About a month ago, #elemsci participants were sharing the virtues of taking science out of the classroom and exploring the outdoors. At that same time my partner, Wendy Pavlicek and I were gearing up for our annual spring field trips to the local Mill Pond Reservoir with Burlington’s third graders. Our classroom teachers do a great job exploring scientific topics in their classroom that don’t always present easily indoors. That being said, sometimes the inter-connectivity of their life, physical, and earth science units are best met in the place where they all come together!
The “Reservoir Field Trip” had about a dozen scripted stops and another half-dozen unanticipated learning opportunities over the course of our quarter-mile nature hike. Planned stops included:
- Learning about the natural characteristics and food webs of the reservoir, field, forest, and vernal pools.
- The five things all habitats provide the living creatures that reside there.
- The difference between producers, consumers, and decomposers.
- Examining and formulating hypotheses over the weathering of a large boulder.
- The difference between hibernators and “winter sleepers.”
- Local endangered animals and plants such as the Black Rat Snake and Lady Slipper Wildflower.
- The adaptations of owls, turtles, frogs and crayfish to their habitats.
- Observing glacial striations in large rock outcrops as a result of glacial progression and the difference between weather and climate.
- Exploration of a decomposing log.
- Common rock and mineral identification review.
For teachers who do not have a pair of “science specialists” to rely on, outdoor learning can pose a set of challenges that, if not properly addressed ahead of time, can spoil the educational value of an educational outdoor experience. Such challenges include:
- Behavioral flare-ups as a result of new environment
- Weather conditions
- Unexpected discoveries in nature (from dead animals to trash)
- Finding volunteers to help with small student groups
These challenges are all unique to each teacher’s school setting conditions and vary in degree of difficulty, but are also addressable. To structure an outdoor lesson or activity with these challenges in mind, consider the following:
- Do a dry run first. You already knew this, but walking out an outdoor field-trip ahead of time will give you a better sense of how much time the trip will take and any unforseen obstacles. If props or tools are needed, put them in small boxes or cases that can be carried by a pair of students (trust me on this, your K-5 students will want to volunteer for such an important job!)
- Set expectations clearly and before-hand. Once students are out and about in the outdoors, it will be difficult to get them to adjust which is why students should understand that bringing class to the outdoors doesn’t change the expectations. It may help to have a tool such as a whistle or bell that can be used should small groups expand beyond the typical classroom size. As fifth grade teacher Sara Allen stated, “since many students simply associate outside with recess, it’s important to be patient when helping them learn how 2 learn outside.”
- Be prepared. An old boyscout that can be the difference between a great day of learning and turning kids off to the outdoors. If students are not comfortable they can not stay focused and learn. Send letters home days in advance and reminders the day before that students will be out and about. It will be important to wear appropriate footwear, have a jacket handy, and have bug spray or sunscreen already on before the adventure begins. Uncomfortable students mean students are not focused on their surroundings, only how they are feeling. As science coordinator, Fred Ende stated: “Out in bad weather is often more intriguing than in good.”
- Go with the flow. Unexpected discoveries are part of the learning experience! Finding trash is an important opportunity to discuss natural preservation. A dead animal is a gateway to a conversation about decomposers. Use what students discover as a learning opportunity that will be just as relevant as any learning goals you set to achieve on the outset. There is always risk that things won’t go according to plan, but as fourth grade teacher Deirdre Bailey stated, “risk management is NOT risk avoidance!”
- Put out the call – on the first day of school! Knowing what kind of volunteers you have available to you all year round will give a boost to your classroom in and outdoors. Add to your start of the year contact form for parents questions that include whether they are willing to help with classroom trips outdoors and typical availability. It might not hurt to add “profession” to their list. You might just find some experts willing to skype your class or join you for special learning events!
- Don’t force your experience into a schedule. Make it a field trip. Not every school field trip needs to be a costly journey to a museum or show. Consider a field trip down to nearby conservation land or an urban park. “Field trip” designation helps teachers, students, and administrators get over the time crunch hurdle and focused on what is really important, the learning opportunity!