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10 Steps to Starting Your Own School Outdoor Education Program

Updated: Mar 24, 2019

Imagine a world where every school has outdoor education built into the school fabric and ethos. Imagine a school where children are truly connected to nature. Imagine a class of children who plant, grow and harvest their own school canteen food.

Well, you'll be glad to hear that these things are possible in every school. In my view, schools have a responsibility to support outdoor learning on their school grounds to ensure the children they educate do not develop an acute case of Nature Deficit Disorder!

Even if your school is concrete from top to bottom, there are still many things you can do to get children outside the classroom and better connected to the natural world.

Step 1: Background Reading

Read 'Transforming Outdoor Learning in Schools' from the Natural Connections Project on integrating outdoor learning in schools. This knowledge and background information will help to inform the rest of the process and get the ball rolling.

Step 2: Identify an Outdoor Education Space

Identify an outdoor education space on your school grounds. It could be a corner of the playground or in the shade of trees, for example.

Make sure that it's in a quiet place, away from the hustle and bustle of the main school buildings and near to bathroom facilities for convenience.

Step 3: Define the Goals of Your Outdoor Learning Program

Define the goals and specific objectives of your outdoor learning program. What activities do you want to offer your students (e.g. grow vegetables, campfire, cooking)? How old are the children who'll be learning in your outdoor space?

Will you need to build additional infrastructure to make the most of your site and ensure it supports year-round outdoor learning (e.g. an outdoor classroom, a teepee, a greenhouse)?

Step 4: Gather Ideas and Inspiration

Gather ideas and information. Don't hold back. Find photos and plans of existing outdoor learning spaces online.

Pinterest is a brilliant way to gather ideas and concepts on a digital pin board for you to refer back to later and share with others. Try this Pinterest board for hundreds of ideas on outdoor learning spaces.

Step 5: Write a Proposal for Your School's Outdoor Program

Write a detailed proposal for your school leadership and administrators. Ensure that it's carefully sequenced with clear steps and explanations of your ideas/design concepts with justifications.

It could take a month or a year to build and establish a outdoor learning space that supports your school outdoor education program, and certain elements could be designed and built by the children themselves to encourage student involvement from the beginning.

No matter the scope of your proposals, make sure they are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-based).

Step 6: Outline Your Proposals to the Decision Makers

Request a meeting with your school's senior management and administrators. Be prepared with the following information and anticipate what their likely questions and concerns will be.

a) Compile relevant research supporting the benefits of outdoor education programs (for a quick research summary on the benefits of outdoor learning in schools click here and here).

b) Conduct a risk-benefit analysis.

c) Anticipate questions and concerns regarding safety, adult supervision, loss of academic classroom time, scheduling constraints, etc. Be prepared with thorough, data-driven responses to all of these questions.

For a useful paper on the challenges of outdoor learning as perceived by teachers, check out 'Challenges to Learning Outdoors' by Gary Chantrell (2015).

d) Practice your presentation until you feel confident and ready to be firm but polite. I would always recommend inviting a handful of enthusiastic students to make their case as well!

Step 7: Develop a Framework of Outdoor Learning

Develop a framework of outdoor learning which supports your curriculum outcomes and school ethos, while complementing lessons and extra-curricular timetabling.

Step 8: Notify and Inform Parents/Guardians

Get parents and guardians on-board with the outdoor learning program at your school, outlining your program framework and proposals. Remember to highlight the significant benefits of outdoor learning for their children!

Get permission slips and releases signed as required. In addition, some parents may be interested in volunteering throughout the year as helpers.

Step 9: Gather Outdoor Learning Resources and Share Expertise

Gather learning materials, build lesson plans and share expertise among your teaching staff. Go to our Knowledge Hub for more information and join our community to share ideas with other educators!

Remember to ensure risk management procedures are in place including first aid kits (and staff trained to administer first aid), emergency medical forms and suitable children to adult ratios for outdoor learning (this depends on the specific activities).

Step 10: Go Outside!

Establish ground rules, guidelines and expectations with the children. Then break your students outside of the classroom and get muddy outside!!!


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