Christine Gall – Education Specialist

One of the most common barriers many teachers feel they face when it comes to using the garden as a classroom is the simple fact that it is an outdoor space. “My students go wild when I take them out,” “I can’t get them to focus—it’s just too chaotic,” are some of the most common refrains I’ve heard. While many educators would agree that student energy levels tend to skyrocket when given the opportunity to venture outside, understanding why this is the case can be the key to creating more manageable and productive visits to your Outdoor Classroom.

For many elementary-aged students, the only time they go outside during the school day is recess, and perhaps gym. Both of these situations are generally high energy and are largely characterized as a time when students can let loose and have some wiggle room—a brief escape from more sedentary and confining classroom expectations such as sitting quietly at a desk, being a respectful listener and using an inside voice.

This typical school day schedule, with limited time spent outdoors, essentially promotes a belief that learning only takes place in the classroom. Students become inadvertently conditioned to seeing the outdoors as a place where they get a break from learning rather than an environment where learning can take place. And so, the first time a group of students is brought outside for a “class,” they often respond to the outdoor environment in the same way that they would respond to it any other time: by being loud and excited because in their eyes it’s free time!

Rather than turning around, going indoors and never thinking about class outside again because it’s “too chaotic,” have a candid conversation with students about how learning can take place in a variety of different settings. It may take some time for students to adjust to the concept of an outdoor classroom—in fact, it often takes time for educators to feel comfortable teaching in a non-classroom environment. To make this transition easier for both you and your students, try out a few of these helpful tips:

  • It may seem obvious to you, but always remind your students that they are going outside for class, not recess.
  • Create a special Outdoor Agreement or Garden Pledge as a way to outline expectations for time spent outside. This document might also include garden-specific behaviors, such as “ask before you pick something” or “check in with an adult before using a tool.” Bring it with you so students can refer to it while in their Outdoor Classroom and revisit it the first few times you venture outside.
  • While outdoors, make sure that whenever you address your students as a group they are facing away from the sun, making it easier for them to pay attention—there’s nothing worse than forcing your audience to squint into bright light.
  • If possible, also orient your group of students so that anything you might need to point out is already in their line of sight. Having to constantly turn around to see the garden beds or equipment you’re referencing can be distracting for youth.
  • Embrace the space you have and harness student energy! Recognize the impact the freedom of an outdoor learning environment has on a child and push the boundaries of your comfort zone as an educator accustomed to working in an indoor classroom.

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