The key to starting a successful outdoor education program, according to educator Bill Bagshaw, is to capture students’ enthusiasm. Teachers must create a “long sales pitch where you are promoting it and how much fun it is,” he said. If you’re able to organize field trips, that can be a good strategy: “That really sells the program, and you can then work to build it up. Once that has been done, you can add some things, like research projects.”
Bill has found that this process helps outdoor education programs succeed. At one of the junior high schools where he taught previously, “it was one of the top two options that kids were wanting,” Bill said. This allowed him to select “keen and motivated” students.
He also shared that “administrators who have been supportive in allowing different projects and field trips make an important difference.” Building students’ enthusiasm—and, therefore, the school community’s enthusiasm—has allowed him to continue outdoor programs where they may have otherwise been questioned.
One initiative Bill helped lead was the Parks Project, in which students learned about the history of Canada’s national parks. In his words:
Part of the process is going and visiting Elk Island. They also consider where the next national park should be located. What was really interesting was that the next president for Parks Canada was from Edmonton. I just ended up emailing him and asking him if we could send him the students’ final project. He said, ‘No, I want to come and be a judge and meet the kids!’ So the president of Parks Canada came and was a judge when the kids presented their parks. What was really neat was that groups of the students had selected a park that the president had just gone to visit as a potential national park.
Photography is one way—a great way—to get students involved in outdoor projects. Bill developed the following photography-based outdoor activities for students in Alberta, Canada, where he and I live, but you might consider adapting them to your own teaching context:
Outdoor Photo Scavenger Hunt
The purpose is to get you outside and connect with nature a bit. To get some of the photos, you may have to do some research to know the answers to some questions.
Get dressed to be outside and take your cell phone with you, along with this sheet. Go around your area (maintaining proper physical distancing), and take pictures of as many items as you can. Just get outside for a bit.
- Take a picture of a birch tree.
- Take a picture of a spruce tree.
- Take a picture of a pine tree. (There is a difference between pine and spruce. Look it up to make sure you get it right.)
- Take a picture of a small bird’s nest.
- Take a picture of an aspen tree.
- Take a picture of deer scat.
- Take a picture of a berry still on a tree.
- Take a picture of any kind of bird.
- Take a picture of an animal track.
- Take a picture of a rose hip.
- Take a picture of mouse or vole tracks in the snow.
- Take the best nature picture you can. (This can be anything—just make sure it’s a really good picture of nature.)
Get dressed to be outside and take your cell phone with you, along with this sheet. Go around your area (maintaining proper physical distancing), and take pictures of as many items as you can. Some items require you to write down an answer, so bring a pencil.
You might not be able to do this one in one day. No rush!
- Take a picture of a pussy willow.
- Take a picture of an American robin (my favorite bird).
- Try to record the morning song of a robin.
- Take a picture of a male mallard duck.
- Take a picture of leaf buds from a poplar tree.
- Smell the leaf buds and describe the smell.
- Take a picture of a flowering plant emerging from the ground.
- Take a picture of the leaf buds from a lilac tree.
- Take a picture of a red-winged blackbird.
- Try to record a male red-winged blackbird singing.
- Take a picture of another migrating songbird of your choice.
- Take a picture of a ladybug. Write down how many spots it has and search if it is native to your region.
Nature Photography Project
Create a presentation that includes all the photography skills we learned in class. Make a slide for each skill, attach the best photo you took on the school grounds, and explain how your photo represents each skill.
- Frame horizontal
- Frame vertical
- Rule of thirds
For more ideas, Bill recommends the book Quality Lesson Plans for Outdoor Education, by Kevin Redmond, Andrew Foran, and Sean Dwyer.
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.
To engage your students in photographic storytelling as they explore, learn, and communicate their ideas in ways that inspire action, enroll in National Geographic’s Storytelling for Impact in Your Classroom: Photography course. In this short, self-paced online course in partnership with Adobe, gain a deep understanding of photographic storytelling and the value of photography as an instructional tool in your classroom.
Bill Bagshaw is a teacher at Michael Phair Junior High School in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He teaches seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade environmental education and science and hopes to expand his outdoor program in grades seven through nine. He has over 20 years of experience building outdoor programs in several Edmonton schools, including Avalon Junior High School and Riverbend Junior High School. You can follow him on Instagram.
Alison Katzko is a National Geographic Certified Educator and 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 courtesy of Bill Bagshaw