Essential EdTech for Your Outdoor Classroom

In this blog we discuss:

  • Outdoor Classrooms: What are they and why should you have one?
  • EdTech for Your Outdoor Classroom – my favorite apps and extensions
  • Lesson ideas that infused EdTech with your Outdoor Classroom

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What is an outdoor classroom and why should you build one?

You know that first warm day in the spring when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the students are getting a little stir-crazy?  They walk into your room and say, “Can we have class outside today?”  My usual response is “No” due to lack of space, time, equipment, and a fear of the unknown.  But imagine if you did have an outdoor space that could house the lesson.  A quiet location somewhere on school grounds, surrounded by trees and gardens, where there were places to sit, writing utensils, and maybe even a chalk-board.  This is an Outdoor Classroom.  Now imagine having EdTech for your Outdoor Classroom.  The possibilities are endless!  Some common features of a well-defined, traditional outdoor classroom include:

  1. Classroom seating in an outdoor space.
  2. The belief that anything you do indoors can be done outdoors too.  This means you have to equip your outdoor space well!
  3. Freedom to move seamlessly between indoor and outdoor spaces when needed.
  4. Freedom to learn and play.  Students observe, ask their own questions, and decide what they will learn about while there.
  5. Spaces for physical activity and games.  Separate spaces for quieter more moderate activities.
  6. Time away from technology (and hopefully, in the GotTechED version, time with technology)
  7. Outdoor classrooms are often associated with gardens and the development of a class garden/pond/animals/composting.

So, why build an outdoor classroom?  Outdoor classrooms can solve many of the biggest issues facing children and society today.  Some of these include a lack of exercise, preoccupation with screen-time, isolation from nature, and overuse of behavior-modifying drugs.  In an Outdoor Classroom, students are able to get outside and expend their excess energy while moving around, maintaining focus, and most importantly – learning!  Some more specific benefits include:

  1. Keeping kids active.  This helps them get the movement and exercise that many miss out on.
  2. Increased focus, especially for students with attention disorders such as ADD/ADHD.
  3. Increased connection with nature.  Many students don’t get to play outside and therefore never develop an appreciation of nature and how it works.  This eventually increases their stewardship over the environment in the future.
  4. Separate from screen-time.  It forces students to connect with each other and the natural world.
  5. Builds observational skills.  How often do they just go sit outside and look around?  Let them do it!
  6. Being outdoors for even small increments can drastically reduce stress and anxiety, making students happier and teaching them how to balance their internal state while alone and in groups.

For more resources on Outdoor Classrooms, check out the https://outdoorclassroomproject.org.  You can also look for grants from sites like Project Learning Tree: https://www.plt.org/resources/greenworks-grants/.

The Best Apps for Infusing Tech in an Outdoor Classroom

I fully support the belief that an outdoor classroom should allow students to separate from screen-time.  This is one of the major benefits and results in increased engagement, lower stress levels, and increased collaboration.  Despite this, consider the power of also building in time outside where technology IS used?  Having EdTech for your Outdoor Classroom can bring it to the next level.  This can help students moderate their own technology use later in life when a teacher isn’t forcing them to do it.  Not to mention, students can interact with the natural world in new and exciting ways that would not be possible any other way.  If this sounds good to you too, consider some of the following apps and extensions!

  1. PlantNet, PlantSnap, or Google Lens.  Each of these apps can be added to phones and tablets and can be used to quickly identify unknown plants and flowers.  Simply hold the phones camera up to an unknown leaf or flower, and the app does the rest.
  2. Starwalk.  This app uses augmented reality to provide info about stars and constellations.  Hold your phone or tablet up to the night sky and see it label stars and constellations for you!  The downside of this is that has to be used at night.  Have the students try it for a homework assignment or during an overnight field trip.
  3. GyroCompass.  Teach kids how to navigate using the earth’s magnetic field.  Consider a lesson that shows them traditional compasses compared to this electronic app version.
  4. Civilisations AR.  This is another augmented reality app that makes historical artifacts become part of the background in any outdoor setting.
  5. Xnote.  This virtual treasure hunt app is one of my favorites.  Nothing is more fun than searching for things outside and Xnote makes it easy to orchestrate.
  6. Rockhound and SmartGeology.  Identify rocks and minerals with ease!
  7. Audobon identification apps.  The Audobon Society offers several different apps for the easy identification of birds, bugs, and more.
  8. MetaverseWith the Metaverse app, students play augmented reality games that resemble geocaching-style treasure hunts.  There is also a choose your own adventure option that looks pretty great.

