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Ways to adapt youth programs for the outdoors

By Carrie Ann Olson

Ok, I love incorporating new technology tools into my teaching. I also love nature and being outdoors. For me, what's even better than each of these is finding ways to incorporate technology into the design of an outdoor learning experience. This combination gets me -- and many youth, too -- caught up in the flow of learning. What program activities would you like to take outside?

The Children & Nature Network has designated April as Let's G.O.! (Get Outside) month where people of all ages are encouraged to play, serve and celebrate together in nature. With the spring weather upon us, it is the perfect time to move our learning environments into the outdoors. Regardless of the topic and teaching tools you are utilizing - low or high tech - with a little creative thinking most experiences can be transferred to the outdoor environment.

Here are five simple steps to remember when moving your indoor learning experience outside:
  1. Review your youth program quality indicators, as they are still vital to the success of the experience: safe environment, supportive environment, interaction and engagement.
  2. Use this opportunity to do things on a bigger scale.
  3. Incorporate physical activity and opportunity to engage large motor muscles. Remember, youth need at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Can you build a few minutes into your learning environment?
  4. Encourage the use of all five senses and offer the freedom to explore.
  5. Build upon real ways of interacting, tending and caring for the natural environment.

If you need a few ideas, check out Nature Rocks - Let's Go Explore list of simple activities to enhance your outdoor learning adventure.

I agree with the way Richard Louv describes it in his recent blog post: the "daily, monthly, yearly, lifelong electronic immersion, without a force to balance it, can drain our ability to pay attention, to think clearly, to be productive and creative".

We all need doses of natural information for balance. How do you take your indoor learning experiences outside? How do you design your learning experiences for balance?

-- Carrie Ann Olson
Extension educator & associate Extension professor, educational design & development

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  1. Thanks for those ideas, Carrie, and a good reminder and "push" for the importance of that balance. I agree that we all need that balance. In an urban setting, it can be especially challenging to foster a love of the outdoors (especially in those cold winter months), and finding attractive outdoor spaces can be equally challenging. I find though, that even being out in the open, fresh air works wonders for lifting the mood and encouraging creativity in the learning environment. Do you have any particularly creative examples of how people have (or could) incorporate the outdoors in seemingly challenging circumstances?

  2. Hi Jessica - Thanks for your comments! I believe you can take almost any activity outside. Yes, I acknowledge that the biggest challenge with outdoor winter activity can be ensuring that the youth are appropriately dressed for the weather conditions. But now that spring weather is upon us in Minnesota, a light jacket will usually do. A simple treasure hunt, orienteering or geocaching can work great for having youth work in small teams and can be designed to incorporate any content area in the clues/treasures. Jump roping and children games stand the test of time in the outdoors. Observation opportunities, recording observations and reflection upon that observation is another simple activity that can range from watching birds or shapes of clouds to the colors of vehicles or buildings. Yes fresh air and a little sunshine can do wonders for the mind and soul! What is your favorite way to utilize the outdoors in your learning environments?

  3. Taking out all the impossible activities out will certainly lead to a better results having in mind not only the children but also grown-ups and other professionals. Children are exploring the world outside, learning how to love every creature of mother nature and receive much more thrilling emoition being under the open sky.

  4. That comment about balance really resonated with me as well. I think if this throughout the whole year, even in the coldest months. And this reminds me of one of the quotes that I think was in Louv's book about there being no bad weather, just the wrong clothes! Perhaps part of our work is to help adults to prepare for outdoor activity (including the right clothes or with other gear) so that most of their experiences outside will be a positive ones for youth.

  5. So true Heidi! When we are planning outdoor opportunities, we need to remember to include a listing of "what to bring" in promotional correspondence. It's OK to include messages like "dress for the outdoor weather", or bring your hats, scarfs, boots and mittens. As long as we are in-tune to the weather conditions to ensure safety, one can learn and explore outdoors in any weather!


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