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Taking Education Outdoors: Instructional Programming

Students learning outdoors wearing masks

Teaching and Learning 

Teaching in the outdoors doesn't mean you have to teach about the outdoors. However, there are opportunities to teach about the environment in every subject area. Take a look at the Wisconsin Standards for Environmental Literacy & Sustainability for some ideas. Schools across Wisconsin integrate environmental education across all subject areas from pre-K to high school.

School Story: Indian Community School in Franklin takes a seasonal and cultural approach to their curriculum. Check out all the community stories

Professional Learning

Whether you are an experienced classroom educator new to teaching outdoors or an experienced outdoor educator, there is always more to learn! The list of opportunities below is NOT an exhaustive list for teaching outdoors but highlights resources developed specifically for this time. Stay up to date on events with the environmental education professional development calendar.  Submit your PD opportunities for inclusion on the DPI calendar.

  • Connect, Explore, Engage Online Community
    Join this community to connect with other educators who are taking learning outdoors. Ask questions, get ideas, and find resources.

  • Empowering Educators in Marginalized Communities to Connect, Explore and Engage in their Greenspaces: A Summit for Pre-Service and In-service teachers in Marginalized Schools
    This outline created by Dr. Corey L. Thompson is heavy with resources related to environmental education curriculum and green space experiences. As Thompson connected with multiple experts in the field, this guides pre-service and in-service teachers to the multiplicity of resources available to them to help introduce students from marginalized populations to environmental education and the great outdoors within their communities. Included are resources related to the LEAF, KEEP, UW and WICCI covering clean energy, school forests, restoration, conservation issues and a variety of other environmental related topics. One section also includes resources pertaining to Native Nations. View resource

Taking Learning Outdoors

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Learning Outside: A Logistics Checklist for Before, During, & After Learning Outside with Your Students
Starting classroom learning outside can be difficult but this checklist created by Dr. Kendra Liddicoat, Dr. Amy Lindgren, Karla Lockman, Dr. Heidi Masters, and Dr. Jean Weaver covers may resources for educators to get started. Within this checklist, it covers the before, during and after stages of teaching outside. Included in each section are hyperlinks that can give more resources to guide educators in their preparation. View resource

Teaching Science Outside
This resource outline created by Elizabeth Crotty takes into consideration on how educators can take their classes outdoors. It reviews what is needed to be considered before taking classes outdoors and what communication is needed beforehand as well. This outline covers a planning phase including a preparation checklist. View resource

“Adventure” Field Trips Planning Template
One activity that can be used in the classroom are adventure field trips. This template created by Dr. Kevin Zak utilizes David Sobel’s design principles for educators. Example tasks through the adventure field trips are included as well as specific curriculum standards in which this activity covers. View resource

Instructional Resources for Teaching Outdoors

State of Wisconsin outline

Nature Journaling as a Connection Practice
One activity that can be used in the classroom are nature journals. This outline created by Dr. Patty Born can be utilized as a resource for teacher educators with step-by-step instructions. This activity chronicles time outdoors with a focus on physical health, emotional health, and community health/equity. View resource

Forest Bathing Guide: For Educators
One activity that can be used in the classroom is the facilitation of forest bathing. This guide created by Jan Wellik, EdD, provides highlights of activities from M. Amos Clifford’s book – Your Guide to Forest Bathing. Through this guide, educators will be able to understand what forest bathing does and how it has health and social-emotional benefits. There is a group activity focus that creates an overall embodied awareness and other experiences for students. Other forest bathing resources such as books and videos are also mentioned. View resource

Model for Teaching Science Curriculum
Project Learning Tree’s “Explore Your Environment” can be utilized as a model to pre-service science curriculum instruction. The outline created by Dr. Kathleen Kremer explores NGSS concepts in the classroom and references PLT curriculum features. Included in this outline are other resources related to Place-Based Learning, Connectivity, Inquiry-Based Learning, Questioning, and Nature of Science (NOS). View resource

Redefining Curriculum—Mapmaking
One activity that can be utilized in the classroom is map-making. This outline created by Dr. Randa Suleiman is adapted from David Sobel “mapmaking with children” and highlights objectives goals, materials, additional resources, and a specific project outline relating to a creation of a Rebus Treasure Hunt. This activity is thoroughly integrated with socio-emotional learning (SEL) while prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). View resource

Outdoor and Online Learning During COVID-19

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Educators, schools, and other organizations are creating resources to support learning outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The resources below are NOT an exhaustive list for teaching outdoors but instead highlight resources developed specifically for this time. If you are looking for additional resources, please visit WISELearn,, or email Victoria Rydberg. If you have a resource that you'd like to share, use this form to submit a resource from your organization.

