Inspiring Stories:

Outdoor Learning in Elementary Schools

Image of leaf art by Vincent, 3rd grade, East Union Elementary School

Students creating art outdoors at East Union Elementary School

Eastern Carver County School District (Partners with the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge at Rapids Lake)

From Anna Edlund, Gifted Services Facilitator, Bluff Creek Elementary School

Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence reveals nine mind strengths. In traditional school, we focus on two, reading and math. During fieldwork at Rapids Lake Education and Visitor Center, one child’s “Nature Intelligence” became apparent to both teacher and child. Back at school, a new youth leadership position was created, “School Naturalist”. Younger students are eager to learn from older students who are excited about science!

From Lara Groboski, k-5 Art, East Union Elementary School (images attached)

I’ve always loved being outdoors, but this fall when we returned to school in person amidst a pandemic, it gave me the push to try teaching art outside as much as possible. I found many benefits, despite many chaotic moments. I think the most surprising benefit was the many ways teaching outside lent itself naturally to cross curricular opportunities.

We took texture walks to collect and examine nature textures and then brought them back to use in our artworks. During these walks, we talked about what kind of trees certain leaves came from and the difference between pine

  • needles and deciduous leaves. We also noticed how some plants had prickles and some were smooth and considered how that might be advantageous to the plant.

  • We collaborated with the PE class and co-taught a color wheel relay race which incorporated both art knowledge and movement and physical activity.

I facilitated a paper airplane flying contest in which students used engineering skills and designed their own different models of paper airplanes with the goals of longest distance, longest timed flight, and best decorated

  • (it was still art class after all). Students collaborated and worked through the aerodynamics of different shapes and the reasons they flew farther or higher.

Students interested in photography were able to observe light in new ways. They noticed how different a photograph in shade looks from one in full sun, learned about exposure and shadow, and were able to magnify textures and

  • objects in order to take macro pictures that allowed them to inspect bugs, leaves, and grass in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise observed.

While there are challenges to teaching outside, like giving up a little bit of control as a teacher, wind, bugs, and unpredictable temperatures, I really enjoyed being outside in the fresh air and sunlight. We were able to do a lot of projects that would have been hard to do inside, like splatter painting and rock art. My students seemed to really enjoy the change and increased freedom. They rose to the challenge by being respectful and cooperative, even if we did get rained on once. I felt like they cooperated with me in taking responsibility for the success of their learning because they saw being outside as a privilege. The resulting artwork was unique and creative and the kids were really proud of what they made. I look forward to trying to find more ways to make teaching outside work in the future.

Hopkins Public Schools:

Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools: 5th Grade Teacher Shawn Beaudette's Blog

Hopkins Public Schools:

Alice Smith Elementary

Students learn art in an outdoor classroom (link to an article)

Jen Heyer incorporated Wilderness Wednesdays into her weekly curriculum with her Kindergarten students in Eden Prairie. During all seasons and weather, students spent majority of their Wednesday learning outdoors. Jen now teaches 3rd grade in Edina, and continues to incorporate daily outdoor learning into the curriculum.

Kindergarten: Amy Altenburg

27 kindergartners (2019-20 school year)

Every Week we spend 2 hour outdoors(Wilderness Wednesday)

We also get out for as much as we can every week for lessons that are more appropriate to be done outside.

Students go out for recess 30 minutes everyday.

Lessons/Outdoor Learning Examples:

  • We have our Winter Party in our school forest (boot skating, sledding, ice sculptures, shoveling, making bird treats, snow forts, snow shoeing, and stories by the fire(portable fire pit) with warm apple cider and popcorn. Parent volunteers help run each activity in the forest.

  • Science: All science lessons are done outdoors. For example, when doing the Wood and Paper Foss Science lesson, we invited out forester to help us identify trees in our school forest

  • Quiet time and snack outdoors

  • Animals two by two unit: We build terrariums for our worms and isopods by collecting items in our school forest that would help those animals thrive. After we have observed and taken care of the animals, we then return them to their natural habitats(picture attached)

  • Math: Perimeter walks around our school building, shape walks, color walks, etc.

  • Adopt a Storm Drain: We have adopted 4 storm drains and maintain them on our school property. We incite educators form the Riley/Purgatory Bluff Creek watershed district to teach us about storm drains(picture attached)

  • Planting tulip bulbs in the fall and recording their growth-seasons, math, measuring, art-sketching (pictured above)

  • Language Arts standards: opinion writing (picture on right)