11 Tips for Classroom Management in the Outdoors

One of the biggest fears I hear from teachers is about classroom management in the outdoors. In fact, this seems to be one of the biggest barriers to getting outside. It seems to be a bit scary to think about taking your rambunctious class outside when sometimes you struggle to keep things under control inside. I get it! It can seem a bit scary to give your students so much freedom and space to run around.

However, good classroom management in the outdoors means finding the balance between freedom and structure. You may find that your students will surprise you and show how responsible they can be in the outdoors. These 11 tips for classroom management in the outdoors can help you get started on your journey to outdoor learning. 

Getting Started with Classroom Management in the Outdoors…​

Classroom management in the outdoors really comes down to building relationships and trust with your students. They need to trust that you will keep them safe. You need to trust that they will keep themselves safe and make safe choices. However, nature provides the perfect setting to start building these relationships and establishing a system of trust and balance.

A little bit of preparation in advance can help set the tone and set you and your students on the right track to successful and safe outdoor learning. Spend some time ensuring that students know your expectations ahead of time, and also that they know the consequences of not following the expectations. Additionally, there might be students well need to watch extra carefully. If you have students with special needs you also need to be aware of what they might need to be successful. With a little bit of thought and planning, you can take your students outside in any weather.

Teacher working with a group of students outside

11 Classroom Management Tips for Outdoor Learning…

1. Establish expectations before you go outside.

Talk about what types of behaviours are expected before you go outside. I do this frequently with my students, even after I believe they know what the expectations are. Some students may need to also know why they are going outside. So be prepared to share your intentions and what you would like them to learn/discover/do. You can check out what I do for setting expectations with both younger students and middle-year students in this blog post.

2. Set physical boundaries (and make sure that everyone understands them).

If you are playing games or doing activities where the students will be moving around in a designated area, ensure that the students understand exactly where they are allowed to be and what is considered too far or off-limits. This way the kids know exactly what is considered the “boundaries” and what is considered safe (and some will try to push it…that’s totally normal!). I always tell students to make sure that they can see me no matter where they are working. I also try explain why the boundaries are put where they are. For example, if you go past this point you are too close to the road and it is unsafe.

I have used traffic cones, trail tape, physical markers (such as a fence), and even myself to mark boundaries. Setting up boundaries is also an important aspect of your risk management plan.

3. Have a way of getting the kid’s attention.

I always carry a Fox40 whistle on my keys. It’s loud and I can get the student’s attention when they are far away from me. Keep in mind that sometimes sound may not carry if it is particularly windy so have a secondary plan in mind. Additionally, if you have students who have hearing impairments, a visual signal may be more appropriate.

4. Make sure everyone is prepared with the materials they need (and has gone to the bathroom.)

Nothing gets kids wound up and ready to cause trouble like unnecessary waits. If everyone is ready to go when it’s time to go then you can get down to business quickly and prevent problems caused by waiting and impatience (or worse having to run back to the classroom.)

5. Make sure all of the students are dressed for the weather

Students are more likely to be actively engaged if they are comfortable. Depending on your weather this can also be a safety thing. Information hand outs, checklists and posters that you can share with your families can be found in our “Get Outside Tool Kit.”

More info on dressing for the weather can be found here:

6. Have a routine.

Just as you have routines for indoor learning, ensure that you have set up and practiced your routines for outdoor learning. Having a set of routines or rituals allows students to know what is expected and allows them to feel safe and confident in their outdoor learning activities. It is also very grounding for the students and helps to establish the behaviours and expected way of being in the outdoors.

Routines could include opening routines, sharing circles, welcoming activities, sit spots, you name it!

3 students blowing bubbles outside sitting on grass

7. Take a cell phone with you.

I always carry a phone with me. This is both for emergencies and for when our admin assistant needs to pass on a message (like a student being picked up early.) If it isn’t urgent she will text, if it is urgent she will phone. We have this plan established ahead of time so that there is no confusion. 

8. Take all the things that you need.

Take your first aid kit, kleenix, teaching materials, and whatever else you might need with you. This way you don’t have to make an unexpected trip inside. If I have a lot of materials for a lesson I use a plastic tote or the wagon, otherwise I just keep what I need in my backpack. You can check out what I take in my teacher bag here.

9. Do short practice sessions.

When I first start taking my students outside I like to do “practice sessions.” After going over the expectations we will do a practice of all of the proper behaviours that are expected both before and during going outside. At this time we might not even have anything that we are going to learn while we are outside, we are just practicing good habits. We practice things skills such as walking quietly in the hall to get our jackets, waiting outside the boot room, and getting dressed quickly so that no one has to wait. This practice time at the start of the year ensures that later in the year we can get down to work quickly.

teacher reading to students outside

10. Talk about trust.

With older students, there are times where they are not being directly supervised while they are outside. Because of this, I like to talk about the “trust piggy bank.” Here’s how the trust piggy bank works… each time I see the students doing what they are supposed to, following expectations, and generally being kind it fills the trust piggy bank. The more full the piggy bank, the bigger and more exciting things we are able to do. However, each time I catch them not following the expectations or not doing their work it is like emptying the piggy bank. It takes a long to fill the piggy bank back up again afterwards.

11. Enlist some help.

With some classes, you sometimes just need an extra set of hands (and eyes) to help you out. Be creative and seek out some adult or older student help. If you have younger students, you may want to do a “care partner” activity with an older class. For extra adult support, you might want to think of inviting helpers from the community to help out or providing a volunteer job for student teachers. The extra set of eyes and hands is always helpful when students are outdoors.

Feel More Confident With Your Classroom Management Outside…​

With these 11 tips, I hope you will feel more comfortable and confident in taking your students outside. As with all things educational, these are the things that have worked for me, but they might not work in your situation. If something doesn’t work the first time, tweak it and try it again or find a different solution to the problem. It may take some time for your students to fully understand the boundaries and expectations, but after awhile they will come to love and anticipate their outdoor learning time. 

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