Are These 7 Outdoor Education Myths Holding You Back from Thriving Outside?

There are so many amazing benefits to outdoor learning for both students and teachers. In fact, in our Canadian teacher education programs there is a huge push for outdoor learning and outdoor education. However, even with this push towards getting our students outside, many teachers find it easier to stay inside. It is true, many barriers to outdoor education exist in our communities and education systems. However, some of these barriers are simply based on myths or preconceived notions of what outdoor education actually is. It’s time to check in with your own beliefs and see if these 7 outdoor education myths are holding you back from getting outside and thriving with your students.

two children looking at a tree with a magnifying glass

7 Outdoor Education Myths

Outdoor Education Means Going on Big Adventures

Many teachers, both experienced veterans and new teachers alike, have a preconceived notion that outdoor education needs to be a grand adventure. It means going on overnight trips or taking your students into wild areas. As a result, they see outdoor education as something that is huge, daunting, and only for the adventurous. They balk at the thought of having to plan for these epic trips.

However, outdoor education can be as simple as taking your students outside into your schoolyard or a nearby natural space. You don’t need to have an elaborate outdoor classroom or a convenient forest behind your school (I wish!) There are many ways that you can take learning outside ranging from outdoor play and free exploration to month-long inquiry units. Keeping it simple can help you to take your first steps towards outdoor learning.

I’m Not Outdoorsy, so Outdoor Education Isn’t Right For Me

For some teachers, their own outdoor identity is what stands in the way of getting outside with their students. They simply don’t see themselves as being an “outdoorsy person.” For many, an outdoorsy person looks and dresses in a particular way. This mythical outdoorsy person dresses in all the technical gear, spends the weekends hiking up mountains, and enjoys when the temperature drops to minus 40. Usually this “outdoorsy person” is a fit, straight, wealthy, white male (with a beard!) This image of the outdoorsy person has been perpetuated by clothing brands, commercials, and media.

It’s time for us to get rid of this image of the outdoorsy person. The outdoors is for everyone no matter what their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or size. Many outdoor brands are starting to change their marketing to reflect this, but there is still a ways to go. You can do your part by modelling for your students and community that the outdoors is for everyone. Normalizing outdoor learning a regular part of your school day or week can signal to your students that not only is getting outside important, but they can start to see themselves as “outdoorsy” too.

Find Ideas for outdoor learning for non-outdoorsy teachers here!

Outdoor Education is Dangerous

The idea that outdoor education is dangerous seems like a very sound and reasonable rationale for keeping our kids inside. Afterall you can’t control everything going on outside. There are dangerous plants, animals, people, insects, vehicles, you name it outside. In addition, school division policies might make it seem impossible to get outside with your students.

This myth is only partially true. There are hazards that are inherent to outdoor learning simply due to the nature of nature. However, with a bit of planning and preparation, we can mitigate some of the risks associated with these hazards. Many incidents that occur during outdoor learning are due to teachers or students not being properly prepared. Part of taking your students outside is having a sound risk management plan. In this risk management plan you will outline your policies and procedures as well as conduct a site assessment. (Our “Get Outside Tool Kit” is a free resource that has templates for conducting site assessments, developing policies and procedures, and communicating with families.)

This risk management plan will not eliminate the risks involved in outdoor learning. Afterall, we can’t control nature and there are always things that can surprise us out of nowhere (even in the indoor classroom.) However, the risk management plan will allow you to create an outdoor learning space that is as safe as necessary. Your plan will also give you the confidence to deal with any incidents that occur.

Additionally, we don’t want to overly sanitize and childproof our spaces. Children need opportunities to navigate risks and grow an understanding of boundaries and limitations. Having natural opportunities to safely navigate risks allows our students to build their confidence, understand their own limits, and develop an understanding of consequences.

kids painting in a park

Outdoor Education is Just Playing, It’s a Waste of Valuable School Time

I get it. There are so many pressures and expectations of teachers these days. From standardized testing to meeting the individual learning needs of each student in your class, it is easy to see how outdoor education can be seen as an “extra” or “just playing.”

This myth stems from a misunderstanding of what outdoor education is or can be. It also stems from a misunderstanding of what play is. If you see outdoor education as an extended recess, it may seem like a waste of valuable class time. However, with a bit of planning, there are so many ways that we can take learning outside and meet the needs of our curriculum. (Additionally, play is learning. Children learn to navigate the world and process their understanding of the world through play.)

