April 5, 2023

Outdoor Pedagogy: Open-air Teaching

This article is a translation of a text first published in Eductive’s French edition.

Teaching outdoors? Why not! Outdoor learning brings several benefits such as improving students’ physical and mental health [in French], but also improving teachers’ well-being. Beyond this, outdoor pedagogy goes hand in hand with active learning (whose benefits have been proven more than once) and allows to vary teaching and learning contexts using an inclusive approach.

Outdoor pedagogy can take place anywhere, but some institutions, such as the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles, possess specific facilities: outdoor classrooms.

In the fall of 2022, I met with Amanda Emilie Côte Boudreau, who was the pedagogical advisor in charge of the outdoor classrooms project at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles, to discuss these classrooms and outdoor pedagogy.

Outdoor classrooms at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles

The Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles provided each of its 4 campuses with outdoor classrooms adapted to their specific needs.

Outdoor classroom at the Gaspé campus. Since the classroom is situated close to the campus residence, nonflammable materials have been selected for the furniture to prevent it from falling into the hands of a partygoer willing to light a bonfire.

Outdoor classroom at the Îles-de-la-Madeleine campus. It includes a community garden, visited by the community even outside the college opening hours.

Outdoor classroom at the École des pêches et de l’aquaculture du Québec. A roof makes it comfortable in rainy weather. Around the terrace, raspberry bushes and other bushes were planted. These plant varieties were chosen keeping in mind that they had to survive through the summer without anyone taking care of them.
This classroom was quite expensive and time-consuming to build compared to the other ones on other campuses. During the opening event, Amanda Emilie visited the site to present a pedagogical activity allowing teachers to explore different ways to use the facility.

One of the 3 outdoor classrooms at the Carleton-sur-Mer campus, the most traditional one of the 3.

One of the 3 outdoor classrooms at the Carleton-sur-Mer campus, the main outdoor classroom on this campus.
The classroom was inspired by the flexible seating classroom increasingly popular in primary schools.
Potted plants decorating the classroom were chosen because their varieties bloom at the start of the school year.

One of the 3 outdoor classrooms at the Carleton-sur-Mer campus: the forest-classroom, into the wild (but right next to the college). There is neither a board nor tables.

An outdoor classroom…Do you really need it?

No need for an outdoor classroom to use outdoor pedagogy! At the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles, Biology and Adventure Tourism teachers, among others, have already been giving outdoor classes for several years.

However, an outdoor classroom definitely makes some outdoor activities more comfortable.
Amanda Emilie gave me the example of a Mathematics teacher who uses on a regular basis the outdoor classroom on her campus for her theory lessons. She could not do it without the whiteboard, and the students find the benches and tables quite useful when it comes to calculating and handling sheets, pencils, and calculators!

On the other hand, she also mentioned another teacher who, one day when all the outdoor classrooms were used by other teachers, simply gave his class in the outdoor space with tables that many used during lunchtime. On the Carleton campus, Teachers can borrow a storage bin containing small portable whiteboards (used, for example, by a team of students taking notes), markers, wipes, and magnets. This is all you need to create a wide range of pedagogical activities without relying on an “official” outdoor classroom! Nevertheless, this bin is often used by teachers going to an “official” outdoor classroom.

Being outdoors “wall-to-wall”?

Amanda Emilie told me about a teacher interested in all the new classrooms at her disposal, but still hesitant to take the leap. Amanda Emilie suggested that she used the classroom to introduce her course plan only, to try it out. In the end, the teacher enjoyed her experience so much that she spent every nice warm day outside! “Try it, you will like it”, as the saying goes! For this teacher, the transition to outdoor pedagogy was relatively simple since she was already focusing on active learning. Some people might need more time to adapt their course.

In any case, we can easily experience outdoor pedagogy with a short activity, without necessarily teaching a whole class, and even less a whole semester.

