Get Out, Get Active! Inspiration for Outdoor Education during Chilly Winter Months
It can be tempting to stay indoors through the slushy, muddy days of winter, but there’s so much for students to gain by getting active outdoors—from fresh air to life skills and even connecting with community members.
We recently spoke with some Ontario educators/outdoor-enthusiasts to find out why they think the great outdoors makes for a great classroom. Read on to learn how they’ve seen outdoor activities enhance student learning and to discover some of their favourite ways to make the most out of wintry weather.
Encourage outdoor exploration in local areas.
There are many reasons to get outside, even in colder weather, but the one that tops the list is simple: students seem to love it.
“When it snows, we encourage kids to get out and make snow structures and to climb the hills and slide down them,” says Shelley Taylor, the principal of St Pius X Elementary School in Thunder Bay. “You’ve got to embrace the outdoors and learn to love the colder temperatures.” And, based on Taylor’s experiences, her students certainly do. “On days when I have to get on the intercom and tell the students it’s too cold for us to go out, you can hear the groan go around the school,” she says.
Meanwhile, four hours north-east of Thunder bay on the Aroland First Nations Reserve, students are exposed to and embrace a very different type of local outdoor environment. “Just behind our school yard is a fence, and beyond there is the boreal forest,” says Natasha Davey, a grade 7/8 teacher at The Johnny Therriault School.
The forest is a vast natural area that provides ample opportunities for activities like snow-shoeing, cross country skiing and going on walks to identify animal tracks. Davey says: “The kids tell me: ‘It doesn’t even feel like school when we’re out there.’” But Davey, like all the experts we spoke with, knows nothing could be further from the truth. Nature is a powerful educator.
“Students learn teamwork, character building, how to be resilient, and how to take risks and work cooperatively,” comments Deniece Bell, an elementary Core French and Health & Physical Education (H&PE) teacher at Terry Fox Public School in Brampton. “They connect to the outdoors and see that they’re a part of the big picture.”
Make connections to the Living Skills and to personal safety & injury prevention.
Outdoor settings are also a great place for students to learn and practise the Living Skills which are woven throughout the H&PE Curriculum. These are the personal, interpersonal and critical and creative thinking skills which are vital to student success in the 21st century.
“We have an open skating rink behind our school,” says Davey. “We normally go out every Friday with our senior kindergarten students. The older students help the little ones learn how to skate. That’s really helped my 7/8 students become leaders in the school, and also in the community.”
Colder temperatures can also present students with unique opportunities to learn important safety practices. “Up here we have an ice road that people drive across to get into town,” says Lorna Tremonti, an H&PE teacher at Dryden High School in Dryden Ontario. “When we take the students on a hike, we often walk across part of the lake, so we speak about that before we go.” For example, students learn to check the depth of the ice, stay close to a shoreline, and to walk with a partner.
Students at Tremonti’s school also get the opportunity to do outdoor activities that feature GPS or navigation. “It’s one of our students’ favourite outdoor activities,” she says. “And, for us, it’s a major life skill.” By learning to navigate, students who often go ice fishing or hunting with their families are better equipped to find their way home safely.
Dressing for the weather is another important take-away for students. “Right now it’s not too bad, but last week was -40˚C, and that’s the norm,” says Davey of their northern Ontario winter weather. Students are encouraged to dress appropriately, but there’s also a bucket of hats and mitts provided for those who show up for school without these items.
Make cross-curricular and cultural connections.
“Every time I take my students outside I try to make the lesson cross-curricular,” says Davey. “I connect physical activity with other subject areas like science, history or geography.” She has also made connections to art, and sometimes has students bring out the school camera to take photos of their favourite outdoor areas. “It makes the students feel more invested,” Davey explains.
Likewise, Bell often makes connections to science topics (such as the life cycles of plants and animals) or to history while hiking with students. “Our grade fives go to Jack Smyth Field Centre,” she says (186 acre outdoor education centre that sits atop the Niagara Escarpment). They go on nature hikes or visit a working sugar bush where they make connections to science and history topics.
Outdoor activities can also be a great way to help students learn about and celebrate other cultures—or their own.
“We just finished celebrating Carnaval,” says Bell. The school marked the Quebecois winter carnival by renting a Bonhomme costume (the Carnaval mascot) for a teacher to wear. “We had stations for hockey, sled racing, obstacle relays, snowman building, freeze dancing, target snowball, beanbag tosses, cooperative wooden skis and noodle tag!” says Bell.
Meanwhile, at Davey’s school, students participate in a Native American winter sport called snow snake, while also making cross-curricular connections to subjects like science and art. “Last year we made snow snakes from tree branches,” she says. “We carved and shaved the bark to make them more aerodynamic, then painted them. “When we were done, the students made a little trough or track in the snow (typically five inches deep, rising up in a slope). You throw them, and it’s a race to see whose will go the farthest.”
Not only did the students enjoy the activity, Davey also found that they were much more alert and focused when they returned to school. “The fresh air and movement was so beneficial to their learning,” she comments.
Make community connections & focus on providing new experiences.
In Thunder Bay, Taylor has initiated winter activity programs over the last 32 years. The goal is to have students develop healthy lifestyles and embrace Thunder Bay's great outdoors. Her pride in the strong community partnerships that have been created is evident.
The Skiing in Schools program is one of her favourite success stories. “Our ski hills run phenomenal programs where students can learn to ski and snowboard for significantly reduced rates," she says. In this way, students who might not otherwise have access to this outdoor activity are able to experience it for the first time. One of Taylor’s former students, who learned to ski through the Skiing in Schools program, even went on to compete in Giant Slalom in the Special Olympics.
Encourage family fitness.
Students who have positive experiences trying activities like skating, skiing or winter hiking through school are likely to encourage their families to get involved in the activities as well—increasing activity levels for the whole family. “Our job is to teach about healthy living and being active so the students can go home and try it,” Bell points out.
Educators can also encourage family fitness by inviting parents and siblings to attend school-wide events. “Last year we had traditional ice fishing and sledding,” says Davey. “Any time we have school-wide events, parents are welcome to join.”
Encouraging families to take part in community events that feature outdoor activities can also be beneficial—especially as a way to keep students active during the upcoming March break. “We just had a Dryden activity day over the family break,” says Tremonti, by way of an example. “There were trails and areas set up for safe tobogganing. We also have a lot of family ice fishing derbies and two areas for outdoor ice skating.” She finds that the key to getting families out and active is to make sure that the activities are economical and accessible to those who may not have a car.
Let the outdoors inspire a life-long love of physical activity!
The revised H&PE curriculum aims to help students acquire the comprehension, capacity and commitment to lead active healthy lives—and teaching students to participate safely in enjoyable outdoor activities is a great way to accomplish this.
Most young children are natural nature lovers, after all, and as students progress through the school system, continuing to foster that love of outdoor spaces and activities can lead to increased and ongoing opportunities for physical activity. Through the revised secondary H&PE curriculum, some high school students are even choosing to take part in a Healthy Living and Outdoor Activities Focus course that will allow them to explore a wide range of physical activities in outdoor spaces. This course gives students an opportunity to explore winter activities such as snow shoeing, alpine and cross country skiing, orienteering and hiking to name a few. “Health and physical education may be the only place that students are introduced to these activities. Even having students out on the back field playing an invigorating game of flag football or ultimate Frisbee can reintroduce students to the joy of being active outside in the winter.” says Joanne Walsh, Ophea H&PE Secondary Curriculum Consultant.
“It might look different from place to place, but everyone has an outdoor space near to where they live,” says Tremonti. Not only are these spaces generally accessible, using them is often free-of-charge... allowing all students to reap the benefits of getting active outside—not just today, but for life. “That’s always the biggest thing,” Tremonti concludes. “It’s giving them that life-long love of physical activity.”
A Few Resources for Outdoor Education:
Ophea’s Teaching Tools: a comprehensive collection of lesson plans, supplements and activity cards—many of which can be adapted for outdoor education.
Leave No Trace Canada: a national non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and inspiring responsible outdoor recreation through education, research and partnerships.
Resources4Rethinking.ca: a project developed by Learning for a Sustainable Future. It provides teachers with lesson plans, curriculum units and other teaching resources that integrate environmental, social and economic spheres through interdisciplinary, action-oriented learning.
Step Outside: educational guides that explore specific seasonal flora, fauna and climate events, published 2-3 times per month by Resources4Rethinking .ca.