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Outdoor Classrooms for the '90s Student

By Becky Goodwin

Modified by Becky Goodwin from the Outdoor Wildlife Learning Sites (OWLS) Guidelines For Kansas Schools, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Type of Activity:

  • Hands-on activity
  • Inquiry lab
  • Group/cooperative learning
  • Community outreach/off-site activity
  • Review/reinforcement

Target Audience:

  • Life Science
  • Biology
  • Advance/AP Biology
  • Environmental Studies
  • Genetics, Biotechnology
  • Special Education
  • Other Special needs: deaf

Notes to Teacher:

There are so many ways to motivate students to appreciate nature, but I have found nothing that works as well as setting up an outdoor classroom.

The biggest problems are with public relations (convincing the administration of the educational value of this type of area) and getting funding to get started. Of course, there must be a teacher willing to go outside and work alongside the students. This person MUST be flexible and in good enough physical shape to keep up with teenagers outside. A final requirement is the ability to listen to student ideas and help them understand what is possible within the restrictions of each school campus.

Required of students:

Students will need to sign a contract stating that they will follow the rules of the outdoor classroom. (Usually on the first day of class, we decide together what rules to set). Students need to be prepared to change shoes, put on a jacket, bring a water bottle, etc. as appropriate. Again, this is explained on the first class session day. Students need to keep an open mind and respect the ideas of each other, as mini-projects are planned, designed, and carried-out.

Preparation time needed

Although the teacher should research the restrictions, expense, support from local wildlife agencies and other outdoor educators, staff support, and any legal issues involved, these projects work best when students have input from the earliest stages of planning and implementing.

Class time needed

This is an ongoing project, with open-ended activities and multiple offshoot projects, where a two-hour block of class time would be best, over a period of time, throughout the school year.

In my situation, this project has been going on since 1990, with every high school science class involved and every middle school and elementary class participating in the mini-projects, lead by the high school students. Although we only have 50 minute classes, we do our best not to be late for other classes and to get as much done as possible in the time period we have.

During the different seasons, time varies according to what mini- projects we have going on at the time.


The Environmental Education Lab (EEL), at the Kansas State School for the Deaf, is the third official OWLS (Outdoor Wildlife Learning Sites) project sponsored by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. There are currently over 60 OWLS projects located at schools in the state.

Outdoor classrooms have been around for decades, but they are finding renewed support as an educational tool to help students appreciate the biodiversity and interdependence of ecosystems.

Through technology such as videodiscs, CD ROMs, environment-testing kits, and weather monitoring equipment, students can balance classroom knowledge with hands-on experiences, individually challenging each student, no matter what background, with open-ended, cooperative-learning, and guided-discovery activities.


What question does this activity help students to answer?

    As students work in the outdoor classroom they understand:

  1. The need for saving a place for the urban wildlife,

  2. How plants and animals interact in an ecosystem,

  3. What nature does without the intervention of humans,

  4. What happens when humans change one factor or more in the environment,

  5. How to work cooperatively with others,

  6. How to plan and carry out the solution to a problem


Materials needed:

  • an area designated for wildlife study, preferably with a fence

  • flower seeds, bulbs, trees, shrubs, native grasses

  • educational materials: books, videodiscs, CD ROMs, videotapes, posters, etc.

  • funding for nets, environmental testing kits, supplies, etc.

Some of the following are good materials/sources:

  1. National Wildlife Federation

  2. National Gardening Association Guide to KidsÍ Gardening

  3. Videodiscovery's Life Lab Science videodiscs and curriculum

  4. Kansas State Departments of Wildlife and Parks:
    Outdoor Wildlife Learning Sites (OWLS) Guidelines For Kansas Schools


Setting up an outdoor classroom, where students can learn appreciation for nature on an ongoing basis, can be done on a small spot with a bird feeder and a bird bath. Every aspect of outdoor education can be adapted to the city, urban, suburban, and country school setting. A few flowers can attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The key to a successful outdoor classroom is student involvement, administrative support, and community acceptance of the goals of the outdoor classroom.

