By. Joe Ludes, Instructional Coach, REAL School Gardens
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 REAL School Gardens, 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, REAL School Gardens 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 REAL School Gardens’ Teacher Training 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. REAL School Gardens 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 REAL School Gardens 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 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 enjoys running his own half-acre urban farm with his wife and two children just outside Washington D.C.