Outdoor Learning in winter

Rule 1 when planning your Outdoor learning sessions is to take account of the season and the weather. It sounds obvious, but all to often teachers start with the curriculum and ignore the changing seasons and weather. Treating the outdoors in the same way you would the controllable environment of an indoor classroom can mean missing out on the magic and your plans being scuppered by the weather.

Hierarchy of needs

On our Forest School and Outdoor Learning courses we teach the importance of meeting children’s basic needs for warmth/ protection from the elements, food, water and sanitation, to enable them to learn to their full potential.  When children are physically comfortable, they are better able to absorb and retain information. As the weather is likely to be colder in winter, I would be less inclined to do activities like soil testing by feel where children’s hands will get cold and wet. On the other hand, I try to ensure children have adequate warm and waterproof clothing so they can explore natural phenomena that only occur in winter.

Seasonal variations

Further more there are some activities that just aren’t possible at certain times year. For instance, doing leaf ID in winter is going to be harder as deciduous trees have lost their leaves. However, it’s the perfect time for identifying this year’s growth by looking for girdle scars on twigs.  Hello Trees has some great resources designed for specific seasons including this one girdle scars. This provides a spring board to remind children about plant science and what plants need to grow.  For example, observing and recording varying growth rates on different branches on different years prompts a discussion on why branches grow more some years than others and why some branches grow faster. We’ve been investigating whether branches searching for light grow faster than those that have lots of it or if the opposite is true.

The lack of leaves also makes it an ideal time for doing a bird survey. The Big School Birdwatch will give you some great resources for this. You can cover basic of ways of recording and presenting data. It also gives children the opportunity to contribute to a national scientific study that informs the advice the RSPB gives out about caring for wild birds. For instance the survey revealed a dramatic drop in greenfinch number. This has been connected with diseases caught form dirty bird feeders. As a result people are being asked to wash their bird feeders weekly.

Natural Fascination

Make the most of the natural wow factor. My children are fascinated by ice and how it behaves. Explore this with them. Get them to record their observations. Where is the ice thicker/thinner? Why is this? What makes it melt? Pressure, heat, salt. Why do these things cause ice to melt?

Regelation experiment

One fun and easy experiment is to use some cotton thread and pull it down tight over the ice. The pressure should cause the thread to go inside the ice and then it should refreeze around the thread, so you can lift the lump of ice. This regelation is one way that glaciers can flow. The ice melts under pressure at the bottom of the glacier and the glacier flows/moves on this bed of water. The water refreezes at the edges where the pressure is lower.

Further Inspiration

Learning with nature is a wonderful book with lots of ideas for outdoor learning activities and games for the different seasons. Year planners are a great way of mapping out activities. Put the activities in according to the seasons and cross reference these with your curriculum. This is a quick way of seeing which elements of the curriculum you can easily teach outdoors. It can also bring moments of inspiration; when I see something I haven’t covered I find picturing the year helps me with ideas about when and how to cover it.

Outdoor learning theme

I also like to plan my lessons around a theme and stories are wonderful way of bringing this together. Above is a mind map that one of our Outdoor Learning students did around birds. We be kids have a lovely selection of activities and stories connected with the seasons that you can use for inspiration. Stories can also help cover elements of literacy. For example, you could tell a story and ask children to stand up, put their hand up or even write down in their note book when they hear a modal verb. Or simply ask them to continue the story using a modal verb.