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Tips for teaching in the outdoors

This is an excerpt from Quality Lesson Plans for Outdoor Education by Kevin Redmond,Andrew Foran & Sean Dwyer.

Tips for Teaching in the Outdoors

The educational philosophy of experiential education first developed in the late 19th century and has since been articulated in a variety of fields, including cooperative education, outdoor education, organizational development and training, and service learning. The essence of experiential education is the notion that experiential moments—doing as part of the learning process—can result in meaningful learning. Effective teaching requires that the outdoor leader take an active role in constructing the learning with participants—learning is not to be left to chance, nor is the meaning of the experience for the participants assumed to be the intended learning. No one can argue that experience happens—it is unavoidable—but learning is a delicate process as the outdoor leader helps the participant make sense out of a communal process.

The challenge for outdoor leaders and participants is how to make meaning out of an experience: how to begin with raw experience and then process the intentional learning into working knowledge. An assumption of experiential education is that it is intended to be holistic and integrative, based on the process of making meaning out of experience. The idea that experience, learning, and development are interconnected has provided a jumping-off point for various forms of outdoor programs.

Natural Spaces as Natural Classrooms

  • Use natural divides such as trees, foliage, and rivers to create an effective outdoor classroom.
  • Natural spaces help provide a sense of authenticity for the learning. Go beyond the notion of “If you can teach it outside, do it” to teach the skills in the environment that was intended.

Risk Assessment of Site

  • The teaching site should be free of residual risk and with clearly established boundaries.
  • Where risks exist, they should be highlighted to the group and management strategies should be in effect.

Large-Group Management

  • Large groups should be broken into smaller groups or stations.
  • You should be able to observe all groups from a central area, though the groups may be somewhat separated by natural divides.

Natural Teaching Aids

  • Use what is accessible to aid your delivery, such as using hands and knuckles to demonstrate topography or a canoe as a chalkboard.
  • You need to develop strategies to help your participants learn: visual cues (diagrams, checklists), analogies related to the topic, appropriate personal stories that depict learning moments that participants can relate to, focused group discussions that draw out participant knowledge, skill demonstrations, stop-start techniques to break complex skill sets down for learners, and so on. These are only a few examples of instructional strategies.


  • The sun should be in your eyes, making it easy for participants to see you.
  • In cold climates, select a site where sun shines on participants' backs for a warming effect.
  • In hot climates, avoid the sun if possible by moving to a shaded area.


  • Wind should carry sound to participants; it should be moving from you toward participants.
  • In cold climates, avoid windy teaching sites because of the cooling effect of wind.
  • In hot climates, wind may help cool participants, making them more comfortable.

Water In, Water Out and Thermoregulation

  • Adequate water-in, water-out breaks should be provided, allowing participants to maintain healthy hydration and thermoregulation.
  • Check participants to make sure they are dry, and if they are damp, insist on changes of clothing.


  • The activity must be delivered in a manner that is safe and that participants perceive as safe.
  • This assessment depends on the group's maturity and skill level, the terrain, and the technical challenge of the outdoor lesson.


  • You should only place a primary emphasis on skill development when the skill is essential to the safety of the participants.
  • Skill is to be developed to the minimum required for completing the tasks essential to achieving the experience. The ultimate goal is for participants to leave with a positive outdoor experience. When appropriate, challenge learners to stretch and expand their skill abilities by leading extension activities.
  • Further skill development may be necessary to elevate participants' technical expertise. For example, when paddling a river, participants may navigate a rapid by running straight through without stopping; learning skills such as eddy turns, ferries, and surfing will elevate the experience for participants as the novelty of the primary experience wears off.

Specific Strategies for Teaching in the Outdoor Classroom

  • Teach in outside places that are authentic to the lesson.
  • Participants have expectations for the activity; do not lose sight of the doing as a means for authentic learning.
  • The outdoors is a natural classroom where teaching and learning can be different than in the indoor classroom. Take steps to preserve your instructional space for future lessons.
  • Participant interests can be sparked through firsthand experience, a necessary aspect of the experiential process; be sure to match the activity challenge to the age of the participants.
  • Participants require outdoor leaders who are knowledgeable, informed, interested, and attentive—show enthusiasm during the session regardless of the weather!
  • Develop a sense of community, a safe, fun, friendly environment for learning and practicing new skills.
  • Move the focus from competitive aspects to skill performance; focus on progression with positive support by providing constructive feedback.
  • Know the outcomes for each activity. This will allow detection (what is not quite right) and correction (skill adjustments to improve performance).
  • Be prepared for each lesson: Have safety checks in place, reminders for updating participants, equipment inspected, and the instructional site confirmed and inspected.
  • Participant engagement is essential; keep it fun but in a structured format to maximize learning time in the field.
  • Use visuals and a hands-on approach for demonstrations—promote a sense of doing.
  • Participants pay less attention to long speeches. Use simple words and phrases in discussions.

This is an excerpt from, Quality Lesson Plans for Outdoor Education.

More Excerpts From Quality Lesson Plans for Outdoor Education