  • Madison Audubon developed this blog series for support:

  • The School District of Waukesha created this presentation to help guide teaching in the outdoors during COVID-19.
  • Taking Education Outside the School Walls webinar archive and resources from Riveredge Nature Center
  • EEK! Environmental Education for Kids website has a Connect, Explore, Engage blog series for students to explore outdoors.
  • Stevens Point Area School District's Boston School forest has created a Backyard Habitat Series for families to learn about their own backyard and to take steps to improve their backyard for critters in the neighborhood. Teachers can use these activities with e-learners to improve place-based learning for students learning from home. Activities include sensory learning, sit spot, mapping, surveying, creating, and reflecting on an outdoor space.
  • Beth Mittermaier, EarthUnlimited, offers BookTreks nature exploration guides that are designed for parents, teachers, and other educators. Each guide focuses on a different topic (e.g., patterns in nature, rocks, or trees). Starting with books, the guides encourage outdoor exploration through cross-curricular activities. The guides will eventually be part of an exploration kit that will contain items needed to do the activities. They are being offered now to educators as free downloads during this time of uncertainty.
  • The Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education provides guidance for their energy and forestry programs to adapt to physical-distancing and for virtual learning.

School Libraries

The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative offers this for school libraries (used with permission): 

Library programs serve their entire school community, and manage resources that need to be shared by everyone at the school. How can school libraries keep their services available during the COVID-19 pandemic, with physical distancing measures in place to protect school librarians and their students? Many library functions can be moved outdoors. Here are a few initial ideas:

  • Book check out: Set up a no-touch book check out system, where students reserve their chosen library books online (or via email). The school librarian may then be able to assemble the chosen books on a cart that is specific to each class, and bring the cart outside for students to use during their session.

  • Reading areas: Instead of meeting indoors in the existing library, schools can set up outdoor spaces for students to gather to read their books and meet with the librarian in the fresh air. Classes might meet at picnic tables under shade umbrellas, or under the shade of existing trees, sitting on simple, portable seat cushions, benches, or chairs.

The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative is gathering a group of school librarians to work on additional ideas for taking library programs outside. If you would like to join the conversation with fellow librarians, send them an email.

Special Education

Taking learning outdoors needs to be accessible to all students. We are currently developing resources to help schools address this need.

Meanwhile, find ideas for accessibility in "Exploring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts of Wisconsin Environmental Education Centers" from University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point or check out the resources available (including loans of outdoor wheelchairs with a trailer) from Access Ability Wisconsin

Nature Centers as Partners in Education

Wisconsin's nature centers and local naturalists are poised to support outdoor learning at school sites with adults who know how to teach and know how to manage kids outdoors. They also can support virtual learning with resources and by providing families safe spaces for their children to learn.

  1. Nature centers are often equipped with Internet access and classroom space. Schools could partner with these centers to provide community learning hubs for cohorts of students who need this access on days when they are not in the school.
  2. Nature centers often have access to large outdoor spaces. These spaces could be used to support physical distancing or nature study.
  3. Educators at these centers and other state organizations, such as FIELD Edventures or Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education have a depth of experience for teaching outdoors and could serve as facilitators of learning on the school grounds or serve as coaches and supports to classroom educators.
  4. Environmental educators want to teach about the environment and are ready to support classroom educators and families in many different ways—from providing virutal field trips to creating outdoor lessons to providing "independent learning day" options.

Find a nature center near you

For questions about this information, contact Victoria Rydberg-Nania (608) 266-0419