We Know Time Outdoors Is Good for Kids, So Why Is It So Hard To Make Outdoor Learning Happen?


There’s lots of research showing the positive impacts of time spent outdoors on kids’ physical and mental health, and how outdoor learning can improve children’s academic achievement, behavior, engagement, and connection to their environment. But … there are a lot of “buts.” Despite the success of ongoing initiatives and laws to protect recess in many states, the bulk of the school day is earmarked for academics. Moving some learning outdoors is a viable solution for increasing outside time for kids, but this can be challenging in traditional school settings. Here’s what teachers and outdoor learning experts say about common barriers—plus, some practical advice if more outside time for kids is one of your goals.

Problem 1: The day is jam-packed with demands already.

Busy indoor classroom with kids sitting at desks working
Arthur Krijgsman via Pexels

“’Let’s get the kids outside more’ can feel like just another ask that’s heaped on top of teachers,” says longtime classroom teacher and environmental educator Link Klinkenberg. Klinkenberg is the Assistant Director of Education and Coordinator of Place Based Learning at Roots Academy, where she’s building a place-based curriculum to connect students to the coastal Maine environment where the school is located. She acknowledges that when you have strict curriculum-pacing guidelines, myriad schedule constraints, and endless pressing individual student needs, it can feel like there is no time to get everyone ready and head outdoors.   

What teachers can do:

  1. Set goals for small doses of outdoor learning. Could holding one math period outdoors each week become your class’s thing? You know if you share your goal with students, they’ll hold you to it.
  2. Have your outdoor supplies ready to go. This can be as easy as keeping a tote with writing utensils and clipboards hanging by your door. Or you could invest in a portable dry-erase board with a carrying handle. Some schools create individual outdoor learning kits for kids in drawstring backpacks, so everyone can easily grab what they need and go. 
  3. Piggyback on existing transitions. If kids are already outdoors for recess, stay out for an academic lesson afterwards. Or plan ahead so you can take an outdoor route back from music or art class.

Problem 2: Outside teaching ≠ inside teaching.

Kids playing a circle game on grass as an example of outside time for kids
Kampus Production via Pexels

Expecting outdoor learning experiences to exactly mirror indoor teaching can set you up for disappointment. Rachel Tidd is an experienced teacher, creator of Wild Learning outdoor curriculum resources, and author of Wild Learning: Practical Ideas To Bring Teaching Outdoors. She’s aware that most public school teachers have to teach within the confines of the curriculum and standards handed to them. “If you want to go outside,” she says, “you have to figure out how to use that curriculum outside, or at least translate the same ideas.” Plus, many teachers report that today’s kids have skyrocketing mental health and behavior needs inside the classroom. It’s easy to worry that trying to teach kids outdoors would add an overwhelming slew of possibilities for distraction, disaster, and discomfort.

What teachers can do:

  1. Start slowly. Klinkenberg says, “Teaching outside can feel intimidating—there are no walls! The way you set expectations is going to need to look different.” Both Klinkenberg and Tidd urge teachers to approach teaching outdoors with the same mindset as starting a new school year: Build in time for a deliberate ramp-up period where the focus is teaching routines and shaping expectations. (Think back to the the time-honored First Six Weeks of School approach from Responsive Classroom—just add fresh air.) Before layering on any curriculum goals, practice getting outside, staying within a defined area, spreading out, and gathering back together. Talk through strategies for getting past any outdoor-specific challenges—like moving more when it’s cold, or staying calm around schoolyard residents like insects and worms.
  2. Take a leap of faith and try it out. Consider that learning outdoors may well have a positive impact on kids’ behavior and focus (and probably yours!) once everyone gets used to it. Klinkenberg reminds us, “Moving outside and finding time to slow down in nature is healing and regulating.” Psychologist Gemma Goldenberg and her colleagues are researching the effects of nature access on students by having them wear cameras, microphones, and heart monitors. She reported initial findings that learning outdoors made the biggest difference for kids who struggle with paying attention in class.

Problem 3: You don’t have the resources.

Chlldren in a schoolyard garden in San Francisco
Green Schoolyards America

Images of outdoor learning can be daunting. Not all schools have flourishing gardens, charming outdoor seating, or students who have access to boots, rain jackets, sun protection, or winter-weather gear.

