None of us wants to be stuck indoors, confined to a hot, sweaty classroom, daydreaming through the lesson, gazing out of the window at all the things we could, and should be doing out there, interrupted only by our students yelling at us to get on with the lesson.
Outdoor Classroom Day (see here) takes place twice a year, usually in May and October, when there’s more chance it’s not either freezing cold or too sweaty. It’s a global campaign to get every student outside. This year’s first event is on May 20th, and so far over 100,000 teachers representing over 10,000,000 kids have signed up.
And why shouldn’t we take part? After all, who learns English to use it exclusively in a classroom?
The benefits of learning outdoors are too long to go into here, but this guide is a good start.
While it might not be easy (permission, managers, etc.) to get outside for the whole lesson, or it might not be feasible to speak to the locals in English (if, say, you’re in rural China), there are always ways to get outside.
Here are six very simple, flexible ways you can get outdoors next week, at any level, with any class. Adapt them to your own needs as you need to.
- Scavenger Hunts
Perhaps the most obvious way. Design a scavenger hunt for the vocabulary you’re covering at the moment: transportation, colours, shapes, animals, types of shop, items that cost less than $1, things smaller than a fish, living or nonliving things, clothes…whatever it is, knock up a bingo card scavenger hunt, put your students into pairs or small groups, give them an area to search and a time limit, and let them go. When you get back to class, get groups to double up and feedback to each other what they found and where.
Can’t think of anything? Then do an alphabet scavenger hunt: one thing beginning with each letter of the alphabet.
Too easy? Write an A-Z story like this, only using things you find outdoors.
- Art and Writing
If there’s nothing to find, make it. Use natural materials (sticks, twigs, leaves, etc.) to make faces and describe them, to build houses and describe them, to make letters. Give each group a task and a time limit, and then set up a natural gallery so they can look at each other’s work and describe it to the other groups.
- Story Walks
A story walk can take many forms. It might, for example, be where you tell a story on-site. That is, you read Little Red Riding Hood in the forest, moving from place to place as you move through the story, and ending up at a hut in the woods. If that’s not possible, find a story set in a city, like Knuffle Bunny or Make Way for Ducklings, or something that works near where you are.
Another form of story walk is where students get a bag and you explore the area together, stopping where they find something interesting and just talking about what it is (vocabulary practice). As you explore, each student has to collect 3-5 objects (from the ground, not the trees). When you get back to the classroom, they write a story involving all of these objects.
- StoryTime Outdoors
As mentioned above, reading a story is a great way to get outdoors, and if the weather is good (no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing?), why not go sit in the playground or a nearby park to read a story together?
This was my Outdoor Classroom Day last year. We just happened to be learning ‘What can you do?’ / ‘I can swim?’ And so on. So we just went out to the playground to do it. So much more space, so much more fun than fighting tables and tripping over chairs.
- Jumprope Rhymes
Maybe you’ve got little ones and you need the supervision, or don’t want them all over the playground like my Grade 3’s, take a jumprope, teach them a rhyme, and go for it. Normally I’m not a fan of ‘2 play, others watch’, but I like to make an exception for activities like this where the ‘watchers’ are also chanting the rhymes. This pre-reading phonological awareness activity is so much like fun the kids have no idea how useful it is.
If they’re older, count as high as you can. Count in 2’s, count in 10’s – it’s good practice for making this as natural in English as it is in L1, and always check the ‘watchers’ are chanting along.
If they’re older still, make it in a vocabulary game. Give each student or pair (depending how long your rope is) a topic and challenge them to think of a new word in that topic for each time they jump. Now the ‘watchers’ become listeners and have to count the words. The turn ends when they trip or run out of words. But they can choose the next topic. Varied, spaced recall.
If your topic lends itself naturally to an outdoor lesson, that’s great. I strongly encourage you to go for it, and to make it an ongoing, regular part of your class.
To be honest, schools are not always on board with this, but times are changing. Ten years ago, I’d have never got my school manager to agree. But now, more and more people are aware of the benefits of outdoor learning.
But one thing that’s been consistent is that my students have enjoyed it every time. The scientific benefits you can read about in the Muddy Hands report are all true – I’ve seen them.
So go for it. Get permission from whoever needs to give it, and go out and have fun. Add your school to the map on the Outdoor Classroom Day website and join the millions of kids worldwide who are learning out in the real world. If you have outdoor lessons or activities, share them in the comments.
See you outside.
Outdoor Classroom Day website
Muddy Hands report