Why Teaching Outside Builds an Ecosystem of Community and Collaboration

McGraw Hill
Nov 8, 2019 · 6 min read

By Skylar Primm, 7–12 Environmental Educator

On the third day of the 2019–20 school year, my students — clad in waders, muck boots, and personal floatation devices — stood hip-deep in the cool water of a local stream. Groups of five to six students attempted to maneuver wide seining nets into place across the stream, with the aim of trapping some fish for identification and observation. Other groups wielded long-poled nets to dig into the muck and hunt for macroinvertebrates. A third group of students — with various legitimate reasons to not be immersed today — remained on shore, taking photos, helping with species identification, and providing moral support. All of these activities required cooperation and communication, and helped show new students what it means to be a member of the High Marq Environmental Charter School community.

One week and one day later, we were engaged in a different kind of water activity at a boat launch on a nearby lake. This was supposed to be a simple day of canoeing in the shallows and practicing T-rescues in preparation for future paddling adventures. The unpredictable weather — which we tried to avoid by pushing the experience back by a day — ensured that the experience was a little more adventurous. Strong winds blowing across the lake limited the distance we could safely travel, so we improvised and taught T-rescues with the physical and emotional support of students who waded alongside the canoes. The waves were rough, but everyone learned what they needed to and the bus ride home was filled with the sounds of laughter and excited conversation.

High Marq and My Story

I came to High Marq in its second year, after a bit of professional wandering through geology and engineering. Here, I found a school where I could merge my background in field science with my beliefs in progressive education. This is now my ninth year in Montello. Each brings new challenges and new adventures, but the constant has been taking students outside as much as possible. We read outside, we play outside, we have circle meetings outside, and we spend all day every Thursday outside on a Field Experience like the lake and stream adventures described above, no matter the season. These outdoor learning opportunities are the foundation of our school, and provide a shared context for the rest of our students’ learning.

Environmental Education

Environmental Education naturally lends itself to interdisciplinary work and systems thinking. Recently, High Marq has partnered with local nonprofits and government agencies to support projects on the land where John Muir grew up. This work authentically blends Environmental Education, Social Studies, English Language Arts, Science, Health, and Physical Education. The environment is thus a context for learning about any number of other things. (For more about the John Muir project, check out a post I wrote for Teachers Going Gradeless.)

While Environmental Education can certainly be taught inside a classroom, why would you want to? The benefits of learning outside are well documented, most recently in an opinion piece for Education Week by Kate Ehrenfeld Gardoqui: “Research suggests that regular contact with nature — even in the context of a small schoolyard or garden — can improve students’ physical fitness, mental health, academic achievement, and cognitive, social-emotional and motor functions.” Gardoqui links these benefits to equity and social justice, and rightly so, as every child deserves a connection with nature.

Each school, no matter how much concrete and asphalt surrounds it, has some patch of outdoor space that could be utilized by a creative, adventurous teacher. There’s a whole world ready to be explored right outside the window. Why not check it out? Your students will benefit, and so will you.

After High Marq

Skylar L. Primm teaches at High Marq Environmental Charter School, a project-based learning school in Montello, Wisconsin. In 2017, he was the recipient of a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his teaching, leadership, and service. He is currently a member of the boards of directors for the Human Restoration Project and the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education. He blogs at medium.com/@skylarp, usually for the Greater Madison Writing Project. You may contact Skylar at skylarp@mac.com.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.