Take it Outside: 6 Ways to Use Nature in Your Lessons

July was Park and Recreation Month and we couldn’t think of a better way to continue the celebration than to suggest a few ways that you can move your lessons from the classroom to the great outdoors. We know our students don’t spend enough time outside, yet three-quarters of students in one survey said they had “little to no access to nature through school.”

As teachers, we also know that being outside improves health and fitness levels. Children who actively play outside develop strong social skills through interactions with peers. Being surrounded by nature prompts creativity. Overall, spending time ouside is essential to good health and development.

Not only does getting out into nature help kids physically and emotionally, but it can help them academically as well. A change in an environment can help those students who struggle in the classroom to feel more confident and be willing to experience learning in new ways.

Nature provides infinite numbers of lessons that are both engaging and standards-based. Let’s take a look at how we can move outside with our students.

1. Geocaching

With the popularity of the new Pokémon Go video game kids are already starting to get outside. They are using cell phones to look for characters in public places such as parks, schools, and restaurants. The game is loosely based on the hobby of geocaching, which involves looking for small treasures using math coordinates. You can buy geocaching kits to use in the classroom, or you can make your own to create your own search. Try coming up with math problems to solve that give away certain coordinates around the school. As groups of students solve the problems and plot the coordinates, they can move to the next outdoor location, where a new problem or reward awaits them!

2. Walking Tours

Take students on a walking tour around your community. Universities and historical associations often have guided tours that offer a lot of great information about local sites. After students have experienced a walking tour, have them create their own excursions around the neighborhood or in a nearby park. Once they’ve done the legwork, students can turn their walking tours into virtual tours using Google Tour Builder.

3. Chalk Art

Set aside space on the blacktop and have students create a map of the US, a world map, or a scale drawing of a famous piece of art. Or allow your students to create their own drawings to represent the concepts they’re learning about in class. Maybe ask them to draw the life cycle of a frog or the setting of a Revolutionary War battle. A lesson that incorporates art and nature will allow students to be both truly creative and engaged in their learning.

4. Service Learning

Organize a day for your class to clean up the local park. Service learning brings families and communities together. It also teaches students responsibility and what it means to be a citizen. Parks are shared spaces that have been set aside to allow people to continue to enjoy the nature. By creating a service learning project with your students, you show them how to value nature and how a little bit of work can go a long way toward making your community a wonderful place.

5. School Garden

There’s a reason that school gardening has received a lot of attention lately. Gardens provide a green space in the academic environment. In addition, students learn to grow and harvest healthy foods. There are many science skills that can be used when teaching using a school garden. Students will learn about seeds, soil, photosynthesis, energy, and life cycles. Not to mention they’ll learn how delicious freshly-grown food can be.

6. Nature Journals

Students who don’t spend a lot of time outside may have a difficult time describing environments other than the ones indoors. Take your class outside for some quiet time to reflect on sounds, sights, smells, and other sensations that occur in nature. Students can use the notes that they take in their nature journals in both their creative writing and for research purposes later on.

It’s not difficult to find ways to get your students engaged in learning outside. When you consider all the benefits of being in nature while also learning, you’ll wonder why you haven’t used outside spaces as classrooms more often.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children's fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.