For most of the school year, you might be cooped up in your classroom thanks to mother nature. The winter months can certainly drag on. However, when spring comes around and the weather forecast predicts sunny days and fresh air, you have a perfect opportunity to take advantage of outdoor learning activities. The outdoor learning environment isn’t just for younger students. In fact, older students love the outdoors too and it provides countless learning opportunities for kids of all ages.
Fortunately, if you’re an English teacher, you don’t have to choose between your lessons and celebrating the natural world. After all, the Transcendentalists believed the great outdoors had a close connection with spiritual awareness. Of course, you can certainly use Transcendentalism literature lesson plans as an excuse to go outdoors, like I did with my Transcendentalism Unit.
However, you don’t need the content to justify the activity! This list of ten engaging outdoor classroom learning activities and ideas is perfect for any English classroom. You can pick and choose a few ideas below or mix and match them with nature, spring, outdoor, or Transcendentalism texts.
Why should you take your students outdoors?
First, it’s valuable to understand the justification for the outdoor learning activities. On one hand, it’s as simple as the value in celebrating the natural world and promoting physical activity. We all know how good the freedom of the outdoors feels. So, you won’t be surprised to know that research supports our innate feelings. According to scientific studies on the topic, outdoor learning activities may help young minds increase mental clarity, creativity, and self-expression among many other benefits. You can learn more about the connection between creativity, freedom, and the outdoors in Keeping the Wonder: An Educator’s Guide to Magical, Engaging, and Joyful Learning. The outdoors is one way to find freedom and freedom is one of the four major elements of wonder.
In terms of justifying outdoor learning for administrators, researchers have overwhelmingly documented positive outcomes for academic performance in relation to outdoor learning. One important foundational nationwide study conducted in 1998 by Lieberman and Hoody documented impressive results. They reported, “Observed benefits include better performance on standardized measures of academic achievement in reading, writing, mathematics, and social studies; reduced discipline and classroom management problems; and increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning.” You can read the entire report here; it includes so much information that influenced many studies after it.
Another interesting study conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in 2005 explored the outcomes of a week-long outdoor education program on 225 six-grade students. The results indicated that students who attended the outdoor learning program improved their science scores by 27% and retained information they learned six weeks later. You can read the entire report here. These reports are not outliers as you can find hundreds of studies that justify outdoor education.
Challenges and Considerations
Before you pack up and head out, it’s important you address a few important challenges. First and foremost, it’s important to identify a safe location on campus. I do not recommend leaving the school campus unless you have a previously arranged field trip for which parents will sign off their permission. Consider the type of activity you’ll be doing and if you have a good location away from cars and dangerous wildlife or plants. These considerations will really depend on whether you’re in a rural or urban location.
In the same light, I always recommend asking for permission, if necessary, and at a minimum alerting your school that you will be outside and providing your location as a home base of anyone looking for you. If you have security on campus, you’ll also need to let them know where you’ll be so they won’t be concerned about a group of students who appear not to have authorization to be there.
You’ll also need to be sure you have a way to contact the office and for them to contact you. It can be really concerning for a parent or guardian to come early to pick up their child and for the office not to know where the class is. It’s always best to err on the side of caution and ask for permission rather than forgiveness.
It’s also smart to survey students or the nurse’s records to find out any allergies or physical limitations for specific students. For example, if you have a student with an allergy to bee stings, you may need to have quick access to an Epi Pen.
While these issues can seem a bit daunting as an English teacher, keep in mind that many physical education teachers already take their students outdoors and young children almost always have access to outdoor recess. Therefore, it’s certainly possible! The following outdoor classroom ideas have a variety of ways to get your students learning outside so they can reap the many benefits.
Outdoor Silent Reading
The first and most obvious activity is an outdoor silent reading session. Take students outdoors and let them read something of their choice. (I love choice reading, and I’ve written all about it here if you’re interested in learning more.) Aside from the obvious feeling of freedom that comes with being outside, new science reports that contrary to previous beliefs, it’s good for your eyesight. According to a research study published in Cell Reports, reading outdoors in bright natural light helps create a better visual brain connection to eyesight.
Picnic Table Fishbowl
Speaking of this research, instead of asking students to read something of their choice, you could provide them with a high-interest article that students can discuss (bonus if it’s about outdoor learning!). For example, take a look at this article from Science Times. It summarizes the study I linked above in a more accessible way that would be appropriate for students.
If you’re looking for literature related to nature in nonfiction, look no further than the famous American Transcendentalists. Excerpts from Emerson and Thoreau are great topic ideas. You can check out my Transcendentalism Unit with passage pairings and nature activities here. Once you have your content, choose a group of students to sit across from each other at a picnic table (if you have one on campus). (If you don’t have one, check out the next option below.) The picnic table group is the inner discussion circle while the standing circle are the discussion observers. You can read about how I facilitate Fishbowl Discussions here.
Outdoor Circle Talk
If a picnic table isn’t an option, bring them outside to sit in the grass. Be sure to explain that they’re not just partaking in a discussion strategy, but also a therapeutic stress-relief method called grounding, also known as earthing. This article from Heathline explains why grounding, the process of grounding yourself to the earth, is popular and beneficial. The article and the strategy would be a great starting point for discussion and debate.
Beach Ball Discussion
If you want students to discuss, but would like them to get a little more active, grab a beach ball and turn your discussions into outdoor games. Use the beachball as a way to “call on” students to talk. As they pass the ball around to classmates, you can either ask them questions, or you can write questions directly on the ball. The goal of the game is to make it through an entire round of questions (choose a number like 10) without dropping it. If they do drop the ball, they’ll have to start over from one.