What teachers can do:

  1. Start with the basics that allow your class to get outside. You might use a blanket or cones to create a designated learning space. Or cut up some old yoga mats to make waterproof seating pads. You can even involve kids in problem-solving by having them help you scout out the best places on campus to gather outdoors, such as a flight of stairs or a low retaining wall.
  2. Look at your required curriculum with an outdoor lens. Think about which lessons you could take outside with little prep. Read-alouds or independent reading travel well. Many math and phonics activities can be done with chalk on pavement just as easily as with dry-erase boards indoors. Consider how outdoor experiences can put learning in memorable context. If you’re learning about consonant blends, maybe there’s environmental print outside that kids can notice. If you’re studying erosion, finding examples of it in the schoolyard or community can bring the concept to life.

Problem 4: You’re a classroom teacher, not a nature expert.

Kids writing in journals outside
Green Schoolyards America

If you don’t consider yourself an “outdoors person,” it’s totally understandable if you aren’t eager to plop down to read aloud on the wet ground. Plus, you might not feel like you know enough to adapt your required science or social studies lessons to relate to your outdoor environment.

What teachers can do:

  1. Start when conditions are the most comfortable. Rachel Tidd likes to remind teachers they can emphasize outdoor learning on “sunshine days.” “There’s nothing wrong with avoiding the hard days and capitalizing on the good days, especially when you’re starting out,” she says. Check the weather forecast each week, and pick the best days to plan class sessions outside. Or lean into outdoor learning routines in a certain season.
  2. Learn along with your students. It’s OK to jump into outdoor learning without a ton of your own background knowledge. Get comfortable answering, “I don’t know. Let’s try to find out!” when kids wonder about plants, animals, or weather outdoors. Model using field guides and other resources. Reach out to experts in your community for help, whether that’s a master gardener, city planner, meteorologist, or local naturalist. If you teach the same topics each year, you’ll build your own knowledge and confidence over time.
  3. Appreciate how outside time for kids will help once you’re back indoors. Time outside for kids builds their background knowledge, which can boost reading comprehension in the future. Shared outdoor experiences promote equity; they put students on equal footing during later discussions. They can also inform and inspire kids’ writing. Plus, a small dose of outdoor learning could even make the rest of your day better. Some research suggests that after having a lesson outside, kids’ attention during the next lesson back inside improves!

Problem 5: All programs require sustainability.

Two students writing in the schoolyard as an example of outside time for kids
Mary Taylor via Pexels

Maybe you had a fantastic nature-based learning program in your district, and then the grant funding ended. Or perhaps your school had a gorgeous garden space, until the teacher who did all the upkeep got transferred to another building. Just like any other initiative, the challenges don’t stop once you’ve achieved more outside time for kids in your school; you also have to hang onto it.

What teachers can do:

  1. Get administrators on board. You need the support of your building principal and district administrators to protect outdoor learning opportunities for kids. Perfect your elevator pitch for why outdoor learning matters for your students, whether that means talking about how it improves engagement, deepens learning, addresses equity gaps, lowers stress, sparks career aspirations, builds students’ sense of place—or all of the above! Document successes so you have examples on hand to champion your cause.
  2. Ask for what you need and suggest creative solutions. Be forthright with your administration about what will enable success. That might be permission to walk with students off-campus, schedule considerations, or supplies. To adapt content-based lessons for outdoors, you’ll likely need extra prep time or staffing support. Be ready with outside-the-box ideas to leverage resources. Look for ways to collaborate too. For instance, if students’ special services drive your class schedule, brainstorm with therapists or interventionists ways everyone could be outdoors together.
  3. Commit for the long haul. Working to make outdoor learning part of your school culture can help it endure staffing, programming and building changes. Plus, kids can become outdoor learning experts over time. Comfort they develop in kindergarten and first grade can stay with them as they grow. About the upper-elementary students who’ve been in her program for multiple years, Link Klinkenberg says, “Now going outside with that group is easy. They know what to do, and they use the habits I’ve taught them on their own.”

Check out these organizations for more practical tips on outdoor learning:

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