Chapter 1

I Can Teach In The Outdoors

The teacher’s job in the outdoor classroom is to set up an exciting learning environment. Being outside is only part of it. The leader has to teach in a way that makes the outdoors come alive for every member of the group. That may sound easy, but it requires that you, as a teacher and leader, be flexible and adaptable, whether it is to changing weather conditions, insects or responding to “teachable moments.” Your enthusiasm is the all-important ingredient in involving young people in learning in the outdoors.


You have the power to affect how children will view nature. How you respond to the outdoors and your attitude toward the environment will be noted by the children. We can hardly expect children to get excited about, appreciate or develop a commitment to the natural world if we appear bored or uninterested.

Let’s take a look at three factors that can affect your success at leading an outdoor program.

You Don’t Have to Know It All

The outdoors is a learning environment in which leader and student learn together. It’s OK to say “I don’t know the answer to that question. Does anyone have any ideas, or know where we can find the answer?” You’re not expected to know everything, and it’s good to admit if you don’t. Children don’t expect it, and they respect you for being honest when you don’t have an answer. Remember that learning is a two-way street; you will learn as you help your students learn.

Develop a Sense of Wonder

The importance of a sense of wonder is best described by Rachel Carson: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

Develop a style that kindles that “sense of wonder” in yourself and children. Look a little closer and get involved; outdoor magic can unfold before your very eyes. Good leaders get their feet wet and their hands dirty.

Speak with More than Just Words

An adult’s unspoken messages are sometimes as strong, if not stronger, than the spoken ones. Young people learn from what they see adults do. If you’re not afraid to try new things, are willing and able to adapt to uncomfortable situations, or change your plans to adjust to the interests of the group, your openness will make a great impression on those you lead. Think about whether or not your actions match or clash with your words. If they do, you will be a very powerful and positive role model.

In conclusion, remember that you are not just a leader but a listener, learner, and follower. Have a positive approach, a caring attitude, smile and enjoy yourself.


A successful outdoor program requires that you prepare, whether this is your first group or your hundredth. The time you spend planning will help you make the most of the day, and allow you to concentrate on how the children are doing, rather than on what comes next.

Goals and Objectives

Identifying goals and objectives helps us get from where we are to where we would like to be. We have to be clear about the purpose of the outdoor experience and what we want the children to gain from such an experience.

A goal is a general statement of what you want to accomplish. For example, “students will become caring stewards of our natural resources,” or “participants will learn about the forest ecosystem.”

Objectives, on the other hand, are more specific and can be measured. For example, “participants will be able to identify five tree species,” and “participants will know the difference between evergreen and deciduous trees.’

Writing down your goals and objectives may also help you to select appropriate activities from this, and other, sources.

Field Trip Preparation Check List

After you have figured out what you want to do, there are still many things to consider before you walk out the door. Getting the entire group involved in some of the preparations will make your workload lighter, and help everyone feel more responsible for making the trip a success.

  • Choose a location that offers many opportunities for exploring and experiencing.
  • Get permission to use the site and find out if there are any rules or regulations about group size, use of the facilities, collecting plants and other items, and so on.
  • Are toilet facilities available?
  • Visit the site beforehand so that you are familiar with the area, and are better able to match the activities you will be doing to the site and your objectives.
  • Schedule transportation to and from the site, if needed.
  • Arrange for adequate adult supervision — at least one adult for every 10 children.
  • Prepare, or have the children bring, snacks and lunches.
  • Bring, or have the children bring, insect repellent and sunscreen.
  • Have a pencil and paper for each participant.
  • Bring along a backpack, bag, pouch, or even large pockets, for carrying “treasures,” equipment and props. Be sure you have all the teaching materials you will need.
  • Consider extra items that might be useful, such as field guides, magnifying glasses, bug boxes, small plastic containers, and so on. If it might be cold or wet, bring along extra mittens, hats or other items for those who forget.
  • Be sure you have a first aid kit, and know how to use it.
  • Send home permission slips if necessary, and a list of what the children should bring with them on the day of the trip.

Setting Ground Rules

One other step that is essential to a successful trip is to set some ground rules. Ask the group members why the rules are important, or have them help determine what the rules will be. Why should they stay on trails? Take only pictures? Leave only footprints? State the rules in a positive way. Of course, rules should be based on common sense. For example, using a buddy system makes more sense walking through a thick forest, than through a short grass meadow.

If your Activity involves collecting items, such as stones, plants or bugs, there are some special rules to follow:

  1. Set well-defined boundaries for collecting.
  2. Stress safety.
  3. Be clear about what can and cannot be collected, and collect only what you need.
  4. Living things should be collected only if they can be kept alive and later returned to where they were found.
  5. Stress that the outdoors is home to many organisms and that we should treat it as if it were our own.


Whether you are just going exploring, or are leading a structured, step-by-step – Activity with clear objectives, here are some tips and techniques to help you successfully guide your group.


If you have planned and prepared yourself and your group in advance, it is unlikely you’ll have major discipline problems. When setting ground rules, discuss the consequences of breaking the rules. If disruptive behavior means no more field trips, the children may keep each other in line! When a child does act up, channel their energy and interest by getting them involved. Have the child carry a pack, answer a question or lead the way along the trail.

