By Joe Ludes, Instructional Coach, Out Teach
This story first appeared on the Green Schoolyards Network in 2017. It has been edited to reflect the organization’s new name.
I still remember the day I learned that the outdoors was a powerful teaching tool. I had been working in a high-poverty school for several years. It was usually very rewarding, but often incredibly frustrating.
One time, I had been working with a small group of fourth graders with learning disabilities who were struggling to understand the concept of fractions. Such an abstract concept presents a challenge to many students, but it was proving to be exceptionally difficult for the children in my group. Mastering the properties of whole numbers was hard enough for many of them, now this?
For days, I would ask my students to divide shapes into equal parts, cut something in half, or draw a line down the middle. I stubbornly thought that if they just kept practicing, they would eventually get it. My students struggled, becoming more and more frustrated, getting off-task, and exhibiting disruptive behaviors. I finally decided to give my students a break with a change of scenery and brought them outside to plant some seeds in our school garden.
I was surprised at how excited they were. And as we prepped the soil for the seeds, I got an idea: I asked the students if they could divide the planting bed into two parts. They initially looked confused but they began talking about the task, and one of the students suggested they use a stick to show where the two parts would be divided. She put the stick right across the middle of the bed. I was amazed that the students seemed to suddenly understand the concept of equal parts. Then they showed repeated success with a variety of fractions. I was so excited that I designed a few follow-up lessons to work on fractions in the garden. The following week, all my students scored 80% or higher on the same fractions test their non-disabled classmates took.
From that moment on, I knew that the outdoor classroom could be my most powerful teaching tool. Today I apply those practices as an Instructional Coach for Out Teach, a nonprofit that gives teachers the tools and training they need to use school gardens to improve academics. For schools that already have a learning garden, our Instructional Coaches spend two years working one-on-one with teachers during class to model effective outdoor teaching. Once teachers see how powerful outdoor instruction can be, they use the learning garden to teach everything from Math and Science to Language Arts. For schools without a learning garden or an outdoor classroom, Out Teach lines up corporate partners to provide funding and volunteers to help build one.
In the hands of a trained teacher, the outdoor classroom becomes a powerful instructional tool. Not only does this immersive environment magnify the power of experiential learning, but outdoor classrooms are also the perfect place for cross-curricular lessons. For example, a lesson on erosion may require students to read an informational text, conduct a hands-on scientific experiment, collect and interpret mathematical data, and collaborate with others to engineer a solution. This kind of complex, real-world problem solving, conducted using cross-curricular literacy, is a key skill that children in low-income communities desperately need to succeed in school and in life. In today’s classroom, a complex math problem may require background knowledge and experience with scientific concepts while a lesson in English Language Arts may ask students to interpret data from a chart or analyze concepts from Social Studies and Art. In today’s world, all students must be able to “read” across subject areas to succeed. Children in higher-income neighborhoods receive lots of these types of experiences in and out of school. To try and give children in high-poverty schools a fair chance, we need to start providing them with more meaningful experiences.
Outdoor teaching is not supplemental though. Every child can benefit from engaging hands-on instruction. And luckily, because most schools have usable outdoor space, with planning and preparation, any teacher can make a lesson more effective and engaging by stepping outside. If you have not had a chance to participate in the Out Teach Professional Learning Program but you want to try teaching outdoors, here is some advice I give first-timers.
This is not playtime – The thing that keeps most teachers indoors is concern that their class will view a trip to the outdoor classroom as an extra recess. Out Teach addresses this by recreating elements of the classroom such as shade structures, seating, whiteboards, and learning stations specifically designed for weather data collection or earth science exploration. We also require that students arrive in the outdoor classroom with a pencil and a journal so that they are ready to perform an academic task and record their experiences. Finally, we give clear expectations for behavior that involve setting boundaries, listening over outdoor noises, and respecting the living things in nature.
You are not more interesting than a bug – Do not try to compete with the excitement of the outdoor classroom. Use that excitement to learn, explore, and get students moving around and having interactive, hands-on experiences early in the lesson. Simply moving students outside so that they can sit and listen to a lecture from the teacher does not go over well. All of our model lessons involve at least 10-15 minutes of exploration during which the students are free to move around, test theories, make mistakes, and collaborate with each other. This crucial element of exploration allows students to stay engaged as they take on learning tasks in their own authentic ways. When students are gathered to discuss their findings, teachers can address any misunderstandings, encourage students to compare solutions, and require them to defend their answers with evidence that they collected.
