When I was in college, I had a class with a girl whose entire American literature experience revolved around Transcendentalist texts. She went to a private school and had most of her classes outdoors. I found her and this outdoor learning concept fascinating. I would bring up the topic any chance I got so she could regale me with the idyllic scene of reading in the plush grass or writing to the ambiance of birdsong. While I’m obviously romanticizing what outdoor learning is like in real life, I have found that a change in scenery can be both good for the soul and the standards.
Before I get into the ELA outdoor learning ideas, I want to share some research that supports taking students outside. Feel free to use this as evidence when a jealous teacher gives you the side eye from her window. 😉
What research says about outdoor learning:
A. Varying study locations improves retention.
In the New York Times article “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits” Carey reports, “Psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.”
Now, these studies don’t specify outdoor from indoor, but if you are going to change your classroom location, why not take it outside!? Further evidence below.
B. Nature increases brain function.
Whether you are looking for more creativity or better focus, nature is the answer. From the article “How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative” Suttie summarizes research on how nature affects the brain by reporting, “Prior studies have suggested that nature itself may play an important role [in increasing attention, creativity, and brain function]. One in Psychological Science found that the impact of nature on attention restoration is what accounted for improved scores on cognitive tests for the study participants”
C. Open Air Promotes an open mind and freedom of expression.
For more of an unobvious benefit to outdoor learning, a fascinating study reveals that ceiling height confines our thinking. If you can’t raise the roof in your room, then take a note from Brukley at Psychology Today since “high ceilings unconsciously activate thoughts of freedom, which causes the brain to think in the abstract and to consider how things are related and integrated, [go outside because] nature, of course, has no ceiling. So by being out in the open air, it may prime your mind to ‘think outside of the box’ and ‘shoot for the stars.’ “
So now that you have the why, let’s get into the how!
English Outdoors: How to take your ELA class outside
1. Take writing classes outside for inspiration!
The school day often forces teachers and students to be inside all day long. This is neglecting an important need all humans have to be outside. There are other things we neglect in the classroom too. Sir Ken Robinson in his TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity, argues schools neglect the arts. In the article, We Need to Stop Neglecting Fiction, Amanda Werner argues schools neglect creative writing forms such as fiction writing.
So what can you do to get your students involved in more creative activities such as writing fiction while outdoors?
Small groups of students could rotate outdoors for a little fresh air. You may worry that they won’t be on task. But, when students are doing something that is thoroughly engaging, they are less likely to be off task while outside. This Fiction Writing Unit for Middle School can help you integrate more creative forms of writing in your classroom. Students will be too engrossed in their creative stories to be off task.
Melissa from Reading and Writing Haven reiterates the research above and explains that sometimes the best way to overcome writer’s block is to seek inspiration. Being surrounded by nature has a way of opening students’ mind to the bigger picture. Even if students don’t sit outside to write, try asking them to take pictures of what intrigues them from their outdoor world. Then, they can use those images as springboards for their compositions. Here are thirteen additional ways photographs can inspire students to write
Lauralee at Language Arts Classroom adds, nature provides plenty of opportunities for observation, which is exactly what creative writing scholars need. The angle of a bird, the twitch of a leaf, and the sound of the breeze are perfect opportunities to practice writing. Give students guidelines for their creative endeavors and watch them soar!
For example, write pieces of a narrative outside, especially in different locations. First, start with the basics of narrative writing, and then ask students to brainstorm a list of scenes for their paper. Take a tour outside, jotting notes and sharing ideas as you move.
If students do get distracted, give them a warning and if the off-task behavior continues then send them back into the classroom. Students will want to stay outside, this incentive will keep them working hard, to do just that.
2. Take reading outside to engage and destress!
Reading itself is great for your health, but when you pair it with the health benefits of being outdoors, you and your students get a double dose of the feel-goods.
For an immersive take on the Transcendentalists, I have my students track their transcendental health as they work through a set of transcendental challenges. One of those challenges is recording their stress level before reading outside and after reading outside. Then, they dig deeper into Thoreau’s work and discuss the insights from their experiment and his. If you are looking for a way to teach Emerson and Thoreau that connects students with the outdoors while actually living out themes in their work, you can check out my unit plan here: Transcendentalism Unit: Teach the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau
Even if you aren’t teaching Transcendentalism in American Literature, you too can reap the benefits of reading outside with your students. As Abby from Write on with Miss G puts it, there’s nothing better than watching students read and discuss books in the sunlight, so why not take your students outdoors during your next novel unit or literature circles? Check out this post for engaging ideas for novel units and these literature circle resources.
As a final motivator for trying reading outdoors, Melissa from Reading and Writing Haven adds that most teachers are incorporating some form of independent reading (If you aren’t, find out why you should!) Try taking students outdoors to read when the weather is conducive. If you’d like a way to keep students focused on their book, ask them to write down one way they are thinking about their novel on a reading comprehension bookmark or have them respond to a thoughtful journal prompt. You might be surprised how something simple like an environment change can alter a student’s attitude about reading.
3. Take performances outside to set the scene!
Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching knows that poetry is an incredible experience to share with students outside of the classroom. Whether you have a beautiful lawn outside school or a great, funky cafe nearby, once you’ve started having students write their own poetry, take them somewhere outside of your classroom to PERFORM! You might even be lucky enough to find some venues where students can see others compete in slam poetry. If you’re just getting started with slam poetry and need a quick helping hand, here’s where to start.
“When students are practicing for a performance it can get noisy!” says Amanda from Amanda Write Now . Having small groups of students going outdoors is the perfect solution. What performance activities can you incorporate into your English classroom? Students could Act Out Scenes from Books! This is an exciting group project that students absolutely love. And they’ll love practicing outdoors just as much. It supports comprehension and analysis. This outdoor activity definitely appeals to kinesthetic, auditory, visual and naturalistic learners.
4. Take projects outside for real-world learning!
Taking learning outdoors and outside of the brick and mortar of a school building can be transformative in student learning. For years, Amanda Cardenas has been cultivating classroom that seeks to confront social justice by having students design and develop community service projects. She calls it Be the Change. The project begins with a research and writing element, and then once those tasks are completed, students move into local elementary schools, community gardens, local food banks, and other places outside of school to start making a real difference in their communities.
Other projects naturally fit well in an outdoor area too. Bringing it back to the Transcendentalist unit, you can find lots of earthy projects in this post in including one amazingly nerdy video game that promotes Thoreau’s mindset.
Lots of STEM projects work well outdoors as well. You can find a list of STEM ideas to use in English class here: STEM in English Language Arts
5. Take movement strategies outside for kinesthetic learning!
As the research shows above, being outdoors can do so much to stimulate learning. Likewise, studies also show that movement is essential for focus and new connections in the brain. If you can pair movement strategies in an outdoor location, your efforts will result in twice the amount of brain benefits! You can read a list of 10 Ways to Add Movement in the ELA Classroom here.