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How to Use the Outdoors to Teach Science

Rhys Baker teaches science at Arthur Mellows Village College in Peterborough, UK.

A simple project on frog spawn, or pond ecosystems, or pollution in ponds can inspire students in a way PowerPoint presentations and practice exam questions never will.

A simple project on frog spawn, or pond ecosystems, or pollution in ponds can inspire students in a way PowerPoint presentations and practice exam questions never will.

The Importance of Out-of-Classroom Learning

Have you ever sat in a lesson on a summer's day, staring wistfully out of the window wanting to be anywhere but behind a desk? With a preoccupation with grades, passing exams and preparing for college, science lessons can easily descend into "teaching to the test." Not only is this boring, but it neglects the wider development of our students at all ages.

As a biology teacher, I know from experience that the outdoors can engage even the most disaffected of students. Some of my favourite lessons take advantage of the 'outdoor classroom' We live in an amazing world - it is time that we used this to inspire our students; out-of-classroom learning not only enriches the curriculum but also gets pupils exercise, enhances academic attainment and - most importantly of all - it's fun!

"The world outside the school is richly inspiring, constantly re-energising what takes place within the classroom. It is the source of all our learning – about our history, about our culture, about our place in the natural world and our relationships with each other." Out of Classroom Learning, ASE

The outdoors has a history of inspiring some incredible scientific characters to pursue science: Charles Darwin was inspired by a family trip to Wales; Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse fondly recalls counting spiders webs in his garden; Prof. Steve Jones (president of the Association for Science Education) decided to pursue biology after a field trip.

10 Outdoor Lesson Ideas

  1. How does pollution affect lichen species in our local area?
  2. How do habitats change over time?
  3. What habitats can be found in my local area? What makes a habitat? What is a habitat?
  4. What building materials are used in my school and why?
  5. What affects the height of a water rocket?
  6. Design, build and monitor a weather station for your school - can be combined with a journal-keeping activity.
  7. Conduct a littering/pollution/recycling survey of your school (can involve interviews with the reprographics department).
  8. How many examples of forces can you find around the school?
  9. Design your own constellations (best done in a very dark place well away from city lights)
  10. Conduct a bug hunt!

What Is Out-of-Classroom Learning?

Out-of-classroom learning is anything that takes place - you guessed it - out of the classroom. Even those without expansive fields, eco ponds, vegetable gardens and playgrounds can still set up window boxes, ant farms and aquariums outside of the classroom. It includes trips to wildlife parks, bird sanctuaries, zoos, conservation groups and beaches.

Every home and school, no matter how urban it is, has access to the natural world - plants growing in cracks in the masonry, walls are often covered in lichens (species depend on local pollution levels - something that could be investigated), puddles can be sampled for bacterial content.

How to Plan Outdoor Lessons

If you are sold on the benefits of using the outdoors to teach science, you may be thinking about where you should start. First off, you need an idea - check out the links section for some pre-made lesson plans - and then you need to plan for managing learning outdoors. Next, you need the general outdoors toolkit:

  • Whistle - to get attention
  • Laminated instruction sheets with questions on...differentiated, of course.
  • Mini First aid kit . . . just in case
  • Antiseptic hand wash gel - saves washing hands when you get back to the classroom
  • Wet wipes - see above
  • Spare pencils and clipboards - pens smudge.
  • Disposable cameras - cheap as you can find in case a group wants some photographic evidence. Plus, it doesn't matter if these get wet!

Obviously, depending on your activity, you may need more specific equipment such as pooters, quadrats, sample trays, cotton buds and agar plates (for pond sampling), or even simple outdoor microscopes.

Wet weather does not need to spoil an outdoor lesson, provided you prepare appropriately

Wet weather does not need to spoil an outdoor lesson, provided you prepare appropriately

Managing Lessons Outside

Managing behaviour outside of the classroom requires a bit of forethought. It will help if you discuss ground rules before you set off - make sure you have a backup plan (like a time-out space) if some pupils take advantage of this newfound 'freedom.' Also, remember to:

  • Prepare for wet weather. This doesn't have to put paid to a well-planned lesson: ask students to bring rainjackets and suitable footwear.
  • Divide up the class into groups. You can keep the more 'interesting' characters separate this way. Divide up any resources before the lesson for ease of distribution: you may find it helpful to make resource 'bags'.
  • Designate a team leader for each group - give them a copy of the instructions, disposable camera and a stopwatch.
  • Make each group responsible for the safe and timely return of ALL equipment. This will save you huge amounts of time.
  • Consider conducting review activities and dismissing the group from the site. Returning to the classroom wastes valuable learning time and allows you to interact with the environment for your plenary activities.


nory on March 27, 2017:

thank you for this article coz it helps a lot in my research. hope for more article about science topic.

krosch on June 18, 2012:

This is a great article that would do one of my heroes the late and great Carl Sagan proud. Teaching wonders of science right in the world around us is something that sometimes get left out of what can be dry classroom lectures.