The sun is bright – Keep your students’ experience in mind when teaching outdoors. This falls in to three big buckets: comfort, safety, and distractions. Comfort – Do not make them look into the sun to watch you, sit on wet seats, or be outside if it is too cold or hot. Safety – Scan the learning garden for attractive nuisances and hazards. Normally, we see this in terms of non-edible plants, broken glass, or tripping hazards. If you cannot remove the hazard, just warn the children beforehand. Distractions – Something as simple as litter can turn into a distraction for kids, especially when they feel an ownership of the space Out Teach works to create. You can clean that up beforehand or have the kids quickly round it up as part of their caretaking duties.
Once teachers see how effective hands-on experiential outdoor learning can be, they lead more outdoor lessons, bringing joy and excitement back into learning.
About the Author
Joe Ludes taught special education for D.C. Public Schools for seven years before becoming an Instructional Coach for Out Teach (formerly) REAL School Gardens in 2015. With his Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education, his years of experience working in schools, and his love of gardening, Joe has been able to flourish in this role, training elementary school teachers to work with students in their own outdoor classrooms. Joe is also the Kitchen Garden Program Instructor for Neighborhood Farm Initiative, a contributor to the textbook Exploring Agriscience, and ran his own half-acre urban farm with his wife and two children just outside Washington D.C.
Gaby Lopez, a 2nd grade teacher at Sope Creek Elementary, just shared her experience using the Outdoor Learning Lab with us. Thank you for sharing Gaby, and keep up the great work! Sope Creek specializes in STEM education, so it’s wonderful to hear how well teachers are doing taking STEM instruction outside!
My journey with Out Teach has been quite the adventure! Throughout my entire teaching experience I’ve taught a whole group session in front a smart board and the kiddos have participated in small group rotations. My instruction time has always been so structured, and didn’t allow for much movement.
So, when we were introduced to Out Teach I was a bit nervous. I thought to myself “I don’t have a green thumb!” I’ve never taught a lesson in an outdoor environment and I was worried about maintaining my kiddos’ attention.
However, I was unexpectedly surprised. My kiddos LOVE being outdoors for instruction. Being outside, instantly made all of them more comfortable. They were all eager to participate during our whole group instruction time. Since we were outside I didn’t have visuals on a smart board, which required me to be more creative. For each of my lessons, I used real-life objects and our outdoor resources. I was hesitant to let them wander around our garden without my supervision, but my kiddos proved me wrong. They were all more eager to participate in discussions with their peers and actively participate in the learning process.
I can’t believe it has taken me so long to take this step. I wish I had done this years ago. Joining the Out Teach team at our school has been a life changing experience professionally. I’ve learned to embrace the outdoors, and most importantly instill a sense of respect and appreciate for our environment to my kiddos. Thank you Out Teach!
Out Teach Supports Aspen Institute
Commission Recommendations on How Learning Happens
Report from National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development
offers path forward
WASHINGTON, D.C. –Supporting the Aspen Institutes’ National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, national nonprofit Out Teach joined more than 200 education experts and child-well-being organizations in releasing the committee’s report outlining how best to promote children’s social, emotional, and academic development. Out Teach was selected to be a partner organization because the organization equips teachers to unlock student performance with the power of experiential learning outdoors.
The report, titled “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope,” asserts that our nation is at a turning point: We now understand that social, emotional, and cognitive development underpin children’s academic learning. This breakthrough understanding about how people learn is fueling a growing movement to educate children as whole people, with social and emotional as well as academic needs.
“A Nation at Hope” emphasizes that translating knowledge about how people learn into practice and helping students develop skills such as collaboration, empathy, and perseverance requires systemic change. It offers specific actions in research, practice, and policy to fundamentally shift how we teach children, with the understanding that the social, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of learning are mutually reinforcing rather than distinct.
Out Teach CEO, Jeanne McCarty, said “This report synthesizes what experts in childhood well-being, including teachers and parents, have seen for years–that building strong social emotional skills goes hand-in-hand with learning and growth in the classroom. Together, the authors and contributors to this report have laid out both why and how we should ensure every child, regardless of background, develops critical social, emotional, and cognitive skills.”