Sidewalk Chalk Silent Discussion
When you want students to focus on the peacefulness of nature and are looking for different sounds from the classroom, you can always use my favorite discussion strategy: silent discussions. The goal of a silent discussion is for students to discuss in written words only. You can give them guided questions or an article to discuss, but they aren’t allowed to talk, only write. This is a great outdoor activity because you can have students write directly on the sidewalk with sidewalk chalk. Give each student a different color to color code who says what, and your students will enjoy the sounds of nature while engaging in critical thinking skills.
Art in Nature
April is National Poetry Month, which works great for art in nature activities. For this activity, choose a poem with rich natural imagery. This Spring Poetry collection from Poetry Foundation has so many good ideas. Once you’ve picked your poem, grab some simple art supplies, like glue sticks, construction paper, acrylic paint, and markers. Then, take students outdoors and ask them to create a work of art using only your art supplies and natural materials. The goal for them is to create something using different textures and different materials. You can show them these creative ideas from this post from WeAreTeachers to get them inspired. The catch is their artwork must represent the imagery in the poetry. Add a gallery walk to display their artwork and then ask students to explain their choices.
Nature photography is a simple way to vary the last activity. Depending on the time of year, the outdoors is the perfect place to capture seasonal changes and beautiful colors. Instead of having them create a piece of artwork inspired by poetic imagery, ask them to capture the natural beauty of the outdoors focusing on contrasts, angles, and the different colors of nature. Visual challenges are a great way to connect to nature, which inspired my Romantic Poetry Unit. In this unit, I ask students to read “She Walks in Beauty” and “The World Is Too Much With Us” as their inspiration. Then, I ask them use the contrasts and themes in the poems to capture an image that represents their analysis. It’s an easy way to get them thinking like an artist.
While you have your art supplies handy, you can get students excited with sensory play! As children, we likely all had an outdoor play experience that involved a bug hotel. Glued together with mud, sticks, and whatever other natural elements are available, a bug hotel is literally a small building for bugs. In this literary variation, you can ask students to create their own “bug hotel” for a literary concept, story, character, plot, theme, or setting. They’ll need to use their problem-solving skills and maybe even some science concepts they’ve learned for a cross-curricular experience. While this activity can be a fun way to get messy, they also serve a valuable learning purpose. Whatever students create must be explained and justified to whatever literary concept you assigned them.
Speaking of the Transcendentalists earlier in this article, I can’t leave out a nature journal. It’s one of the best outdoor activities! During his time reconnecting with nature at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau kept a journal. This journal eventually became his famous work, Walden. Mimicking Thoreau, your students can keep a nature journal too. This activity works really well if you can take a small part of every day to get your students outside. In this journal, they can document their reflections and observations in a reader response fashion. Or, if your students need more structure, you could create a nature journal with reading passages from Walden. Then, you could ask them to write about their interpretations and reactions. You can see how I did this in my Transcendentalism Unit. You can read more about how I make Transcendentalism engaging and meaningful here.
Literary Nature Scavenger Hunt
An even better way to get students engaged with the outdoor space is through a literary nature scavenger hunt. This idea sounds a bit wordy. However, it’s a simple activity to set up, great for reviewing literary devices or elements for test prep, and so much fun for students. Here’s how you do it: First, choose your specific area for review. Poetic devices work particularly well for this outdoor learning activity. Then, you can give students a list of the items and take them outdoors. Their task is to search for elements in nature that represent each item on the list. Here is an example for symbolism: your students could find a budding flower and say that it symbolizes rebirth. The possibilities for connecting literary devices to natural objects are endless for outdoor classrooms!
Another idea for a cross-curricular connection to outdoor education is an advocacy project. For this project, students can learn about environmental issues, Earth Day, “Rights of Nature,” public policy on environmental legislation and issues, and more. Then, they can do something about it! Advocacy could take the form of awareness campaigns; community/environmental service; contacting federal, state, or local officials and legislators about environmental issues, etc. This is a great opportunity for ELA teachers to partner with social studies colleagues.
Nature Field Trips
I left this idea for last because of all the outdoor lesson ideas this one may depend on your location and what opportunities are available to you and your school. Still, you might be surprised to discover educational activities at a local park or college. For example, my local school district has two colleges and a great park within a short drive. Both colleges have environment departments that put on outdoor classroom activities for older children. One does a ropes and obstacle course that is great for team building and a connection to their physical education class, while the other provides creative ways for students to learn about nature on a nature hike.
Open Field Day
The goal of this article was to provide you with outdoor learning ideas that you can use, modify, or save for a sunny day. While these activities are specifically related to secondary English language arts classrooms, they can be used in a variety of classrooms and grades if adapted to the content or students’ learning abilities. While there is always an attempt to create meaningful educational experiences, they don’t always have to be formally planned. Big kids and younger children alike benefit from simply being outdoors.
Who said recess should only be for elementary students? In fact, one of the best outdoor classroom activity ideas is simply letting kids be outside for an outdoor classroom day. Give them a day for birdwatching, relay races, water play, or any other outdoor learning ideas you can think of. The end of the school year is a perfect time for this activity. Even though you won’t have an individual lesson planned, your students will absolutely still be learning!
I hope this article and these awesome ideas inspires you to take your students outdoors for an outdoor learning activity. Remember, you can pick and choose which activities to use throughout the school year.
If you’re interested in the specific content I use in relation to Transcendentalism and nonfiction passages and Romantic poetry, you can find those here and here. Finally, if you’re looking for full curriculum resources, you can find my AP English Language and Composition Year Long Curriculum, which includes my Transcendentalism Unit, and my Full-Year British Literature Curriculum, which includes my Romantic Poetry Unit.