A fifth grader meticulously organizes the loose parts – sticks, acorns, and a small pile of rocks. She leans over and chats quickly with her classmate, eyes bright with ideas and hands moving animatedly to portray her thinking. Students all around the field sort, count, then re-check their work. They are building their own representation of place value using natural materials and collaborative teamwork. This is just another day of math class.
Teaching outdoors can be challenging. There are multiple barriers that can prevent teachers from incorporating the natural world into their day-to-day lessons. Yet teaching outdoors allows students to make meaning from the environment and develop important connections via hands-on explorations.
As an outdoor educator, I am constantly amazed at how many ah-ha moments my students experience as they learn outside. The opening vignette illustrates a simple math lesson that I developed which emphasized place value concepts using natural items instead of the traditional digits. The task was semi-structured and rather simple, yet I was impressed at how creative the students were in developing their own way to represent numbers. What truly amazed me, however, were all the other learning moments that happened during our short math block outside.
“Look at this tiny caterpillar. Let’s try and count it’s legs.”
“How come this stick is hollow and the other ones aren’t?”
“This feather is softer than the others. I bet it’s from a baby bird.”
I smiled as I listened to the conversations my students were having. I floated from group to group and listened to math talk mingle with nature talk. Not only were my fifth graders having rich discussions about the meaning of place value, but they were also noticing and wondering about the world around them.
As an educator, I recognize how challenging it can be to find or create resources that authentically connect a curricular concept to the outdoor environment. It has taken years of experience and hours spent scouring the internet for me to build up a repertoire of lesson plans. I am excited to be part of NoVA Outside’s upcoming workshops which are designed to help facilitate resource development and pedagogical strategies connected to outdoor learning. At NoVA Outside, we value outdoor education and well-designed lessons that allow teachers and students to engage with the natural world. It is our hope that participants will come away from each workshop with new, creative ready-made materials that can be implemented within or outside of the classroom.
The sticks and acorns are gathered quickly, counted once more, and then gently placed at the base of the tree. One student looks at the incoming clouds while another chases a nearby moth. We gather once more together as a group and start heading inside. This was just another day of math class.
Stephanie Dean is an educator and director of outdoor education at a private school in Vienna. She is also pursuing her PhD in science education research with a focus on curriculum and instruction in outdoor and environmental education.