YOU CAN GET YOUR STUDENTS OUTSIDE — and Still Meet Your State Standards

About the Author

Michelle Aldenderfer-Griffin is Environmental Education (EE) Coordinator for Preschool-8th grade at High Meadows School in Roswell, Georgia and was chosen as the city's Environmental Educator of the Year in 2013. She has presented at international conferences on the topics of integrating technology, service learning, and EE using a cross-curricular strategy.

The research is clear: hands-on, experiential learning leads to higher test scores and lower behavior issues. Common sense tells us that sitting still at a desk – no matter the subject – simply does not result in a child who is constructing knowledge or developing a love of learning.

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Indeed, the lack of even the slightest connection to the natural world increases stress, decreases focus, and creates an unintended barrier to the spirit and souls of our children.

I know the challenges teachers face in providing our children a connection to the natural world. I also know the magnitude of academic, physical, intellectual and psychological benefits in providing our children (and ourselves) a connection to nature.

Imagine changing very little about your current situation, and realizing the benefits of providing that connection. I believe you can.

Several public school teachers agreed to spend an afternoon with me walking their hallways and campus with the intention of “seeing” their school in a new way.

Seeing their campus through a new lens allowed teachers to think through the possibility of increasing student’s achievement levels while decreasing behavior issues. Most importantly, they could do it immediately for little cost using the resources surrounding them.

So what can you do as a teacher to respond to the mounting evidence that environmental education can improve academic achievement across all subject areas, increase standardized test scores, while also decreasing behavior issues?

Take a moment to consider the following:

Is There a Window in Your Classroom?

If the answer is yes, you have an opportunity to invite the rich world of birding into your student’s lives. Once birds “find” the food source, you will have an inspiring way to discuss the changing seasons, patterns of migration, habitat, and the list will grow as your students find ways to use this fascinating new science tool to explore and understand their world.  What do you need?

  • Bird feeder. Window-mounted bird feeders start at $8.95 and can be found online.
  • Bird food. Use your favorite search engine to learn native bird species in your area and what they eat. Pick up a bag at your local grocery. Prices start around $10.
  • Bird identification poster and/or book: Posters from state wildlife agencies are typically free.  Your school library may have a bird identification book. If not, your local library certainly will.

Mother Nature will deliver. If she doesn’t, that can also spur learning: What factors could be repelling our feathered friends? Discussions on habitat and human impact could ensue, not to mention the critical thinking and problem solving skills called to task.

Total Cost: $20

Is There a Tree Close to your Classroom/Home?

If you can see it out of your window, all the better.

  • Use this tree to illustrate and track the changing seasons.
  • Go out to the tree – yes, as an entire class. Before you go, give your students an age-appropriate specific task (i.e.: we are going to “meet” our tree, write down observations you make using all of your senses, draw a picture or write a description of the tree, etc.)
  • Once you return to class use technology (i.e.: appropriate search engines) to identify the tree. Is it native? Does it produce fruit? Etc.

Opportunities for math, science, literacy and history lessons abound from the simple source of one tree.

Total cost: $0

Do you Currently Provide a “Show & Tell” Opportunity? Could you?

Replace your current “Show &Tell” time with a Natural Science Museum. Sound daunting? I promise it’s not!

  • Find something from the natural world at your home (i.e.: leaf, interesting rock or stick, old bird’s nest, etc.)
  • Bring it to class.
  • Tell your students you are starting a Natural Science Museum in your classroom and you want them to be the scientists.
  • You will be the first scientist. Show them what you brought in and model for them what you expect them to do.
  • Let’s say you bring in a brightly colored leaf. You can tell them you found it in your front yard. You were drawn to its beautiful color. You looked around to see where it came from. There is a tree nearby with similar leaves, so you hypothesize it came from that tree. Ask the students why it’s brightly colored.
  • Depending on the age of your students this leaf could lead to a conversation on the changing seasons, or the fact that leaves change color because the chlorophyll has drained from the leaf signaling the end of its life and the beginning of a new season. You may have the students write a poem about the leaf, or the tree, or the Fall or….well, you get the picture.
  • Set up a small area of your room to be the Natural Science Museum. Students can bring things in, but they have to learn and then teach their peers about the item.
  • At the end of the week all items are returned to nature because a dead leaf decomposes to provide rich soil for the next generation of trees, feathers provide calcium for the squirrels that gnaw on them, etc.

You are encouraging students (and possibly whole families) to go outside when they are away from school. This exercise has proven to be popular with all of my students from preschool straight through eighth grade! Your expectations of what knowledge they bring to share should increase with age.

Total cost: $0

These are some ideas that may or may not resonate with your school or home, but are worth considering and wondering if you can tweak them to fit your class or your family.  I believe if we use our collaborative minds and the “hidden” opportunities in front of us, we can immediately provide our children the ample benefits of connecting to their natural world.


Get Involved

SHARE YOUR IDEAS and communicate with other Natural Teachers: Join the C&NN Connect Natural Teachers Group 

C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network. Download the free Natural Teachers eGuide.

More Reading

10 Ways You Can Add “Vitamin N” to your Classroom & Beyond

Smart Pills vs. Nature Smart: Want Your Kids to Do Better in School? Try a Dose of “Vitamin N”

Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educator and Educational Settings, 2010, Children & Nature Network (multiple studies)

How Nature Can Nurture the Hybrid Mind — an excerpt from “The Nature Principle“ in Outside Magazine.