Part of your job as leader is to be fully aware of the learning environment — the weather conditions, the energy of the children, other leaders and the dynamics of the – Activity. It is always better to prevent a distracting situation than try to correct it.

Equipment and Materials

Many of the activities do not require any equipment or props, others do. Some items can be made by you or by the children (see – Activity A). You may also look into getting equipment donated by local business or organizations. If you are using equipment that is new to the kids, you may have to plan some time to teach them about its use. It is also a good idea to hand out items as they are needed, rather than at the beginning of an – Activity, to minimize the distraction from what you are saying!

Teach with Questions

Asking questions is one way to keep students involved. When someone asks a question, you do not need to be the one who always answers or explains what is happening. Instead, allow the children to interpret things themselves. Have them look for clues and put the pieces of the mystery together on their own.

Ask questions that force the group to think. Try “Why is a leaf green?” rather than “What color is this leaf?” Keep your questions brief and call on children at random. If you respond only to children who raise their hands, you run the risk of losing the interest of the others or not hearing from everyone in the group.

Also be aware of how you respond to the children’s answers and ideas. If a response is laughed at, labeled wrong or ridiculed, that child, as well as others in the group, may not risk answering again. Remember, the purpose of asking questions is to keep kids involved in the – Activity.

Introducing New Words

Large words should be broken down into more easily understood parts. For example, photosynthesis, the process by which sunlight combines with water and carbon dioxide in green plants to form food, is derived from the following:

Photo = light (as in photograph)
Synthesis = putting together (as in music synthesizer)

Have the children repeat the words two or three times to help them remember the words and their meanings.

Introducing New Concepts

New concepts and information may be difficult for children to understand and remember without some background. There are several successful techniques to teach children new ideas.


Analogies are a fun way to better understand a subject. In an analogy, you compare something you don’t know about to something you do. For example: How is a fern like an antique? Both are very old. How is a fungus similar to a garbage collector? They both clean up the community. One cleans the city, the other cleans the forest. How is tree bark similar to our skin? Children may not know what bark does, but may know something about skin.


The use of stories can be an effective tool in introducing new information as well. Here is a story that explains the relationship between algae and fungus in lichens in a way that children will remember:

About 450 million years ago, when there was no life on land, Alan Algae just floated around in the sea all day. He was an excellent cook, but he had no home. Fanny Fungus, who also lived in the sea, was a carpenter and could build homes, but couldn’t cook. One cloudy, cool day, a wave washed Fanny and Alan up on a rock. They were afraid because they had never been on land before. They didn’t know each other very well, but they had to figure out how they could survive out of the water. Pretty soon Alan and Fanny decided to help each other out. Because Fanny was the carpenter, she built a home that sheltered both of them. Alan did his part by cooking for the two of them. The longer they stayed together, the more comfortable they became, and they took a “lichen” to each other.

Algae and fungus have what is called a “symbiotic” relationship. Each depends equally on the other for survival; the algae makes the food and the fungus provides the home.


Another way to introduce new ideas is with gimmicks, which are often similar to analogies or short stories. Gimmicks are comparisons, usually to something already known, that serve to jog the learner’s memory. For example, you can tell white pine from all the other pines because white pine is the only one with five needles to a bunch. Five needles, five letters in “white.”


Quizzing children on what they have learned is fun and can easily be done following the – Activity. It’s a way to measure an Activity’s effectiveness, review certain areas or clear up misunderstandings. Announcing the quiz to the group isn’t always necessary, as it can create undesirable competition or anxiety. They may not even be aware that they are being quizzed! Questions should relate to the activities and cover the key points. Quizzing will reinforce your objectives.

Using Dramatics

Children have vivid imaginations and a natural sense of excitement that can be your ally. Use words, like secret, mystery or puzzle, that tap into their imaginations, or use personal dramatics. For example, if you know you are coming up to a spot where a bird has been killed and feathers are lying around, you can stop the group and exclaim: “A great crime has been committed! Can anyone find any clues and tell us what happened?”

Using Props

Special props can make a lesson come alive. Lighting a cashew with a match and watching it burn demonstrates the concept of stored energy. Using a sponge to soak up water illustrates how rainfall is absorbed into the soil or a wetland.
Developing props is a creative undertaking. Their value as teaching tools is worth the effort because they help introduce new information and make learning more fun.

Teachable Moments

One of the greatest qualities an outdoor leader can have is the ability to recognize a teachable moment and be flexible enough to make use of it. Teachable moments are those special times when a sudden discovery or observation takes hold of the children. If a deer crashes through the woods while you are working on a soil profile, it would be a waste of energy to try to keep their attention focused on the soil! Take the chance to ask questions about deer, and maybe discuss how the deer and its activities might affect the vegetation, and get back to how that might affect the soil.

Teachable moments often present the most valuable learning opportunities. Truly spectacular or interesting events are the most memorable. Take advantage of them, and try to tie the moment back into your lesson. Even if no connection can be made to the – Activity at hand, it is better to wait until the excitement lessens before returning to your original topic.


Children have an inborn curiosity about the world around them. As an outdoor leader, it’s your challenge to provide learning opportunities that open doors to the magic of the natural world. We have provided you with strategies, teaching tools and gimmicks to start you on your way. A good motto to remember is: Discover First, Explain Second, Identify Last.