Teaching Outdoors

Groundswell supports educators who want to move beyond the classroom and engage students in learning through the outdoors and their local communities. This page provides introductory resources for teachers who are just getting started teaching outdoors. Explore to learn more! If you like what you see and are interested in becoming part of the Groundswell network, contact us!

Two students putting native plant seeds in a paper bag


Top 10 Tips and Tricks

#1 - Survey site ahead of time

  • Plan route and gathering spots 
  • Find opportunities for sun and shade
  • Think about accessibility and special needs
  • Locate bathrooms/drinking fountains
  • Note potential noise pollution, hazards, and distractions

Students standing outside their school building

#2 - Prepare students for the outdoors

  • Watch the weather
  • Make wardrobe suggestions (jackets, boots, etc.)
  • Inform parents ahead of time
  • Have extra (hierarchy of needs)

Teacher instructions describing student expectations for going outside

#3 - Set clear expectations

  • Address concerns ahead of time
  • Assign roles or jobs to students
  • Go over rules and/or create behavior contract
  • Discuss using tools safely and how they were intended
  • Define physical boundaries and/or staying within sight

When we're outside, I will remain within the boundaries designated by Ms. Sevigny. In the absence of boundaries, I will only go where she can see me.

#4 - Have materials ready to grab and go

  • Use plastic tubs, crates, or outdoor backpacks to keep supplies organized
  • Have extra materials on hand 
    • Stackable clipboards, field guides or other books, hand lenses, extra pencils (not pens), sharpener, sit pads
  • Keep well-stocked first aid kit 

Wagon with rakes

#5 - Make it a routine

  • Go outdoors often
  • Don’t use as reward and punishment
  • Inform the office

Students sitting in the leaves among the trees

#6 - Keep it simple

  • Practice going outside the first time
  • Short small objectives at first
  • Get to know your site

Students sitting on ground in parking lot

#7 - Model the behavior you want to see

  • Find wonder and awe in your outdoor experience 
  • Positive attitude even when weather or activities don’t go as planned
  • Do no harm 
    • Living things: plants, animals and insects
    • Non-living things: landscape, property

Student laying on parking lot looking at leaf through magnifying glass

#8 - Keep their attention

  • Use “Circle up” or “Toes Toward Me”
  • Make sure everyone can see and hear you and you can see and hear everyone
  • Avoid having students face the sun or distractions

Students standing in semi-circle in parking lot

#9 - Look for opportunities

  • Use teachable moments
  • Investigate and get to know the location
  • Let students move, stretch, and breathe

Ecosystem scavenger hunt - grid with student drawings

#10 - Plan for accountability

  • Allow time and space to reflect 
  • Have students keep a journal /exit ticket
  • Students can take photos (include a classmate to prevent copying internet photos)
  • Leave no trace

Students writing in notebooks while sitting in tall grass


Experts in Action

Outdoor Classroom Management

Watch expert Groundswell educators utilizing classroom management strategies for the outdoors.

Keeping Their Attention - Toes Toward Me


Identifying Poison Ivy

Watch Lea Sevigny engage her students in an outdoor lesson around identifying poison ivy. Lea is an expert in outdoor learning and place-based education and teaches middle school at Forest Hills Public Schools.

Poison Ivy - Day 1 Review

Poison ivy always has leaves of 3 leaflets. Poison ivy never has more than 3 leaflets per leaf.

Poison ivy never has thorns. The leaves never have saw-toothed or scalloped edges.

Poison ivy sometimes is shiny, but sometimes it's dull, so shiny really doesn't help us.

Preparing to go Outside

Is this Poison Ivy?

This is Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy Vine

Other Vines (Not Poison Ivy)