We’ve all done it – grabbed a stick of driftwood and carved a message into the damp, hard sand at the beach. Observed the flight patterns and marching paths of butterflies and ants, marveling at their determination and ability. Built and destroyed stone structures and then tossed those very stones into the water to hear the tinkling as they skim the surface. The great outdoors is truly a wonderful playground and a remarkable site for learning and teaching literacy.
As the summer sun shines hot, most of us are outdoors enjoying the fresh air and freedom. We are also observing, learning, and teaching in the best classroom around. Outdoor learning often comes naturally and unintentionally. We head out with our children to ride bikes and play sports. We draw pictures in the sand with sticks and on driveways with chalk. We talk about the life cycle of plants and bugs in the garden. Summer holidays may mean school’s out for our kids, but they never stop learning.
Research continues to offer evidence about the benefits of outdoor learning. Learning outdoors can foster creativity and encourage students to be more physically active. There is also evidence to suggest it can improve attention and motivation among students. “Learning outside the classroom also enhances critical thinking skills, reinforces academic learning and aids long-term memory.” (Dillon et al. 2003, Ernst & Monroe 2007; Fabian, H. 2005).
Outdoor literacy is hands-on learning. Mud, water, dirt, grass, bugs, and plants are the “books”. We not only see what we are learning about, but we also get to touch it and play with it. When I’m out in the garden with my kids, we talk about what we have planted. We watch it grow from seedling to vine, from sprout to vegetable.
My children rescue spiders and worms from the trowel as I clear the weeds. They make plans for baking cookies, inspired by the muddy “dough” from the morning watering. The painted rocks that mark the vegetable rows are testament to their creative communication skills. We head to the river and stack rocks that resemble the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, or the Great Pyramids. We hurl smaller rocks at each creation to see who demolishes it first, putting our physical literacy skills to the test. In the evening, we talk about the stars and constellations while lying on the trampoline – the same trampoline that was covered with chalk drawings and messages earlier in the day.
The best part about outdoor literacy is that it is play-based and fun. The Early Years Learning Framework defines play-based learning as “a context for learning through which children organize and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects, and representations”. Development in the areas of language, literacy, creativity as well as social, emotional, and motor skills are all possible within a play-based framework. As adults, we sometimes forget how much fun learning can be and children often don’t realize that play can be about learning.
Here are some outdoor literacy ideas:
- Use painted rocks to teach letters and numbers for little ones or for older kids use them for spelling words, doing math, or playing games
- Go on an alphabet scavenger hunt and look for things that represent the letter in the alphabet: A (ants) B (bird) C (clouds) – other ideas for scavenger hunts include nature hunts, color hunts and bug hunts
- Use chalk on sidewalks, driveways, and trampolines to draw, write and play games
- Use a paint brush and water on hot pavement
- Make paint brushes from sticks wrapped with outdoor elements for bristles (grass, feathers, leaves) and use them with water or paint
- Start a journal – nature, adventure, travel, or bug journals are great starters
- Bring your books outdoors for fresh air reading
For more information on outdoor literacy and learning check out:
The Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network at cbeen.ca
Decoda Literacy Solutions at decoda.ca/bc-storywalks-to-visit-this-summer/
Enjoy your time this summer playing in the sand and sun and know that literacy and learning is happening without even trying.
Gillian Wells Community Literacy Outreach Coordinator Creston Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy