7 outdoor classroom ideas for hands-on learning

It’s always a great time to head outside for learning. As long as you plan ahead and dress for the weather, there are plenty of outdoor classroom ideas to explore with your students. It’s easier to maintain social-distance requirements, too.

Hands-on learning is incredibly powerful when it comes to teaching students concepts and overall retention. Research shows it’s especially effective when it comes to science concepts. Here are some creative outdoor classroom ideas, along with suggested lessons to keep learning going even outside the traditional school walls.

1. Learn about the power of solar energy. 

Soak up all the sun you can this fall by heading outside to teach students about solar energy. There are so many great solar lessons to explore, especially when students can see it happening right before their eyes …

Download the free Solar Energy lesson plan now

The free Solar Energy lesson plan includes several activities that cover STEAM learning opportunities, including instructions on how to have solar boat races. And, the Social Impacts of Solar Cooking lesson plan shows students how to use the sun’s energy for cooking. 

Download the Social Impacts of Solar Cooking lesson plan now

2. Discover your state’s official bird and flower. 

All states have a designated bird and flowers, so this is a great time for your students to get to know more about where they’re from. First, have students do research about your state’s official symbols like state flower, bird, insect, mammal, etc. (Some states have several additional symbols, which are fun to learn.) Then, go outside to observe some of the things you’ve studied. Even if students don’t see the official symbols, it’s still a good excuse to notice all the different living things in nature. You can even take it a step further by turning it into an art project or lesson. Here’s a specific lesson plan for doing just that. 

Download the free Arcimboldo meets Audubon lesson plan now

3. Use pumpkins for math, science, and art lessons.

If it’s fall and you have easy access to pumpkins, then definitely take your students outside for some hands-on pumpkin activities. There are so many options. You could do a math lesson by predicting how many seeds are in a pumpkin and then count them out or dissect them. Another idea is to create a pumpkin volcano, using simple ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. You can also encourage students to get artsy by designs. For instance, you might consider introducing your students to the artwork of Yayoi Kusama through this free lesson plan. It uses ceramics, but fall is a perfect time to use real pumpkins instead.

Download the Kusama Ceramic Pumpkin Lanterns now

4. Gather leaves and learn how to identify them.

Leaves and Seeds of Common Trees Identification Mounts

This is an activity you can do in-person or virtual. Encourage students to go out and find at least three different types of leaves in their backyard or neighborhood. Then when you all come together to share, try to identify those leaves. This seems tricky, but with a good ID book or this set of leaf and seed mounts, you’ll be able to help your students break it down in no time. This is a solid real-life skill for kids to learn, and it will help encourage them to develop a natural appreciation for the natural world.

5. Read about Leaf Man, and make your own leaf people.

Learn more about the Leaf Man book now

This is the perfect project for fall when you have plenty of leaves on the ground. Leaf Man is a wonderful book, which was illustrated using real leaves. It’s been an iconic picture book for students to read in fall. It encourages them to see the autumn season in a whole new way as leaves come alive before their eyes. This is your excuse to have your next storytime outdoors. Then encourage kids to go find their own leaves to make their very own leaf people. Students will love finding the perfect leaves to customize their own designs.

6. Work on your spelling list outside.

Check out Twist and Spell cards now

You can find a way to take just about any lesson outside, including learning spelling words. Have students takes their individual dry erase boards outside and find a spot to sit and spell as you call out words. Or let them find a spot on asphalt or concrete to spell their words out with chalk. Finally, you might just want to get students up and moving by having them spell out their words, one letter at a time. Check out these Twist and Spell cards. They inspire the perfect movement break while getting through that list.

7. Learn about animal habitats.

Explore the Habitat Connections Kit now

The changing of a season is the perfect time to introduce habitats to your students. Fall is especially a big time of year where animals are on the move to get ready for winter. After a discussion about habitats, have students take a walk and observe the different habitat opportunities around them. They can draw, photograph, or write about all the different options they see. Then come together to share. Here’s a great habitat kit, developed by the experts at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It has games, seven lessons and citizen science projects for more hands-on learning.

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