Out Teach partnered with the Commission as part of its commitment to accelerate learning for children in low-income schools, not just including social-emotional skill-building in their Professional Learning Program, but demonstrating how teachers can use SEL practices to accelerate and deepen learning and achieve existing goals. By providing professional learning to building teachers’ expertise on how to lead experiential lessons outdoors and embed social, emotional, and cognitive skills into the curriculum, the organization help gives children in low-income schools daily access to these important life and career skills for years to come.
McCarty elaborated, “In addition to making Science, Math, and Language Arts lessons more engaging, meaningful, and fun, our professional learning shows teachers how easy and effective it is to enhance lessons by including techniques that boost self-management, collaboration, teamwork, self-directed learning, real-world problem solving, and decision-making. It’s a great way to keep children more engaged in learning. By learning to embed social-emotional skill building into experiential lessons, you strengthen the whole lesson, the whole class, and the whole teaching experience, all by strengthening the whole-child.”
What sets “A Nation at Hope” apart from other reports is the groundswell of support that has surged over the course of the Commission’s work and that now supports action across communities following its release. Out Teach is one of nearly 100 organizations that have signed on in support of the report’s conclusions and recommendations as part of an ever-widening coalition committed to advancing the work.
Drawing on input from more than 200 scientists, youth and parent groups, educators and policymakers, the report seeks to accelerate and strengthen efforts in local communities. These recommendations are especially pertinent as states and communities continue to leverage their increased authority on education policy under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The report includes specific strategies that schools, districts, and communities can pursue related to each recommendation and examples of places that are engaged in these efforts.
The report also outlines evidence that confirms that supporting students’ social, emotional and academic development has a positive impact on their attendance, test scores, success in college and careers, and overall well-being. This approach also improves students’ feelings about school and makes schools safer.
More information, including a toolkit to communicate about social, emotional, and academic development, is available at NationatHope.org.
Like many staff-members at Out Teach, our VP, Regional Operations and Impact, Scott Feille, was once a classroom teacher. Scott was beloved, that teacher that all the kids are excited to see, and part of that was due to the fact that he loved taking his class outside for hands-on lessons. The other day, Scott shared this story about a student we’ll call “Victor,” and we all liked it so much we wanted to pass it along.
Experiential learning is transformative. Let me explain…
Victor was held back a year and had to be a 4th grader twice. He transferred to our school in search of a fresh environment, but he wasn’t like our other 5th graders. He’d gone through a growth spurt and towered awkwardly over his classmates, who had been together since Kindergarten in our little neighborhood school. His first whiskers were beginning to poke through as well, and he was clearly out of place physically. But under his intimidating façade there was a witty boy with a good sense of humor, and his classmates were drawn to him. My interest was piqued. Where there is wit, there is intelligence, I reasoned. This boy can succeed…
Then, one day in the first weeks of school I heard a loud crash and raised voices next door in Mr. Jones’ class. Mr. Jones was the other 5th grade teacher and taught math. Victor was in his homeroom and came to me for all his other classes. I went next door briefly to see what all the commotion was about, and it was Victor. He’d been corrected for not following instructions and took it out on his desk, hefting it up and slamming it to the floor. Mr. Jones followed our procedures for classroom management, and we engaged the school counselor, continued to work as a team and hoped for the best.
Victor continued to be a challenging but manageable student. Then, as we were nearing the winter break, after having barely passed his classes the first couple of reporting periods, things took a turn. During dismissal, as Victor was heading out the heavy, metal school doors, Mr. Jones reminded him to complete a homework assignment and Victor whipped around, cocked is right knee all the way up to his chest and booted the door shut with everything he had. It slammed in Mr. Jones’ face as Victor added a few choice expletives regarding what Mr. Jones could do with his assignment.
Victor was suspended for three days, and while he was out, Mr. Jones and I conspired. We weren’t going to let Victor escape 5th grade without succeeding, but we were going to have to be sneaky about it. On Victor’s first day back from suspension there was a buzz of anticipation among the students. All they knew was that we were going to be spending the week in the outdoor classroom for science. What Mr. Jones and I knew was that the internal temperature of the compost pile had reached 126 degrees F, that the Nitrogen and Water Cycles were coming up in the science scope and sequence, and that when a student is oppositional, he needs to be in charge of something important…
“Okay, class,” I began. “Today we’re going to break into groups for some activities in the outdoor classroom. You get to choose which activity you participate in. There’s one that’s hard and physically demanding. I need someone tough with lots of energy for…”
Before I could get all the words out, Victor’s hand shot into the air, “Me, me, me! That’s the one I want to do!”
