of rubber boots and spare mitts (working on getting rain gear).  Having trails marked with flagging tape can also help set a boundary area for the outdoor classroom; regularly checking the trails for low branches, or leaning trees, especially after a storm or heavy snowfall.

Lastly, It’s important to always allow time for free play during each visit and to visit regularly for extended periods of time to allow students to feel comfortable and at ease when spending time outdoors. It will not be long before they feel at home at their ‘camp’ and will love and look forward to going there again.

What are some activities teachers can get students engaged in?

We head to our camp with a loose plan and we try to follow the interests of the students.  Sometimes the best made plans get set aside because students have noticed something interesting and we talk about it.  We also bring learning from ourindoor classroom with us to our outdoor classroom.  For example, when learning about rabbits indoors, we can then find evidence that rabbits live at our outdoor classroom. Also the outdoor setting isa great space for having several grades work on activities together.

The following is a list of outdoor classroom activities we have done:

  • Literacy: reading stories, role playing, retell, sequencing, vocabulary, listening, oral language, illustrating, writing, photo taking
  • Physical Activity/Games: hiking the flagged trails, hide and seek, camouflage–hunter game,  fox and rabbit, building forts and play houses, snowshoeing, nature scavenger hunt
  • Math: counting, sorting, estimating, measuring, number recognition, shapes
  • Inquiry: identify animal tracks, rabbits, cedar, ducks, moose, trees, plants, nests
  • Traditional Knowledge: medicinal plants, plucking ducks, cleaning fish, wild rice, learning about the different trees
  • Fall Harvest: wild rice processing
  • Other: dramatic play, listening and recording, seasonal changes, setting up trail camera, putting up bird feeders/feeding  birds, learning to build structures from sticks

How might you encourage students to stay active outdoors more often (outside of school)?

The activities we do at our ‘camp’ have carried over to activities student can do at home.  Several students have mentioned they have gone hiking on trails with family or friends, or built forts by their homes.  Parents are informed of activities we plan and when we are scheduled a ‘camp’ day.  The hope is to start family conversations about what youth are learning.  We feel if students are excited about activities they are introduced to in the outdoor classroom that they will take the excitement home with them.  Students are more apt to stay active outdoors if the entire family is involved. 

Here’s a list of activity ideas that can be brought home from active outdoor classrooms:

  • Build a fort to play in
  • Flag a trail near your home to hike in
  • Make your own nature guide for the area around your home, including animal tracks, plants, flowers, trees
  • Plant a tree, garden, hedge, flowers
  • Pick a special tree for the year and learn about it
  • Clean the surrounding nature - pick up garbage
  • Make a campfire and camp in the backyard or park (as per municipal laws)
  • Be part of a local bird count
  • Make a nature scavenger hunt
  • Set up a bird feeder and/or a trail camera and see which animals are near your home
  • Be animal track detectives

Marge Hale, Kindergarten Teacher                                                    

Sara Empey, Early Childhood Educator 

How often do you take learning outdoors? Share your active outdoor classroom tips and ideas below and on social media: Twitter/Facebook. Looking to get outdoors more often? We hope the activity ideas shared in this blog inspired you and help get you started!