For instance, even without an outdoor classroom, Steven Parent, an English as a Second Language teacher at the Carleton-sur-Mer campus, was taking his students outside for an activity. He was asking them to go outside and take photos with their cellphone illustrating an action verb. Once back in the classroom, the photos were projected on the screen and students had to describe the action using verbs in the present progressive.

Steven Parent discussed his experience during an interview with Amanda Emilie [in French], recorded as part of the podcast “Pédago grandeur nature” [in French], from the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles.

Interview (in French) of Steven Parent by Amanda Emilie Côte Boudreau

As he explains, his activity is different from what the students might have done in their English class in high school. Previously, Steven Parent would merely use traditional exercises such as fill-in-the-blank texts. He concluded that if a student who had completed many fill-in-the-blank texts to differentiate between simple present and present progressive would still not understand over the years, a different method is more likely to be successful.

The genesis of the outdoor classroom project at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles

It is in fact Steven Parent who initiated the outdoor classroom project on his campus. He submitted the idea to the college administration, based on a guide published by a team at the Université de Sherbrooke led by Jean-Philippe Ayotte-Beaudet [in French]. The administration was easily convinced. Since her arrival at the college in February 2021, Amanda Emilie had been in charge of the project for all campuses and seized the opportunity.

The outdoor classroom design on the different campuses was conceived by a local committee jointly with Amanda Emilie. This allowed each classroom to match the reality of each campus.
Professional landscape designers were consulted. Indeed, it is better to think about soil drainage before installing outdoor classroom furniture!

Hugo Cavanagh, coordinator of material resources, supervised the construction of the classrooms.

The green committees from each campus were involved in the process to integrate flowers and edible plants into the spaces.

Resources designed at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles to promote the outdoor classrooms among the teaching staff

In order to promote the outdoor classrooms and encourage teachers to use them, Amanda Emilie first recorded 3 episodes of the podcast “Pédago grandeur nature” with Jean-Philippe Ayotte-Beaudet, editor of the guide on outdoor pedagogy that initially inspired the college project.

Playlist containing 3 episodes from “Pédago grandeur nature” Interview in French with Jean-Philippe Ayotte-Beaudet, professor at the Faculty of Education at the Université de Sherbrooke and recipient of a research chair on outdoor education.

Amanda Emilie also created a Genially presentation, in French, intended for teachers who would like to learn about outdoor pedagogy at their own pace.

Interactive presentation “Ouvrir un feu: un atelier sur les classes extérieures” created by Amanda Emilie Côte Boudreau

One lunchtime, Amanda Emilie organized a virtual meeting, offered to all the college pedagogical staff, conducted by Holly McIntyre. Holly McIntyre is an ex-teacher at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles (now a teacher in other institutions) who obtained a Master’s Degree in Education on outdoor learning and teacher well-being. Her study confirmed that outdoor learning contributes to fulfillment and engagement for teachers. Outdoor learning also allows teachers to connect with nature, which has a positive impact on their level of happiness and well-being.

In addition, Amanda Emilie organized round-table discussions with teachers who had experienced outdoor pedagogy, to let them share and inspire each other. She then recorded some episodes of the podcast “Pédago grandeur nature” with some participants (such as the interview with Steven Parent mentioned above!).

Playlist containing 3 episodes from “Pédago grandeur nature”. Testimonies (in French) of 3 teachers from Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles discussing an activity carried outside as part of one of their respective courses.

Finding inspiration outdoors for a second-language storytelling project

Stéphanie Arsenault, an English as a second language teacher, asked her students to go outside and find words in English related to nature. They had to research new words and dig deeper than the basic vocabulary related to nature by using the tools available at school (or even by consulting teachers!). Then, in teams (indoors or outdoors), they had to write a story reinvesting the words they had found. Finally, they had to read their text in front of the group. The group was assessing the different texts, and an award was given.