“Sure, Victor”, I replied calmly. “You’re just the guy for the job. Your group will be turning the compost pile. Would you mind leading that group?” On the inside I was smiling and wanted to run next door to Mr. Jones to announce that step one of our plan was a success.
We ventured out and groups went to their designated areas in the outdoor classroom. We’d been outside for about 5 minutes. I was rotating through the groups to ensure everyone was on task when I heard Victor’s voice rise dramatically into the cool fall air, “HOLY C**P! The compost pile is on fire! It’s on fire! Everyone come look! I HAVE CREATED FIRE!” Step two, complete!
Soon, the entire class was gathered anxiously around the compost pile, with Victor at the center wielding a shovel, staring in amazement at the “smoke” billowing out of the area he had dug into. “Watch this,” he announced to the class as he dug deeper into the pile and a fresh cloud of steam formed. The students were enthusiastic about getting to the bottom of this strange new phenomena. They determined that the pile was not on fire but additional evidence was needed.
When a student inquired, “I wonder how hot it is in there,” that was my cue. I went around the corner and grabbed a compost thermometer. Victor took the lead, planted the thermometer confidently into the compost pile and collaborated with the other students in his group to read the temperature. “Whoa!!! Over 120 degrees F! That’s crazy!” Step three, complete.
We decided to collect compost temperature data daily, after lunch. Guess who volunteered to be in charge? In the time it took to shovel a couple of scoops of compost, Victor rose from infamy to become the Compost King and our little plot succeeded. I asked Victor to pick two students who could help put together the procedures and gather the data for the first couple of weeks. Edgar overheard and said, “Victor, holla at ya boy!”
Victor’s response was totally unexpected, “Sorry, Edgar. I’m going to ask Alisha and Monique to help the first couple of weeks. I’m afraid if you go out there with me, we’ll get in trouble. You can be next.”
Mr. Jones and I laughed hysterically about Victor’s response to Edgar after the students were gone. The following day, we invited Victor, Alisha, and Monique to a planning luncheon in the classroom and worked out the logistics. We invited Edgar too. It just seemed like the right thing to do! For the rest of the year, Victor chose two students to assist with measuring and recording the compost temperature daily. The data was recorded on paper and taken to Math with Mr. Jones where a compost data center was created, so when students completed their work, they could enter the compost data into Excel, create graphs and interpret it.
Honestly, I expected our little plan to fall into place, but I had no idea what a complete turn-around Victor would make. His behavior was exemplary for the rest of the year, and he passed his state tests with commendations. Victor is one of the reasons why I believe all students can achieve more than they think is possible, and his story exemplifies the transformative power of experiential learning to unlock student performance. How many more Victors do you think are out there, just waiting for a shovel and a clipboard…?
Back in 2015, Lila J. Walker was the Assistant Principal at Beacon Heights Elementary in Prince George’s County Maryland. That’s when Out Teach (then REAL School Gardens) expanded into the Mid-Atlantic, and Beacon Heights jumped at the chance to be the region’s first professional learning partner. Now that she’s Principal, and our Professional Learning Program has been there for a few years, Walker shared her experiences with us.
The teachers at Beacon Heights were always trying to think outside the box, and sometimes that meant thinking outside the classroom, so when they heard that we’d been selected to become an Out Teach partner, they were all over it, and really dove in to the planning and preparation. Once Out Teach built the outdoor learning lab and started training, the program really took off.
One thing I’ve noticed is that experiential learning outdoors encouraged writing tremendously. After coaching from Out Teach, we had one teacher turn the children’s fascination with some tortoises that live here into an experiential learning opportunity. Students read up on tortoises, researched what they ate, and then planted strawberries for them to enjoy. They wrote all about it, with references and everything. Now when was the last time you heard of a 3rd grader surprised and delighted by the idea of a research paper? When writing about any of their outdoor projects, the words just come spilling out. They want to write about it. They’re excited to share.
