School leaders know that unique events call upon a community to think about the betterment of its members—adults and children alike. This has certainly been the case amid this COVID-19 season of “contingency education.” Outdoor instruction poses challenges that open avenues for refining instruction, as well as complications that require tactical planning and modification as issues arise.

Teaching Content and Problem-Solving

We know a great deal about the neuroscience of learning, particularly the ages and stages that inform how children learn and the critical skills they must develop as the brain grows. We have instructional methods—formal and informal teaching methods, print resources, and tech tools—that enable us to create learning plans that speak to the reality of outdoor learning.

Outdoor learning offers an opportunity to have students work safely in cooperative learning groups with materials that are scaffolded for the physical space we have. For instance, students may work in teams to develop games to reinforce key terms and concepts in biology using class notes, textbooks, and other resources to identify the most relevant terms. Teachers might also use outdoor space to set up math stations for students to “spiral” math content to ensure that their mastery and application skills stay solid. Or students may be asked to apply concepts of ratios and proportions as they develop blueprints for ways to set up workspaces for the class that optimize the space in distinct ways.

In addition to using the physical space to cover content with traditional materials, use of outdoor space paves the way for the application of concepts for reinforcement and extension activities. In English class, this can take the form of building upon an understanding of Henry David Thoreau’s concept of self-reliance as expressed in Walden by walking on the property or in an urban park. Whether through discussion, engaging students in sensory activities, or having students fill out charts that track their personal experiences as they attempt new tasks in a fresh environment, this extension activity can bring to life the concepts taught as theory in class. It also engages students in experiential, physical learning that links Thoreau’s prose to actual, personal experiences. Similarly, use of the physical space for extension exercises can provide team-building experiences that enable students to work collaboratively, see other sides to their classmates, and discover their own roles in group dynamics.

Because of outdoor learning constraints, teachers will likely need to prioritize specific content and skills to optimize the experience. As we engage our students through mastery of key content by using the physical environment for extension activities, we can see our students in a new light, hand in hand with rethinking which information and skills will best serve them and provide them the greatest opportunity for transfer across different contexts.

For many schools, this means reduced course material against the backdrop of increased reinforcement of reading, writing, and critical thinking skills across all courses. For example, using predictable, streamlined outlines for in-class learning with home or hybrid follow-up learning offers students ways of honing their writing with templates and processes, whether in writing a response about how a character changes over time, the ways that a chrysalis develops into a butterfly, or understanding the impact of the electoral college on an election.

Our Students—They May Surprise Us

Teachers are apt practitioners and observers of their students. As such, they develop systems and a sixth sense about the pride and pitfalls a given student may experience as the term progresses. We know that learning profiles tend to stay consistent whether, for example, a student is faster at retrieving words in a discussion or less skilled at writing a significant amount by hand and taking detailed notes. Similarly, temperament tends to stay consistent throughout development. A kindergartner who’s slow to warm up, more irritable, or of a lower cognitive tempo may tend to grow into a middle level or high school student with the same pacing to the learning process.

While these learning temperament patterns (as psychologist Ron Taffel and I refer to them) tend to stay the same, outdoor learning draws upon students in different ways and provides new experiences that may build on strengths or create challenges. For example, one student may find that the increased space between desks outdoors may physiologically make her feel less encumbered and, therefore, better able to focus. For a student with language processing difficulty or attention shifts, outdoor learning may prove more challenging if the teacher’s voice does not carry as well or if there is less opportunity for cueing and visual reinforcements.

As outdoor learning provides extension learning that is problem-solving and application-oriented, students and teachers may be surprised at who emerges as a leader or gains additional confidence and insight. The student who is less efficient at copying formulas from the board may prove to be a strong leader or creative problem-solver when seating arrangements leave space for groups to pass by one another with ease. The quiet observer who needs more time to process may find that her solution is more efficient and that she has the confidence to propose a unique arrangement when she can physically lay out the desks in various formats under the tent.

Executive Functions

We can find ways to teach students that draw upon a school’s tried-and-true approaches while still using outdoor learning. Consider ending the day with a prep period where students can update their planners, prioritize that evening’s homework, and touch base with teachers to clarify aspects of the day’s discussion. This can be particularly helpful at schools providing outdoor instruction and incorporating a blended learning model—providing predictability. With that hybrid model, some of the learning happens asynchronously as a self-paced process via distance communication platforms. The outdoor prep time is a critical bridge for students whose executive function skills are a work in progress, tapping into their ever-developing (and by nature inconsistent) capacity for tracking deadlines, sequencing tasks, prioritizing, juggling details, getting started on independent work, and righting themselves when they hit a snag. Hybrid learning requires more mental juggling and tracking, with less of the interactivity and physical cueing that in-person instruction provides. We need to expect our students—whose ability to track and recourse themselves is neurodevelopmentally a work in progress—to show both capacity and challenge as they master the course content and the executive function skills needed to be their own learning CEOs along the way.

Social-Emotional Learning: Defusing the Intensity

As we provide outdoor learning models attuned to social-emotional learning, we open the door to discuss self-awareness with students and parents. By highlighting the purpose of these projects, we can partner with students to discuss the nature of learning and mastery. Students may be just as surprised as we are in the areas that prove fruitful or frustrating. Students, parents, and teachers are all grappling with the dual tasks of managing both learning content and discovering how to learn under extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, parents and students may find that certain aspects of school are unexpectedly challenging, thus opening what clinical professor of psychiatry Dan Siegel refers to as their “window of tolerance” beyond a comfortable, familiar range. By focusing on metacognitive awareness through the “how and why” of work and activity demands, we can partner and defuse possible intensities. We can use the natural inconsistencies inherent in this atypical time as a way to appreciate, analyze, and address circumstances that can complicate or contribute to children’s success and comfort.

We can utilize Likert (self-rating) scales, conferencing, or journals where students and teachers discuss the processes that contributed to or complicated various projects. In doing so, we increase our understanding of the individual student against the backdrop of the outdoor learning experience, for both the familiar and the novel aspects it possesses. Amid the practical challenges that outdoor learning presents, we find opportunities for expansion and development for children and teachers alike, and for the whole school community.

Rebecca Mannis, PhD, is a learning specialist specializing in neuroscience and education.

Sidebar: Building RanksTM Connections

Dimension: Result-Orientation

Set and encourage others to set clear, ambitious goals for the whole child. As the leader, you engage staff members, students, and parents in setting goals for student learning and development that are clear, actionable, and reflective of high expectations. The focus should be on developing students, as well as on developing adults to be more effective educators and staff members. Cultivate a result-oriented culture by collaboratively developing expectations, clearly communicating those expectations, and facilitating processes for each adult and student to create and own their own goals and expectations. In creating goals, you, your staff members, and your students should also map backward to create clear milestones and benchmarks for achieving interim results. By setting goals and milestones, you create a culture that focuses on desired outcomes and that continuously adjusts strategies to effectively and efficiently achieve those outcomes.

Result-orientation is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.