Continuing the Learning outside the Classroom

A mom explores pond water with her son at Cottage Grove Ravine Park

A few years ago, two of my naturalist friends were invited up north to teach a series of lessons for students at a small town school. Looking for a versatile subject that would appeal to children in kindergarten through eighth grade, the naturalists chose to focus on a nearby river, which runs right through the school property. Over the course of a week, my friends worked with each of the classes from the school and taught them to evaluate the health of the river by wading in, collecting and analyzing aquatic insects and invertebrates from the water, and getting their hands dirty and wet. One might expect that this kind of learning experience was commonplace for kids growing up in the northwoods, but in reality most of the students at that school had never even touched the river that ran right through their own backyard.

In my perfect world, classroom lessons would almost always be paired with hands-on activities and authentic experiences outside of the school. In the real world, though this is sometimes the case, there are also plenty of times when funding, time, class size, testing requirements, and myriad other limitations make these kinds of learning experiences impractical during the school day. We can help our children (and grandchildren, and nieces and nephews, and kids of our friends) to continue their learning outside the classroom by giving them opportunities to apply knowledge and practice newfound skills through real life experiences that are fun and don’t seem like work. If your daughter is learning Spanish, for example, you could take her to a taqueria to practice ordering food, or you could ask the son that is practicing his arithmetic to keep a running tally of your grocery bill while you are shopping.

Some of the best opportunities for learning are right outside in your own neighborhood or even your backyard. Nature offers an ideal platform for learning about art, science, literature, history or math and the lessons can start early, even before children are in school. Count the number of blackbirds sitting on cattails in the marsh across the street, or bring paintbrushes down to the edge of a stream and paint with water onto dry rocks. With elementary school aged children, visit a nearby lake every few days and keep a journal at home in which you record phenology – the changes in plants, animals and weather you see while you are there. To add a mathematical component, bring a thermometer with you and measure the water temperature on each of your visits. Create a line graph to show how the temperature changes over the course of the fall or record the temperature of the water when ice first forms on the lake and make simple calculations such as the difference in temperature between the warmest and coldest days.

With older children, a local pond can help you to delve into the scientific method, biology and chemistry. Collecting aquatic invertebrates such as insect larva, snails and worms is a fun way to learn how to use a dichotomous key and can also offer clues as to the biological health of the water body you are visiting. While you can certainly use nets and other specialty equipment, my favorite method for catching and inspecting aquatic invertebrates is to dip an empty plastic yogurt or cottage cheese container into the water near the shore, get a good amount of leaf litter, aquatic plants and muck in the container, and then use a white plastic spoon to fish critters out of the water and look at them up close. Search on-line for the Guide to Aquatic Macroinvertebrates of the Upper Midwest (available by chapter in pdf) to help you identify the creatures you find. If the children you are exploring with are interested in learning more about their local lake, river or stream, you can even order a water quality testing kit on-line to measure parameters such as pH, dissolved oxygen and nutrients.

The start of the school year can be overwhelming both for students and for parents. Time spent outdoors, both in unstructured play time and in nature study, can help children to unwind from a stressful school day, get the fresh air and exercise they need, and apply knowledge learned in the classroom. Nature is a wonderful teacher and we can help our children to access these lessons right in their own backyards.


David Sobel in Minnesota – Sept. 17 and 18

Just today I learned about a trio of free presentations/classes to be led by David Sobel, addressing the concepts of place-based education, design principles inside and outside the classroom, and outdoor natural play areas. The presentations are sponsored by Minnesota Association of Environmental Education. Learn more at