A nearby farm was a good source of inspiration for many teams. Some students talked about a specific type of clouds or a flower variety. Some words were complex, others were rather simple.
According to Stéphanie Arsenault, the fact that the students were able to move, to enter and exit the college, was stimulating for them and encouraged them to be more creative, which was useful for their story writing. However, beyond that, she explains that simply being outside to breathe fresh air made the students happy.

An introduction to group activities in special education

Karine Vaudry, a teacher in the special education program, was giving a course to 3rd-year students, who were about to begin their internship. During their internship, they would have to lead a group activity. To help them be prepared, Karine Vaudry invited them to lead an activity at the beginning of the semester with the 1st- and 2nd-year students of the program as well as volunteer teachers. They organized the activity in the brand-new outdoor classroom on the Gaspé Campus.

Being outside gave more freedom to the activity leaders who could move freely around the group, considering the exploded configuration of the outdoor classroom in Gaspé. They also had the space required to play as a large group a game involving a ball, which would not have been possible in a regular classroom.

Adapting their teaching methods to being outside

Each time she plans an activity to discuss the outdoor classrooms, Amanda Emilie insists on the importance for teachers to adapt their pedagogical practices. Outdoor pedagogy is often a part of active pedagogy:

  • team-based learning
  • project-based learning
  • problem-based learning

To get the most out of being outside, we have to create opportunities for students to move, to be in action. Sitting down for 2 hours to take notes on loose-leaf sheets with high winds and wearing gloves, is not the ideal situation. Debating, discussing, role-playing… yes!
Amanda Emilie mentioned that one of the classrooms on the Carleton campus is particularly close to road 132, a quite busy and noisy road. Teachers have to take this into account: the noise from the road makes it hard to follow a lecture given to a large group. However, small-group discussions are quite possible.

The outdoor classrooms at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles were quite popular with the teaching staff from social technical programs related to interventions. Simulations, round-table and whole-class discussions are well suited for outdoor learning.
According to Amanda Emilie, bringing down the classroom walls can make disruptive students more open to learning.

What about outdoor technologies?

Outdoor classrooms are not equipped with projectors. It forces the teachers to leave PowerPoint presentations behind!

However, the WIFI network is accessible from several outdoor classrooms at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles. Amanda Emilie told me about a History teacher who had brought a laptop computer outside, allowing the students to do research for their assignment if needed. The laptop was placed in the shades to maximize screen visibility.
Inside or outside, the students have access to their cell phones to take pictures of the board and class notes, or to record voice memos, for example).

The weather

Obviously, teaching under pouring rain is not ideal (even if the outside classroom École des pêches et de l’aquaculture du Québec is sheltered!) It is better to have a plan B when you plan to go outside. As Amanda Emilie mentioned: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. If your plan is to have a 30-minute debate outside in October, tell your students to wear a coat on that day. A breeze will not be an obstacle! On the contrary, the fresh air could energize the group. The students can make the most out of a change of scenery. The great outdoors will make them feel freer to get into action, to get up in order to share their opinion.

Activities that can adequately take place outside in the winter are limited. The outdoor classrooms live their heyday in the spring and the back-to-school season.

Your outdoor experiences?

Personally, as a Physics teacher, I sometimes go outside with my students to have them measure the mass of a car. The simple fact of going out of the classroom automatically makes the activity more significant for the students. In November 2022, I did this activity in freezing temperatures…but the students were informed in advance and able to dress accordingly!

What about you? Do you plan outdoor activities with your students? Share your experience with outdoor pedagogy in the comments below.

Un énorme merci à Amanda Emilie Côte Boudreau pour sa collaboration pour cet article!

Mes plus vifs remerciements à elle et au Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles (en particulier Danka Cormier, directrice adjointe des études) pour toutes les ressources et toutes les idées partagées avec nous!

About the author

Catherine Rhéaume

Catherine Rhéaume is an editor and writer for Eductive (previously Profweb) since 2013. She also teaches physics at Cégep Limoilou. Her work for Eductive fosters her interest for technopedagogy and encourages her to try innovative teaching practices.

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