How to Get Students Outside? Try Backward Planning

Educator Alison Katzko wrote this post, the first in a three-part series celebrating outdoor educators.

“I have always looked for opportunities to get students outside,” Xena Biffert told me. Xena is a district science consultant in Alberta, Canada, where we both live, and previously taught kindergarten and grades three through six. When she started bringing her own classes outdoors, it required her to think differently. “As I began taking students outside more, I really needed to reconsider the way I planned,” she said. “I started to do a lot of backward planning.”

Backward planning, Xena explained, “is when you take students outside and the curriculum emerges through exploration.” In other words, you take students outside to explore, then look at the curriculum to ensure you’ve met curricular outcomes. This approach, she said, “allows curriculum connection but also encourages students’ focus and interest to lead the way.” Teaching through an emergent curriculum is authentic and meaningful because it gives students control of their own learning: “There’s more meaning and depth in the learning because it’s their learning—it’s truly theirs! Students are more interested in it.”

Based on Xena’s experience, here are four tips for practicing backward planning with your students. These may allow you greater flexibility to implement outdoor learning:

  • Know your curriculum. Many topics arise organically, and you can cover them through mini-lessons along the way, ensuring students learn what’s necessary to cover the curriculum. Xena shared, “It does take time to develop that knowledge, and I did not plan this way as a first-year teacher learning the curriculum.” One way to deepen your knowledge of the curriculum is to print it out and use it as a working document. Xena suggested making a habit of reviewing it daily: “I decide that tonight I will look at my science and review what I talked about today. Tomorrow I will look at my math.” Her reasoning for looking at the curriculum every night is twofold. First, if you look at it every night, you develop a familiarity with it. Second, you can see where you can connect things the next day, then make that connection spontaneously where the students’ interests align.

  • Begin the year with a learning plan and a mind map. Having an overarching guiding question has helped Xena formulate and follow a plan for the year. “This method of planning allowed me to work with an emergent curriculum in an intentional way,” she said. For example, questions she recently approached include “How are we all interconnected?” and “What is our story?” At the beginning of the school year, Xena creates a mind map, using the big idea behind the guiding question. She connects the curriculum, aspects of the community, and resources in this framework. Using this plan throughout the school year, she can assess outcomes with simple jot notes and a class list.

  • Get students outside regularly. “This way it does not become something extra,” Xena said. “It becomes a part of what we do. This builds a culture with the students, administration, and parents, which leads to more buy-in and support.” Building this culture creates an opportunity to formulate and answer questions about what happens outdoors and how it connects to other topics. Xena shared, “I start the year with general ideas of how outside learning connects to curriculum, but as the emergent learning arises and there is daily reflection on it, knowledge and understanding emerge. Through this intentional work and reflection, teachers will be well equipped to answer questions about student learning from parents and administration.”

  • Make time for student reflection, like journaling. “Just like reflecting on the curriculum each night for teachers (because that allows us to really know what we are doing), it is important for students to reflect on their observations,” Xena said. “Teaching them to reflect is an important skill. We often don’t get time to reflect in our fast-paced classrooms. Often, reflection is combined with assessment, rather than standing on its own and developing as an important skill.” Xena suggested the following: “An easy starting point for journaling would be ‘I see, I think, I wonder,’ because it is a thought process accessible to students in every grade. Journal entries also require you to teach your students to ask good questions and think critically about things. Students, in order to have success, need to be taught that being outside is going to require a slower pace, and we’ll need to be quiet and use all our senses. There are lots of different journal activities to help. You have to teach them how to be respectful of outside and that they will be doing intentional, purposeful work. We are going outside for a reason.”

Xena shared an example from her classroom: “The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Green Calgary came to our school to do a citizen science project with our students. We had been going outside consistently, and it was part of our school culture. These groups took us birding. They brought binoculars, and we went on a walk to observe birds. Students documented what they saw through sketching. We took what we had seen outside and recorded our observations on eBird—a citizen science program that collects data on birds.

“Our students were actively supporting the larger community through a citizen science project, while also learning about birds (Animal Life Cycles in the grade three science curriculum). We focused on bringing writing to life through the use of details (grade three language arts curriculum).

“During this experience, a coworker familiar with our project brought our class a surprise. ‘Look what I found!’ she exclaimed as she presented us with an egg she had found the previous weekend. This led to a big project involving the scientific process of identification, which in this case was a particular bird egg. We performed different science experiments to determine if the egg contained a bird that was dead or alive. We combined language arts and science through detailed writing about the predator-prey relationship. We wrote a story about what might have happened to the egg for it to have been found where it was. We connected with experts (such as Chris Fisher) who study birds, which inspired conversations that encouraged more research. Through this process, we came to the conclusion we had a goose egg. We also did some art that was inspired by the species to which the egg belonged.

“This whole inquiry stemmed from student background knowledge, inquiries from outside observations, and people coming in to share. It really aligned with our big question, How are we all interconnected?”

As a teacher, Xena journaled alongside her students. When she reflects on her journals, they bring back memories of her experiences with her students. In her new role, Xena looks forward to continuing to build the philosophy and culture of connecting students to the natural world, with the knowledge that through their experiences with her, they are learning that we are all interconnected. She believes that building empathy and understanding through this web of interconnections exemplifies students’ roles in enhancing well-being across the board.

This post is adapted from an article that appeared in the October 2021 issue of Connections, a publication of the Global Environmental and Outdoor Education Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Xena and Alison are both National Geographic Certified Educators. To learn more about Educator Certification and sign up to be notified when enrollment reopens, visit the program page. Check out all of National Geographic’s professional learning courses for educators here.

For eight years, Xena Biffert taught at St. Rita School in the Ranchlands community of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She started with kindergarten but also taught grades three through six. Teaching a range of elementary levels has provided her with a broad perspective on children’s learning. Xena is currently a Calgary Catholic Schools science consultant.

Alison Katzko loves the arts and exploring. She currently teaches grade four in Alberta, Canada, and previously taught in Bhutan, Thailand, and the United States. She values developing a passion for the natural world through greater understanding of Indigenous and land-based knowledge. Her students have connected with explorers and scientists around the world, including through the National Geographic Educator-Explorer Exchange. She is the journal editor for Connections, the journal of the Global, Environmental and Outdoor Education Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Featured image: young people bird-watch in Jalisco, Mexico. (Matthew Hyde)

One thought on “How to Get Students Outside? Try Backward Planning

  1. Very interested in your approach to backwards design. How often are you exploring outside…Time, even in Kdg, is not as flexible as in the past. How long is a period when you go exploring? Is it in walking distance? Have taught Kdg-12, music, writing, social studies, and always used leaving the classroom as a priority.

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