Engagement and Learning In An Outdoor Classroom

The start of this school year at BFA Fairfax brought with it many new and creative ways to teach and learn. One of these unique opportunities takes place in our new outdoor classroom. Prior to the beginning of the school year, Mrs. Caswell applied her new learning about facilitating instruction in an outdoor environment. She presented a comprehensive plan in mid-August and immediately began constructing a learning space in the woods on our school property.   

Why do it?  What are the benefits?

Outdoor learning provides a unique opportunity for our students to engage with nature. Researchers have consistently indicated that being outside is an effective environment to foster mindfulness, an appreciation of nature, and integration and application of academic content. Additionally, this promotes greater physical health and engagement through movement and breathing fresh air.

“Children’s lives frequently feel as hectic as our own.  If you can inject a little serenity into their time with you, you will help them enjoy and understand both the natural world and themselves a little better,” (Lingelbach).

Fortunately for our school, we have many spaces to implement outdoor learning! Several resources are available such as our hiking trails, the Recreation Path, a pavilion, a gazebo, and many tent structures for students and staff to utilize throughout the day.

“Knowledge without love will not stick.  But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.” 

“Systematic knowledge can emerge organically from lots of hands-on experience,” (Sobel).

Ken Finch describes these benefits in The Risks and Benefits of Nature Play:

  • Cognitive: observation, concentration, exploration, collecting, sorting, experimenting, and building
  • Creative: imagination, make up stories, create elaborate pretend play scenarios, endless materials 
  • Physical: running, jumping, balancing, climbing, carrying, coordination 
  • Health: lower rates of illness, less obesity, better motor skills, power of concentration, improved vision 
  • Social and Emotional: taking turns, learning to respect others’ opinions, making up rules, working together, sharing discoveries, negotiating
  • Spiritual: observing, daydreaming, reflecting

ECO Daily Schedule

After six weeks of exploring and learning in the outdoor classroom, our students and staff continue to engage daily with this space regardless of the weather condition. They look forward to going outside and being hardy Vermonters on the colder and rainy days. Here is an example of a daily schedule that Mrs. Caswell uses to engage students and integrate learning both inside and at the outdoor classroom:

Day: 1 Nature

Essential QuestionActivitiesResourcesTime/location
Nature Library/Museum ProvocationWhat is Nature?Likes/Dislikes~Eco Journal- draw/write~Nature booksECO JournalsClassroom 
Morning Circle

~Discuss nature~Share own nature experiencesField
Cooperative Game

4 Corners (with nature) Use terms they came up with during discussion?Posters- Animals, plants, land, waterfield

Transition to Forest

Anchor Breathfield

Lesson in the Forest

How do we observe our surroundings? What do you hear, see, smell, and wonder?

Fox Walking Lesson

Hiking trail 
Sit Spot/JournalingWhat did you notice?
Sketch what you noticedECO journalclassroom
Closing Circle
What was special about nature?Classroom

We are thrilled to have this resource as part of our learning community and are hopeful that it will continue to be a resource after the pandemic ends. We are so pleased with the level of engagement, learning, and our students’ desire to learn outside and apply their knowledge in the classroom. 

Thomas Walsh is currently the Principal of BFA Fairfax Elementary School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY.

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