From nature-based scavenger hunts to lessons on leadership and trust, explore five outdoor activities that can be incorporated into any lesson plan.
Whether your class always takes place outdoors or your group is stepping into the outdoor education world for the first time, there are hundreds of lesson plans to help students connect and learn through the natural world. From fine motor skills and creativity to group dynamics and leadership, a variety of lessons can be taught through simple outdoor activities that include objects like rocks, dirt, streams and twigs.
Below are five easy-to-no-prep nature-based learning activities to get students moving, exploring and working together that can take place almost anywhere!
Main Idea: Students begin by sitting quietly outside, whether in a circle or with some distance between one another, with a pen and notebook. Have them first record five things they see. Then note four things they hear. Add three things they feel, two things they’ve learned and one thing they know. These open-ended prompts allow your students to keep their answers as simple or as deep as they would like.
This exercise is one of my favorite observation and reflection activities to use on Outward Bound expeditions, as it can be modified to fit any age group and timeframe. I like to use it as an individual journal prompt, but you could talk through it in a group if writing isn’t an option. If done over a long period of time, one can build up a collection of things students have learned or know. Choose to do it in the same place throughout the year, and see how your students register the changing seasons in their observations. With adults, it can be that needed cue to focus on their present surroundings and share with themselves or the group reflections on their personal growth.
Make a Nature Scavenger Hunt
Main Idea: A scavenger hunt gives students a chance to run around and to explore – two of the greatest assets of being outside. You can focus on fun or work in a particular content area like ecology or math (“Bring me a sugar maple leaf;” “Find a flower with a prime number of petals.”).
If you’re familiar with the area you and your students are in, prepare a scavenger hunt that clues them in on seasonal changes like the arrival of the first insects or spring wildflowers. If you find yourself outside with no time to prepare, outsource the work! Split your group into two teams, and have them make scavenger hunts for the other team. This activity can be as individual- or team-focused as is useful for your group.
Hug a Tree
Main Idea: Have one member of each pair blindfolded or close their eyes. Their partner guides them to a tree, maybe after some gently-disorienting spinning and wandering, and has them feel the tree trunk with their hands, gathering as much information as they can without looking at the tree. Their partner returns them to the starting location and removes the blindfold. The student then tries to locate their tree based on what they remember of its characteristics.
If you have access to an open wooded area, this can be a fun game for pairs. As a lesson in observation and the five senses, this game also teaches trust and integrity. You can learn about different kinds of trees and how to identify them based on their bark, or you can talk about animals that use senses other than sight to find their way in the world. This one works well in any season and can take place in a park or semi-urban setting where other outdoor activities might not work as well.
Main Idea: Have each student find a natural object and bring it back to the group. Draw a line in the dirt or use a stick or other object to create a spectrum. Then ask students to place their object toward an “agree” end or “disagree” end of the spectrum in response to leader-led questions.
Use this activity to debrief a day, with statements like “Today’s hike was challenging” or “I needed help getting through the day.” It can also be used as a get-to-know-you exercise by using a spectrum like introvert-extrovert; I prefer to talk about conflict versus I’d rather go along with the group; I like being indoors versus I like being outdoors; and whatever other questions may guide your group towards a productive conversation. If your students are old enough to understand metaphor, you can give them more time to find an object that somehow represents them and have them share with the group why they chose their particular object.
Main Idea: This can be as silly or artful as your team desires and take up as much time as you would like. Challenge your group to use natural materials to build a group mascot. You may need to provide some boundaries, like how far they can go searching for materials or not killing any living trees or stripping bark.
This lesson can be an exercise in teamwork, with a debrief where you share your observations of whose voice was heard and whose was pushed aside, or let the group self-reflect on who took on a leadership role and who stepped back. Take a picture of your team with their mascot, or challenge them to build a miniature version that can be transported when the group leaves the location. Have them give it a funny name and make it part of the group culture.
Now that you’ve read through these outdoor lesson plan ideas, I bet your wheels are turning with other ways you can integrate your students’ or child’s specific needs and interests while discovering the outdoor places near you. The options are truly endless. Once you start teaching outside, you’ll be reluctant to go back indoors.
About the Author
Renee Igo was an Outward Bound student at age 15 and has been instructing wilderness expeditions for the Voyageur Outward Bound School for the past eight years. When not instructing, she holds a variety of other teaching positions and raises sheep in Maine.
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