Lesson Ideas for Your Tech-Infused Outdoor Classroom

Here are some lesson ideas and the corresponding EdTech for your Outdoor Classroom.

  1. QR Code Scavenger Hunt.  Post QR codes around school grounds.  Students start by scanning the first code which takes them to a prompt or question.  The answer to the question directs them to the location of the next QR code, where they repeat the process again.  Have students compete in teams or work together as a big group.
  2. Latitude and longitude navigation with Google Maps.  Did you know that you can click anywhere within a Google Map and have it give you the exact latitude and longitude coordinates for that point?  Simply double click and look at the bottom of the pop-up.  Give students some coordinates and have them use their Google Maps app to go to those locations around school grounds.  At each location they complete a different task and report back.  This could also be a great follow-up to a lesson that teaches about latitude and longitude lines.
  3. Geocaching with the Geocaching App.  Take your students to a local park and have them find the geocaches that are hidden there.  Have them work in teams and collect trash along the way to teach about conservation and ecology.  For more complexity, have them keep track of the animal and plant life they observe while on their travels.  If traveling off school grounds, bring plenty of chaperones so that each student group is with an adult.
  4. Garden/Greenhouse Engineering with Google Science Journal.  Google Science Journal is an app for Android and iPhone that has dozens of pre-made experiments.  Students are guided through the experiments within the app and several of them use the phone’s microphone and camera to collect data.  For a class greenhouse, use the Gallery Lighting Experiment to have students answer the question: “How do architects and exhibit designers optimize lighting?”
  5. Ecological Study with Google Sheets.  Mark out a square grid and have students survey the plant and animal life across the grid.  This can be done in a field or in any wooded areas near school grounds.  Use a class-shared Google Sheet to compile the data.
  6. Water Studies with pH probes.  Any science room with modern pH Probes will most likely also have the option to send information from the probes to student phones.  Check with your science room to see if this is an option and what apps are needed.  Typically, each company that makes the probe will have its own app that can be used to compile data.
  7. Historical Re-enactments with ScreenCast-o-Matic.  ScreenCast-0-Matic is my favorite screencasting program/extension but it is also great for recording videos using any computer webcam.  If your students are Chromebook users, then have them design, create, and film historical reenactments with ScreenCast-0-Matic!  They also have a new green screen feature, so consider hanging a green screen in your classroom and letting them use that along with their work in the outdoors.  The quick and easy editing tools in ScreenCast-0-Matic make this a no-brainer.

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Other Relatable GotTechED Episodes:

Misconceptions of 1:1 Classroom

Making the Switch from Traditional to Student-Centered

Need a Presenter?

As experienced presenters and content creators, you can contact Nick and Guise to speak at your school, event, or conference. They can customize a workshop that meets your organization’s unique time and content needs. While no topic is out of bounds, GotTechED is best known for sessions on:

  • 1:1 Chromebook Integration
  • EdTech Throwdown
  • TargetED Learning
  • Gamification (Badge Systems)
  • Game-Based Learning (Escape Rooms, Amazing Race, and more)
  • Google apps and extensions
  • Personalized learning and Choice Boards
  • Teacher productivity (Lesson Planning, Online Grading. and Feedback)
  • Digital content creation
  • Student Podcasting
  • Screencasting
  • Flipped Classroom
  • Student-Centered Learning

About the author, Nick

Nick Johnson is a chemistry teacher, educational research consultant, and professional development specialist.

Nick earned his Masters of Science in Educational Theory and Practice and was recently selected as a 2018 Governor’s Educator of the Year and the 2018-2019 Mercer County NJ Teacher of the Year.

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