Science is pretty awesome, thanks for sharing a great way to showcase that. :)

Maree Michael Martin from Northwest Washington on an Island on June 18, 2012:

Outdoor learning, science exploration, what could be better? Wonderful hub! Voted up and shared.

Rhys Baker (author) from Peterborough, UK on April 22, 2012:

Thanks to all for the visits and kind words. It is important to view science as something that is all around us rather than a lesson in a classroom.

I'm glad I could give some ideas that are useful effective and interesting - the greatest critics are the children themselves. If they enjoy my ideas then I have done a good job

Mmargie1966 from Gainesville, GA on April 18, 2012:

This sounds like so much fun, TFScientist! There is so much to learn outside and your ideas sound terrific! When are we going? LOL

Great hub! Voted up!


Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on April 17, 2012:

Science has always been one of my favorite subjects. When I was a kid there was a little woodsy area next to the school I went to. My teachers used to take us for walks often, pointing out plants and insects and birds and their symbiosis. I remember being entranced at a walking stick the first time I saw one. It blended into its branch so well, you couldn't tell it was there until it moved.

TahoeDoc from Lake Tahoe, California on April 09, 2012:

Great hub and something I feel strongly about, as well. Living in Lake Tahoe, there is already a lot of emphasis on the outdoors, conservation and appreciation of nature. Also, my children are lucky enough (selection by lottery -really lucky) to attend the Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School. It has a definite focus on science, but is excellent academically, all-around. I think the kids really feel connected to their environment with this type of learning. It seems to make them better students, overall, when they are so engaged in active learning.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 09, 2012:

I was lucky enough to attend schools that really emphasized outdoors, science-based education. At one school I attended, we even took two weeks every school year to head out to a special camp. I learned so much on those trips, and I'll never forget them!

I love your lesson ideas, TFScientist. You show that taking trips outdoors- even if they're just right outside the classroom, don't have to be difficult. Thanks for the encouragement, tips, and suggestions!

Mel Flagg COA OSC from Rural Central Florida on April 08, 2012:

Because of these tips, TFScientist, my daughter absolutely loves our science "class" now. I've also incorporated walking the dog into the science lesson, so she not only gets to play with her best friend, she learns about quadrapeds too! These tips have helped me think about creating lessons from just about anything. I look forward to your next hub!!

Ann Leung from San Jose, California on April 08, 2012:

I couldn't agree more, TFscientist. This is exactly how we feel about the importance of outdoor learning. We take our kids to explore different things that they won't have a chance to otherwise learn from inside their classroom. We're now in Florida for their spring break. We just visited Clearwater Marine Aquarium today, they learned how people rescued injured sea animals, petted baby stingrays, and picked up a lot of seashells... They had a great time while learning. Great hub and thank you for sharing the links. They are perfect for my kids.

alliemacb from Scotland on April 07, 2012:

This is a really useful hub. Getting kids out of the classroom to learn about science is a fantastic idea

Rhys Baker (author) from Peterborough, UK on April 07, 2012:

@Daughter of Maat: I'm very glad you have found this useful. I will be publishing a new hub on teaching science to elementary age children - hopefully that will also be of some help

@poowool5: Thanks for the specific nature of your feedback. It sounds amazing that your town's schools have embraced the great outdoors as an extension of the classroom - you get inspiration, learning and exercise all in one healthy bag!

@vivresperando and hectordang: Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed my hub - I agree that science does not have to boil down to testing and textbooks. Give me practicals any day!

hectordang from New York on April 07, 2012:

I love authentic, real-life learning! It's so much better than a boring textbook and standardized testing!

poowool5 from here in my house on April 06, 2012:

Great hub, TFScientist! Super info and well-laid out. I love the fact that you point out all the opportunities in urban communities too, no necessity for vast parklands (although those are nice too!)

In our town, (near Boston, US), the elementary schools have just all built "outdoor classrooms" for exactly the reasons you give here. Hopefully this will become a widespread trend. More than ever in this environmentally-aware age, we need to engage our children with and teach them about their natural surroundings.

Voted up and useful!

viveresperando from A Place Where Nothing Is Real on April 06, 2012:

Found this very interesting and useful.

Mel Flagg COA OSC from Rural Central Florida on April 06, 2012:

THANK YOU!!! You're amazing TF Scientist! I've recently just started homeschooling my daughter (we're starting early before the actual school year in fall to get into a routine) and this has given me some wonderful ideas and tips to teach my daughter science! We have a huge backyard with a pond and trees, and tons of wildlife too. You couldn't have published this at a better time! Thanks again, voted up and awesome.