Tips for Using Volunteers in the Outdoor Classroom

It’s never too earIMG_3204ly to start thinking about how to use parent volunteers in your outdoor learning program. Site enhancements like flower beds, gardens, paths and bird feeders need more time and attention than you or the school maintenance staff can provide.

Recently a parent pointed out to me that schoolyard volunteering provides unique options for the “not so typical” parent volunteer. She is perfectly happy to spend a few hours weeding flower beds, but is not interested at all in attending traditional parent/teacher association meetings. There are certainly many parents who are eager to be involved beyond just providing cupcakes for a class party or attending monthly evening meetings. And to be very blunt, it is simply impossible to implement and sustain a multi-faceted and multi- classroom outdoor learning program without the help of parents and other community volunteers.

Here are a few quick tips for making effective use of parent volunteers:DSC06094

  1. Show connections — First, parents need to understand why you are emphasizing outdoor instruction. Have parents take part in a sample outdoor activity as part of a parent group meeting. As the activity is debriefed, parents quickly see the value of outdoor learning and its connection to academic content.
  1. Survey parents—Put together a quick survey to find out interests, hobbies, or special training that parents may have to contribute to the development of learning enhancements on the school site. Be sure to query about technical and construction skills as well as nature- related interests.
  1. Develop a predictable schedule—it helps to keep workdays on somewhat of a schedule– for example, the third Saturday of every month, or the first Monday from 3:00-5:00. It helps to use several different days and times since some very willing volunteers may not be available on Saturday mornings, but would be delighted to help on a weekday afternoon.
  1. Provide options—Nobody wants to weed ALL the time. Provide lists of tasks to be accomplished and let volunteers select tasks they would enjoy. If volunteers notice that one task is being overlooked, someone will step forward.
  1. Plan to replace— An inevitable reality of school volunteerism is that your star volunteer will leave. An outdoor program should not be defined by one teacher, nor should the parent volunteer effort be driven by the herculean efforts of one or two parents. Develop a leadership pool by providing lots of ways for many parents to lead and coordinate activities and projects.