Without a doubt there is a growing trend for schools to incorporate the outdoors into instruction. I coined the term schoolyard-enhanced learning to emphasize the idea of using the area surrounding the school as an outdoor classroom. Field trips are great– but many schools are cutting back on these because of expense. By stepping outside onto the school grounds, however, it is possible to provide seamlessly a variety of outdoor experiences.
Schools use the outdoors as a teaching tool in two main ways. The outdoors can be used as a venue or as a source of content. Children of all ages (and their teachers) benefit from a change of pace and place (venue). For example, one fifth grade classroom was studying bar graphs. After looking at examples in textbooks, the class went outdoors and formed a human bar graph representing the birth months of everyone in the class. They weren’t studying the outdoors, but were using the outdoors as a venue. Occasionally going outdoors to read a story or have a discussion is again an example of suing the outdoors as a venue for a change of pace and place. The use of the outdoors as a content source is more traditional. For example, children may study about parallel lines indoors and then go outside to find examples of parallel lines in nature.
In my book Moving the Classroom Outdoors I provide examples of dozens of schools across the US that are incorporating outdoor learning into their instructional programs. Especially over the last 15 years I have seen a definite trend toward incorporating the outdoors into the instructional mix. Outdoor teaching and learning may be as complex as building nature trail on the school grounds, or as simple as taking the class outside on a warm spring day to practice spelling words with chalk on the sidewalk. The current “green is good” mindset has also made outdoor instruction a very acceptable teaching option.
I do need to add, however, that the heavy emphasis upon achievement testing in nearly all states has created an obstacle in some cases. Unfortunately, there still is a lingering notion that “real” teaching has to take place within the four walls of a classroom with children usually seated while completing worksheets. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research that is substantiating that good indoor instruction coupled with good outdoor instruction actually leads to improved achievement and attentiveness to learning.