Thoughts Following the First White House Summit on Environmental Education: It’s Time to Redefine Green Jobs


  1. I Hope This Article Finds Its Way Into Many Teachers Hands For The Sake Of The Children

  2. I hope this Changes Teachers Attitudes. Great Job Ms.Griffin!

  3. I love the tried-and-true practicality of this approach. Nature, as a gift freely given, needs simply to be freely received. And as this essay points out, you don’t need a new curriculum and thousands of dollars worth of equipment and special training to do that.

    Go to any classroom in the United States and you’ll find that most students can scarcely tell the difference between a hardwood and a conifer, much less between a maple and an oak. So for them to learn the names and shapes of even a few birdfeeder standbys such as robins, cardinals, house sparrows and blue jays will expand their world immeasurably.

    Ms. Griffin, thanks for removing the barriers that prevent teachers from incorporating nature studies into their classrooms. They can, and their students will forever be glad that they did.

  4. I am in the classroom after leaving a 17 year long career in outdoor education and I struggle with this all the time. I am pleased to read that I am already doing one of these things and planning for a bird club where we will make observations and participate in citizen science. I wanted to add another idea, albeit small, that might make a difference for some kids. I watch live nest cams through nesting time and make observations with kids. Our favorite is the bear den cam in Michigan. Last winter we observed two new born cubs grow and leave the den. Student’s questions and interest were amazing!

  5. This article is a great beginning, clear and practical. I would suggest making sure that the children go outside often to explore the tree by touch, smell, and sound as well as sight. There are so many ways these simple activities can be extended for different ages and deeper interest…Sarah Glassco, a naturalist and preschool nature curriculum coordinator

  6. Excellent ideas to get a variety of teachers involved in nature education!

  7. I could only wish that this article be required reading by all teachers. Way to go Ms. Griffin!

  8. Thanks for sharing! Our group loves sharing these ideas and resources. For those of us that don’t consider ourselves “outdoorsy” it is nice to have the small steps and ideas laid out. Very helpful! I’ll be back.

  9. I look forward to this trend continuing. I volunteer at my husband’s school( 7th grade Science) for a special week of outdoor learning each year. The kids love it, of course, but we get more out of it in enjoyment than we could ever have imagined.
    Just to see their faces calm and serene, excited and energized, it is all worth the effort.
    So many planned extracurricular activities, coupled with little outside stimulation and the kids become stagnant to the possibilities of the outdoors. Our “week” is talked about for the rest of the year.

  10. Thank you for these great ideas that everyone can do!

  11. Great ideas and resources. This is something teachers can use everyday!

  12. Getting children connected with nature is more important than we realize. The John Muir Geotourism Center’s pilot “Muir Experience” camp in May 2013 in Coulterville, CA was one way for our rural community to connect or reconnect children. It was amazing to hear that many of these kids have not spent real time just being one with nature and truly enjoyed their experience. Adding journaling as Muir did to the day’s activities also provided the kids the opportunity to express and appreciate their own backyard. Sharing with the local teachers to outcomes was a real eye opener of us all. We will be sharing the suggestions in this article with our schools. Great job!

  13. Thanks for sharing! I am passing the link to this to as many as I can! Please keep sharing such great articles that articulate what so many of us already know and need to communicate well to others!!

  14. Michelle Aldenderfer-Griffin

    Thank you for all the feedback. I’m using your thoughts and links to further the reach of these ideas and my own base of knowledge. If anyone is interested in an online forum for sharing ideas on an ongoing basis, PLEASE contact me at

  15. For me the most potent sentiment of Ms Griffin article is summed up in her opening line;

    “Hands-on, experiential learning leads to higher test scores and lower behavior issues”

    Architecture Workshops have being delivering such activities for nearly 25yrs and yet nobody knows who we are.

  16. These are GREAT ideas! I am passing them on to my school district teachers.

    On a related subject, Michelle do you know of any organizations or companies that are helping schools with grants or sponsorships to do field trips or outdoor schools for school districts? Four years ago, our school district cut the week long 6th grade outdoor school (not sure if everyone got this opportunity, but its one of my most fond memories in school). You spend a week in cabins and do all kinds of outdoor activities such as building a shelter, basic survival skills, using a compass during a scavenger hunt, fireside skits and stories…it’s a great time and unfortunately, removing this program leaves many kids without the experience of the outdoors. Our society doesn’t teach camping or spending time outdoors, we are all so technical, so digital. Many, if not more than 90%, need this program reinstated to get an actual understanding of the outdoor experience–for many their parents are not helping them with reading and writing and will surely not be putting forth effort to help them experience this either. If you have any suggestions where I can go for help, I am just a parent, but I have the districts full support. I hope I can help make a difference for these kids. Thanks for your time and this great article.


  17. Michelle Aldenderfer-Griffin

    Sorry for my delay, but I would like to help you. Perhaps I could help you go to the district with the idea of in-service training for classroom teachers. I’ve done this with great success at local public schools during my graduate school work. It’s quite simple and could result in classroom teachers implementing strategies right away. I meet teachers at their school after school hours. We literally “walk” through a day in their life as teachers. I point out opportunities to incorporate the outdoors – both literally and curricularly – into the established curriculum. It’s simply helping teachers “see” their teaching world in a new way that can open their minds. I’m happy to provide more guidance. Feel free to contact me at Unfortunately, I don’t know how to contact you directly other than responding to your comment! Hope to hear from you.
    Kind regards,

  18. I’m interested in connecting with high school history teachers who are bringing nature and physical activity into their curriculum, and seeing how they do it in a college prep class. Do you know of such teachers?


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