Learning Outside The Classroom

It can be hard to keep students engaged when they’re boxed inside four walls all day. Giving them (and yourself!) a change of scenery can be reinvigorating and make everyone excited to learn again. 

The fresh air and peaceful greenery aren’t the only benefits to teaching outside. Environmental education also presents many opportunities for cross-curricular learning and helps students develop an appreciation for the natural world and living sustainably.

“It’s critical that we, as a society, learn to see and understand these values. Building this awareness requires a broad approach that includes youth, consumers, advocates, economists, scientists, teachers, and many others involved in the forest and conservation sector. Understanding our connection to trees needs to start at an early age and grow throughout our lives.”

–  Tara Topping, Secondary School Teacher, Ottawa, Ontario

Incorporating the outdoors into your curriculum

Nature can teach students about science, math, art, social studies, and more. Here are just a few ways you can incorporate the outdoors into your curriculum:

  • Teach about forests, trees, forest practices, and sustainable forest management with 100 forest concepts (for grades K–12) available in the Forest Literacy Framework.1
  • Use natural spaces as inspiration for writing, drawing, or other creative exercises.
  • Download environmental education worksheets to teach your students how to identify trees on school property or about what trees do (including absorbing carbon dioxide and pollution to improve the quality of the air that we breathe!).2
  • Count what is out there with a biodiversity study and teach data collection, graphing, prediction modeling, and statistical analysis.
  • Facilitate one of three hands-on activities from Teaching with i-Tree to help middle and high school students discover and analyze the many ecosystem services that trees provide.3
  • Teach about tree cookies, water, sustainability, and more with 50-minute activities in the Learn about Forests toolkit.4

The benefits of going outside 

Environmental education benefits students, educators, and communities.

For students

Environmental education teaches students how to think, not what to think. It can improve young people’s problem-solving, analytical, and investigative skills, helping them not only make informed choices about the environment and sustainability, but also thrive all areas of their life, including further education and careers. More benefits include: 

  • Improving academic achievementby providing students with engaging lessons about the natural world that can be applied to all subject areas and grades.
  • Breaking the indoor habit by offering alternatives to the plugged-in lives of students. Children who experience school grounds or play areas with diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of good nutrition, more creative, and more civil to one another.
  • Improving student healthby getting students outdoors and active. Being out in nature has shown to improve stress levels and mental health, as shown in studies on nature-based activities like forest bathing.5
  • Supporting STEM by offering an engaging platform for gaining and applying knowledge and skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  • Cultivating leadership qualities by emphasizing cooperative learning with others, critical thinking, and discussion and focusing on actionable strategies with real-world applications.
  • Improving focus and cognition by increasing students’ exposure to nature. Children with attention-deficit disorder benefit from more exposure to nature—the greener a child’s everyday environment, the more manageable their symptoms.

For educators

Along with the mental and physical health benefits listed above, educators can enjoy more perks of teaching outdoors, including:  

  • Creating enthusiastic students by offering opportunities for rich, hands-on, real-world learning across the curriculum. The topics’ relevance to students’ lives engages and inspires them more than traditional pedagogy.
  • Fostering innovative leadership skills by giving educators the confidence to take students outdoors and to design more dynamic, interactive learning experiences that spark students’ engagement.
  • Addressing academic standards by offering an engaging way to meet the content and skills identified in provincial and territorial curricula.

For communities

Environmental education equips learners with the knowledge, skills, and motivation to address complex environmental challenges. Benefits of environmental education for our communities, and the larger world, include:

  • Fostering healthier schoolsby empowering students to lead the way in creating greener learning environments inside and outside their school buildings.
  • Supporting sound decision-making by making sure that citizens are informed about sound science and equipped to make decisions that are critical to ensuring we have the natural resources on which our economy and quality of life depend.
  • Contributing to sustainability by building the knowledge and skills needed to address complex environmental issues and take action to keep our natural world healthy, our economies productive, and communities vibrant.
  • Conserving our natural resources by increasing levels of environmental knowledge, which correlates significantly with a higher degree of pro-environment and conservation behavior. 

Engaging with nature inside

Sometimes, it’s not possible to get outside with students. But you can still bring environmental education inside the classroom! There are many ways to incorporate nature and sustainability into indoors lessons, including exploring green career opportunities with students. Here are just a few resources to get started:

  • Green Jobs: Exploring Forest Careers contains four activities and supporting resources to engage middle and high school learners in actively exploring green careers.6
  • The Green Jobs Career Personality Quiz asks students a series of personality-type questions to match them with the career paths best suited to them and provides career facts and skills needed for specific jobs. For just $2.99, educators can purchase 30 quiz codes to engage students in the classroom and gain access to a dashboard to view their results.7
  • A Guide to Green Jobs in Canada: Voices of Indigenous Professionals features the first-person stories of 12 First Nations and Inuit leaders working the forest, conservation, and parks sectors across Canada. Students can explore the different pathways they took to get where they are today and learn about 12 different green jobs with the included career fact sheets.8

Bottom line: Environmental education, outside or inside, is important.

Whether you take your class out into nature, or bring the natural world in, environmental education connects students and curriculums to the world around us. It emphasizes the importance of the environment and taking action to mitigate climate change. It connects students to real issues happening now, encourages problem-solving and critical thinking, and improves student engagement. 

How will you take learning outside the classroom, or bring nature in, this year? 

1 https://pltcanada.org/en/forest-literacy/
2 https://pltcanada.org/en/environmental-education/
3 https://pltcanada.org/en/product/teaching-with-i-tree/
4 https://pltcanada.org/en/learn-about-forests/
5 https://time.com/5259602/japanese-forest-bathing/
6 https://pltcanada.org/en/product/green-jobs-exploring-forest-careers/
7 https://pltcanada.org/en/product/find-your-green-job/
8 https://pltcanada.org/en/product/a-guide-to-green-jobs-in-canada-voices-of-indigenous-professionals/

Danika Strecko, Senior Education Manager, Project Learning Tree Canada. Danika leads the overall development of K–12 educational materials and programs supporting the execution of the Forest Literacy Framework, playing a central role in expanding Project Learning Tree’s educational work in Canada. She is a B.C. Ministry of Education Certified Teacher.

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