Before Going Outside: An Introduction to the Featured Lessons and Primer on Preparing for Lessons in the Schoolyard

About these Lessons
The lessons prepared for this project are based on the Next Generation Science Standards (, are not grade specific, and are appropriate for elementary and middle school students. Although life science core ideas are most often associated with outdoor learning, lessons for physical science and earth/space science are also included in this set of lesson plans. Several lessons involve more than one discipline and standard.  If a lesson doesn’t meet the specific learning goals of your students, it can, and should be, “tweaked” to meet those goals.  That’s what’s fun about lesson planning: Making found lessons your own!  Many of these lessons are based on ideas gathered from sources such as textbooks, learning modules, Science and Children (NSTA) journals, workshop experiences, and nature specific lessons found in resource books, and by Googling topics on the Internet.

The featured lessons are inquiry-based and written in the Five E Learning Cycle Model:
1.  Engage – Students become mentally engaged with an event or question to capture interest.
2.  Explore – Students participate in hands-on/minds-on activities to explore concepts, behaviors, or skills.
3.  Explain – Students explain their understanding and receive definitions, explanations, and information about the concept, behavior, or skill.
4.  Elaborate – Students apply what they have learned by manipulating new materials and interacting with other students.
5.  Evaluate – Students participate in a written or performance based formative assessment of concepts, behaviors, and skills. A helpful resource for designing assessments is Formative Assessments: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning by Page Keeley.
More information on the Five E Learning Cycle Model can be found here.

Why take students outside?
Teachers have several arguments for not taking students outside including, but not limited to; it’s uncomfortable outdoors, students don’t pay attention to the lessons, it’s too hard to get everything outside that you need to take, there are too many safety issues….  Research shows that as children are exposed to nature and learning in the natural world, their behavior, attention, and cognitive abilities improve. Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv is an excellent source of research on the relationship between artificial environments and “Nature Deficit Disorder” and how real world experiences in nature combat this syndrome. But we teachers are reluctant to take our students out, mainly because of the fears listed above, and the lack proper outdoor classrooms facilities.

Preparing an outdoor learning site
While a state-of-the-art outdoor classroom would be ideal, it is not a prerequisite for outdoor learning.  The basic setting should include:

  • Green space containing a few plants such as trees and grass, rocks, and view of the sky.
  • Shady tree under which you and your students gather. Because of the nature of the Five E Learning Cycle, students are not sitting in the same place for more than 10-15 minutes at a time; so sitting on the ground is fine.

For teachers and students interested in designing outdoor classrooms, I recommend Schoolyard Enhanced Learning by Herbert W. Broda and No Student Left Indoors: Creating a Field Guide to Your Schoolyard by Jane Kirkland.

A list of basic supplies to take outside includes:

  •  Large tote bag holding five to eight large towels, rugs, vinyl tablecloths, or blankets.   These “sit-upons” may be moved with students as they conduct observations and investigations.  Staying in a static location, such as at benches or tables, limits learning opportunities.
  • Tote basket of hand-lenses, measuring tools; colored pencils, crayons, extra pencils and erasers; tissues, hand wipes, antibacterial cream, and Band-Aids
  • Box of clipboards
  • Whistle

The lesson specific supplies are listed in the materials section of each lesson plan and should be part of your existing classroom science supplies. Student volunteers are usuallly willing to transport materials to and from the outdoor learning place.

Preparing students for outdoor experiences
I take my students outside by the second day of school with very little prior preparation except for these:

  • A pre-excursion bathroom break!
  • The basic expectations to respect yourself, respect others (including plants and bugs), and respect property
  • Go straight to the gathering place (Students with the towels/rugs go first)
  • Stay within the boundaries I set (Depends on the goals of the lesson and the number of adults supervising)
  • Come back to the gathering place when you hear the whistle

Remember to keep whole group lectures and directions short and simple.  The goal of outdoor learning is hands-on, minds-on inquiry!

-Vivian Bowles, Teacher
Kit Carson Elementary, Madison County, Kentucky

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