Featured image of post Education, indoors and out
Episode 15

Education, indoors and out

This episode looks at the benefits and challenges for environmental education in classrooms and outdoors. We discuss strategies for dealing with these challenges and thinking about topics which are better tackled in particular settings. Apologies for the audio strangeness in this episode!

This episode features environmental educators Maggie and Paul.

Challenges of teaching about nature

Environmental educators have to teach about topics which take place on scales which people are not used to. How we are able to confront or embrace these challenges varies based on teaching environment. Challenges of some topics lend themselves more easily to teaching in particular setting

Environmental education often contrasts indoor and outdoor settings. Often hands-on experience is most highly regarded. This means that classroom teaching often seen as limited.

Many classroom teachers value structure for the reassurance it can give to students and its significance in managing behaviour to maintain a productive learning environment. From this perspective outdoor settings can be avoided because of worries about lack of structure and increased risk.

Teaching Indoors


  • Easier to visualize large scale events, issues or ecosystems
  • Fewer distractions can help with introductions to abstract concepts
  • Safer for working with delicate specimens or other objects
  • Less variability makes for easier planning

Tools available indoors that aren’t available outdoors

  • Technology, screens, posters


  • Removed from direct experience
  • Mess and cleaning up is an issue
  • Less access to living things
  • Less space

Topics more easily tackled in a classroom setting

  • Air or water pollution - Very dispersed and not always obvious from local environment.
  • Climate change - Long timescale, global impacts, and local variation of those impacts make it difficult to investigate this topic outdoors. Particularly in short sessions.
  • Cycles - If tackling this outdoors, regular visits need to be planned throughout the year.

Teaching outdoors


  • More space
  • Direct access to subject matter


  • Exposed to environmental variables such as temperature, precipitation, and noise.
  • Plants and animals do not always do what you want them to do when you want them to do it.
  • Natural settings don’t take into account accessibility requirements. Outdoor education sites will do what they can, but it is not always easy or feasible to accommodate everyone.

Topics more easily tackled in outdoors

  • Ecology/Habitats - Direct experience can help illustrate interactions between different parts of an environment.

  • Variation / Classification / Identification - Tackling these topics outdoors confronts students with real examples of variation and the challenges/opportunities they pose for classifying living things.

  • Field studies / Habitat surveying

Consider what parts of a topic are suited the setting

  • Introduce complex concepts indoors before moving outdoors to see what it looks like in contexts or gather real-world data.
  • Analysis of data is often better suited to indoor settings.

If you work in an outdoor education setting, consider limiting what is covered in your session to maximize on the portions which suit your setting.

  • Use the outdoors to apply skills and concepts in new settings. This can help move students to higher order thinking.

Example: Learning about classification and looking at Bloom’s taxonomy. Applying the concepts of classification and features to real plants and animals in the field pushes students towards analyzing because they need to compare and contrast the real world example to the idealized version in the key. They also will need to evaluate their conclusion by collecting supporting evidence.

Applying techniques in different contexts

Make use classroom behaviour management techniques.

These can be really helpful in maintaining a productive learning environment and avoid over- excitement which could lead to harm/injury.

  • Silent or largely visual attention getting techniques may not work as well outdoors because the spaces can be large and not all students may be able to see the session leader.
  • Don’t be afraid to pause classes to reiterate instructions and refocus the class as needed.
  • Structured sessions help students focus. Behaviour is often better when students know what they should be doing.

Narrow focus to specific learning objectives

  • What are they learning?
  • What are they getting the opportunity to demonstrate?
  • Is your goal foundational learning? Higher order?


Learning about parts of a plant, describing basic structure

  • Collecting leaves to put up on a board in classroom or make a collage. This is a fairly unstructured activity which could help foster connection with the local environment. But learning is limited.

  • Collecting leaves to add to the drawing of the plant. More structured activity encourages students to observe and recall details of the plants in their local environment.

Make the most of the time you have

Unstructured experience outdoors can help build connection with the environment. However in situations where time is limited, structured experiences can be more valuable because it supports those who are less comfortable in the setting. They can use the structured task as a way to access the site quickly. This can help them build confidence being out of doors.

Useful resources

Wellcome Trust ‘State of the Nation’ report on primary science education

Bloom’s revised taxonomy of cognitive objectives

Council for Learning Outside the Classroom - ‘Plan & Deliver’ and ‘Resources’ pages

Send us your questions or comments. Learn more here.

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