With any class, the children are so much more engaged when they’re not just sitting in their classrooms. With experiential learning, they get to see and touch, they get to move around, and there’s something different to discover every day. And that kind of full engagement really pays off. I had one teacher tell me “I get better answers and better thinking when the children are in the Out Teach Learning Lab.” That’s because experiential lessons outdoors make everything more real, relevant, and relatable.
For example, our 5th graders were studying perimeter and area. Indoors, they clearly struggled, and when the teacher asked them to plan out their raised beds on paper, it was just a mess. But once they got to come outside and measure the raised beds and understand the key concepts more deeply, they not only understood the math better, but they cared about the outcome. It mattered to them how many plants they could grow in the raised bed, and they worked hard to get it right.
The Out Teach Professional Learning Program also enabled us to attract some great new teachers. I even had one tell me that the Out Teach Program was the deciding factor in why they chose to work here. We’ve even got one teacher who used to be a professional scientist, and she infuses the outdoor learning lab into everything she does. It’s fantastic to have science embedded into everything, and you can see the difference it makes for our students. Our 5th graders have been getting experiential learning outdoors for three years now, and I’ve seen their Science scores increasing every year.
In addition to attracting new teachers, it’s so important to help your current teachers keep that spark, that love of teaching, alive. Now Beacon Heights has always had great morale, because we’ve always focused on stepping up to empower and equip our teachers, then stepping back to let them do their jobs. But Out Teach has really given our teachers a different outlook. It gets everybody, teachers and students alike, more engaged. I had one teacher say “I finally get to see them laughing and learning, it doesn’t feel like drudgery for anyone.”
That’s why I’m the proud principal of Beacon Heights Elementary, and a proud partner of Out Teach.
“I had this one student, Sara. She was a sweet girl, but a distracted student, just bouncing off the walls, failing test after test. I worried about how to keep her engaged in my science class.
Then we partnered with Out Teach. I learned how to use the outdoor learning lab, and took the class outside for a “forms of energy” lesson. At first, Sara didn’t want to go, saying ‘Ugh! I don’t like going outside.’ But then I asked her to find an example of sound energy in the outdoor classroom, and she was immediately engaged and interested. It was like she had flipped a switch! Outdoor lessons finally unlocked what had been there the whole time — intelligence, curiosity, and wonder. The outdoor lab gave her the chance to be herself because there was always something new to do and investigate outside. Soon, Sara was even coming up with her own lessons and sharing them with her fellow students.
Now, Sara and her classmates are confident problem-solvers, easily connecting what they’re learning to the real world — and it shows on their report cards! Thank you, Out Teach, for helping me bring learning to life for my students. They’re eager to come outside and explore with me, and I’m happy too, because every day their futures get brighter and brighter.”
Out Teach equips teachers to unlock student performance with the power of outdoor experiential learning.
Help us empower more teachers like Mr. Gibbons to reach more students like Sara!
- Names have been changed to protect student privacy.
Superstar teacher Kerrie Lalli at Walter G. Byers shares how she used a rotting cantaloupe to help her students learn about decomposers in the outdoor learning lab.
A teacher at one of our partner schools discusses how her outdoor learning lab is like having a second classroom. Also, how outdoor experiential lessons allow children to connect what they learn in school with the rest of their lives.
One of our teachers, Kerrie Lalli from Byers elementary, shared this sweet story about how her first graders exercised their problem-solving skills when they noticed that aphids and monarch caterpillars were both eating their milkweed.
My name is Elsa Hartmann. I am a 4th grade bilingual teacher at David G. Burnet Elementary School. My experience working with Out Teach was amazing. Before I started the program, I did not know how to use the garden in my lesson. Mrs. Kelly came to model a lesson in the garden and that helped me tremendously. I didn’t even know where to start, but now I have the tools I need. First, I observed how Mrs. Kelly took a TEKS and purposely aligned it around the school garden. Another thing that I observed was how one hundred percent of my students were fully engaged. Even the students that have difficulty staying focused where excited about the lesson and the work. I was very impressed at how Mrs. Kelly used the lesson cycle and motivated the students to create their own figurative language using the garden. Also, the kids were using higher order thinking skills because they created their own poem with the figurative they collected around the garden. I feel more confident about creating lessons in the garden and taking advantaged of it. My favorite part of the modeled lesson was how hands on and engaging lessons can be in the garden. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can use the garden for informational text/TEKS.
David G. Burnet Elementary School.