Students in my biology classes developed a brochure, as a cooperative, project with the language arts classes. We use this brochure,to help,explain our outdoor classroom to the public, to visitors, administrators, board of education members, and anyone who is interested. Students, learn to appreciate the beauty of nature by helping to, establish a refuge for urban wildlife.

Each school year students help decide which areas of interest they want to improve, while working in the outdoor classroom. This improves self-esteem of the students and gives them additional motivation to come to school. Students are proud of their work in the outdoor classroom and are eager to participate in areas of study, sharing their experiences with the younger students on a regular basis. By keeping a journal of activities, experiences, and ideas, students are held accountable for their time spent in the outdoor education lab.

It is sometimes difficult for some students to handle the freedom of open-ended activities, but teaming those students with more responsible members of the class has helped set a role model for improved behavior. Having a fenced-in outdoor lab is essential in order to protect the area from accidental mowing, trimming, or spraying. These topics in themselves contribute to class discussions and plans need to be made to make students aware of politics and procedures for change, where appropriate.

Environmental issues are a natural part of an outdoor classroom. Topics such as weed-killers, rodent control, predator depletion, and habitat loss can be studied, discussed, and researched through the lessons associated with an outdoor classroom.

The following are some features of the Environmental Education Lab, which we recommend any outdoor classroom try to have to some degree.

Natural plants, to provide food and shelter for local urban wildlife are readily available in most cities. Although we use some bird feeders, we prefer to provide natural food for the birds, rabbits, and squirrels, that make our outdoor classroom their home.

Brush piles are homes for rabbits, mice, birds, and other natural visitors. Water should be available in some form for birds and other wildlife, if possible.

A learning center of some kind is helpful to provide students with materials such as books, magazines, models, and other attention-grabbing displays, so they will want to investigate more about their environment. We are lucky enough to have a building for this purpose in the middle of our outdoor classroom. It also serves as a shelter from cold, rain, wind, and too much sun (here in Kansas).

A map describing the features of any outdoor classroom is helpful to visitors. Students refer to ours regularly.

A three-dimensional model has been helpful in explaining this project to anyone who cannot physically visit the outdoor classroom.

Although our original design has changed somewhat as the lab progresses, it is interesting to see how we began. Pictures, drawings, and newspaper stories about our outdoor classroom were buried in a time capsule, when the outdoor classroom began. It has not been decided when the school will open this.

Other features we have included in our outdoor classroom are: a greenhouse, bat houses, natural succession areas, gazebo with a chalkboard (for outdoor lessons, not limited to science), a demonstration garden (from which food is donated to local homeless shelters), butterfly and hummingbird gardens, nature trail with wheelchair accessibility, pond observation area, sunflower garden, wildflower gardens, climbing roses on an entry arbor, composting area, worm farming area, rotting logs for observation, rain gauges and thermometers throughout.

Our outdoor classroom is approximately one acre, with an eight foot chain link fence around it, and trail signs explaining various features. When we began, it was just a trail made from cedar chips. As money from various grants became available, my students and I have never been sorry for all the hard work.

Students are encouraged to develop individual research projects based on some component of environmental issues. They use videodiscs, videotapes, internet communications, books, magazines, guest speakers, field trips, and other means of gathering more information.

Method of Assessment/Evaluation

Student logbooks and photojournals can be useful in recording change, progress, documentation of student work, and ideas for future projects.

A videotape (under 10 minutes) to share with administrators, visitors, parents, and possible funding agencies show the learning that is taking place.

Individual student projects will depend on the situation, student level, population, and amount of space available for the projects.

Extension/Reinforcement/Additional Ideas

Some of the extensions of our outdoor classroom have been:

  • a gardening project for the homeless shelters in town
  • a rescue service for unwanted domestic birds in town
  • cooperative projects with local elementary and high school classes

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