Toolshed Tips: Bringing Your Classroom Outdoors

This challenging return to the school year brings inevitable worries for everyone involved–students, parents, teachers, administrators. In the world of outdoor education and garden learning we see an incredible opportunity to bring learning outside not only to address social distancing, but also give students the rich experience of learning from the outdoor world. However, to make this a reality we must first address the very real worries that come with this proposal to move the classroom outdoors.

Educators all over the country are working together to identify successful practices for this unusual time as well as determine what answers and tools are needed to take advantage of outdoor learning. Whether you’re a long-time outdoor educator or pulling out the trowel and hand lens for the first time, here are some tips for addressing common worries–for sharing with others or using yourself this school year.

Common Concerns:

  • Mind-set issue: Kids play outside, but can they also learn effectively in an outdoor setting?
  • Distractions: The outdoors has more distractions to navigate. How do I keep students focused?
  • Weather: In a climate with every kind of weather, how do we handle the changing seasons and the unpredictability of teaching outside?
  • Time & Distance: It takes time to get all of the students to the outdoor learning space. How do we fit outdoors time into the day without consuming precious teaching time?
  • Class size per educator: How do we address the need for smaller class sizes in outdoor learning scenarios specifically in the time when social distancing is required, while also dealing with under-staffing?

Mind-set issue

  • Set expectations early
    • Discuss outdoor learning expectations and agreements with your fellow educators and students. These should be distinct from recess time and from indoor learning. For additional classroom management tips, check out this document from Life Lab.
    • Clearly differentiate between recess and classroom time.
      • Set a routine–ex. consistent time of day, day of the week, activity or process for heading outside.
      • Carry learning equipment–ex. students carry out clip boards and measuring sticks; as opposed to soccer balls and jump ropes.
    • Create a consistent “base camp” for each pod. Assign classrooms consistent space. 
    • Orient to the space in your first session outdoors.
  • Engage in experiential learning
    • Many teachers these days are familiar with the concept of experiential learning; however not all are practiced at it. Provide tips, lessons, and tools to help facilitate this change in practice. Visit VCGN’s Learning in the Garden page for garden curriculum guides.
    • Design spaces that incorporate learning throughout – ex. signs, shapes, plantings, etc. Use these outdoor classroom infrastructure assessment and design tools from Green Schoolyards America to get started. For more check out the Outdoor Classroom User’s Guide from Boston Schoolyard Initiative.
    • Utilize existing outdoor spaces and elements. For your students to benefit from outdoor learning you don’t need to create something new and costly. Use what you already have on site or on hand to learn outside–weather it’s your school garden or stumps and a shady area under trees.
  • Communicate with parents/guardians to prepare them for outdoor learning time with a letter at the beginning of the year and the day before each outing.
  • Establish protocols for addressing COVID-19 concerns
    • Understand viral transmission – Green School Yards has an excellent webinar–Demythologizing COVID-19–featuring experts in the field to help us understand how the virus works and how best to prevent transmission in a school setting.
    • Sanitation – VCGN has developed COVID-19 Guidelines for Safe Community Gardening, as well a list of helpful resources like this video from Big Green that demonstrates proper sanitation when visiting a school garden.
    • Social distancing – Determine the number of students that fit in your space, set up your seating configuration ahead (templates from Green School Yards), and use easily moveable seating.
    • Visitors – Determine visitor capacity, by appointment only, including visitor sign-in and symptom check (using a thermometer and/or a signed agreement). For examples of how this might work in practice, view this archived video conversation, Garden Care and Management During Covid-19 Virtual Gathering, from School Garden Support Organization Network.
  • Practice. Adjust. Adapt. We’re all learning and trying new things in this unusual time. Be patient with yourself and your students. To see what a split outdoor/indoor school day could look like, here’s a sample schedule.


  • Delineate space
    • Outdoor infrastructure – Two excellent resources on this subject are Green Schoolyards America and Boston Schoolyard Initiative. Also here’s a guide for conducting an outdoor classroom inventory from Teens for Trails.
    • Create natural borders between play and learning spaces, such as perennial plantings.
    • Seating – Use what you have – ex. stumps, folding chairs.
    • Even if there is no infrastructure, start your students inside with a prompt, go out to collect data or engage in directed activity, and come back inside to process information/learning.
    • If your school or school district would like design assistance with your outdoor learning plans to help students return to school safely, a rapidly growing group of landscape architecture and design students, faculty, and professionals called COVID-19 Emergency Schoolyard Design Volunteers are offering their services to schools for free. Fill out this form to request assistance.
  • Direct attention
    • When all eyes are needed on the teacher for a longer period of time, have students face the teacher with a solid background and away from the sun.
    • Use a white board to simulate classroom learning. Here’s a how-to on building your own easel.


  • Create shelter – ex. tarps, plantings, tents. Some groups are using CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds to rent tents.
  • Be prepared with the right gear. Recognize that not everyone has the gear needed to be outside for long periods of time, especially in our Vermont climate. Put on an outdoor gear drive (rain coats, winter coats, boots, etc.) and avoid publicly singling out those who need it by using discretion in your request and delivery process.
  • Determine your school’s/classroom’s criteria for going outside – For example: don’t go outside if above or below a certain temperature; still go outside for rain, but not for thunderstorms; snow but not sleet, etc.

Time & Distance

  • Outdoor supplies – A few ideas to avoid having to haul supplies each time you go outside: consider having an outdoor learning cart for each classroom or grade level; have students carry individual outdoor learning tote bags with needed supplies; set up work or learning stations next to each garden bed.
  • Outdoor facilities – Putting in an outdoor hand washing station is highly recommended for following sanitation protocol, but also can save you time. If appropriate on your school grounds you may also want to consider installing temporary outdoor toilets.
  • Movement learning – Utilize your in between time, getting out to the garden or outdoor classroom, with a ‘walk and talk’ learning prompt, a silent walking observation activity, or in these unusual times consider allowing for that much needed social time.

Class size per educator

  • Partner with outdoor educators – If classroom teachers are at capacity, unable to split their class or uncomfortable with outdoor learning, consider utilizing outdoor educators who are experts at teaching outside. Consider partnering with appropriate community organizations or individual educators at a district level. This article, from the Lawrence Hall of Science, does an excellent job of making the case for these partnerships.
  • Parent volunteers – Parents, particularly those who are already ‘podded’ with a group of students, could play a role in helping to manage class outside. They should be fully aware of and follow your protocols and sign an agreement and waiver to ensure safety and liability.

Continue to learn and discuss…

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