Furthermore, one of the many benefits of spending time outdoors is that students tend to have a greater ability to focus during indoor learning. The social-emotional benefits of outdoor learning come naturally in an outdoor setting, such as working as a team, collaboration, and building communication skills.

I Can’t Cover my Curriculum Outside

One of the many pressures teachers face is meeting all of their curricular outcomes in one year. This is in addition to making modifications for students and conducting assessments. It makes it difficult to even imagine taking things outside. This is especially true if you believe that outdoor learning is an “extra” activity.

However, taking learning outside can not only meet your curriculum needs (sometimes better than indoor learning) but also allow your students to have better focus when they transition back indoors. With a bit of planning, almost anything can become an outdoor lesson or unit. Also, you don’t need to restrict outdoor learning to just science or physical education (although these are great places to start.) Art, language arts, math, and social studies can all be taken outdoors in authentic and meaningful ways.

Taking learning outside allows your students to learn about nature from nature. What better way to learn about plants, animals, and diversity than to observe it firsthand? For social studies, your students can learn about their community while spending time in their community. Math becomes an everyday useful activity, rather than something that you do with just text books and calculators. When we take our learning outside students begin to see their own connection to nature as well as how all of the things that we learn are connected as well. It makes learning tangible and truly authentic.

a group of kids working in a garden

I Won’t Be Able to Manage My Class Outside

A major struggle for teachers no matter what subject or grade level they teach is classroom management. As teachers, we are tasked with managing a diverse group of kids with a diverse set of needs. Navigating these needs and personalities is a challenge for sure. Many teachers believe that if they can’t manage their class indoors, how are they supposed to manage their class outside?

However, outdoor classroom management, like indoor classroom management comes down to planning, preparation, and getting to know your students. Setting expectations ahead of time with your students as well as establishing boundaries can go a long way in setting the scene for a well-managed outdoor learning time. Additionally knowing your students and starting small (small boundaries and easily managed tasks) can be beneficial in working towards building more freedom and extending more responsibility to your students.

One of the many benefits of being outdoors is that time outside helps many students with their emotional regulation and has a calming effect on our students. Additionally, having space to move around can help students work out extra energy that can create difficulties with indoor learning. Additionally, outdoor learning can help meet the needs of students who are neurotypically diverse and struggle with standard classroom settings and activities.

We Don’t Have an Outdoor Space at Our School

Hesitance towards outdoor learning may simply be the result of not having a sufficient outdoor learning space. Again this comes from a preconceived notion of what an outdoor learning space should be. We would all love to have a small forest in our schoolyard that we can take our students out to explore. However, this forest is a reality for only a few lucky schools.

Navigating this myth might take a bit of creativity. If you don’t have an outdoor space at your school, you can start to create one. It doesn’t need to be a fancy outdoor classroom, it could simply be a quiet place with some shade that you take your students. You could even create a “portable outdoor classroom” using a wagon to haul your supplies to different spaces in your schoolyard. If you have the desire and approval from your school, you may wish to create a more permanent outdoor classroom. There are many grants available for these types of projects and often community businesses love to help out.

If your schoolyard is unsuitable for outdoor learning, why not look for pockets of nearby nature? Is there a park near your school that your students can visit? If you are in a rural area there might be a land owner that would be willing to let your students visit. You might need to do some exploring of your school community on your own before you settle on a good learning space. However, this is a great way to start building connections with your school community and stretching yourself as a teacher. (No matter where you choose to take your students, be sure to do a site assessment first!)

a class writing in notebooks outside

Now It’s Time to Bust These Outdoor Learning Myths and Get Outside and Thrive…

Now that we have explored some of the myths (or excuses) for why many teachers don’t take learning outside, it’s time to turn them upside and start getting outside. So many of these myths stem from preconceived notions of what outdoor learning is or should be. Outdoor learning is what you make it to be and can be as unique and individual as you are. Look at your own outdoor experiences and think about what your strengths are and what you enjoy doing. Use this as a starting place to get your students outside.

Outdoor learning doesn’t need to be a challenge. It can be a fun, rewarding, and meaningful way for our students to learn. My students love outdoor education time. Through outdoor education, my students have built a better understanding of our community, the nature that exists in our schoolyard, and have built their resilience and self-confidence through working outside. There are so many benefits to outdoor learning, it’s time to bust these myths and get outside and thrive!

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