5 Tips for Homeschooling Outside

two girls in long braids sit back to back, reading books

Early in our homeschooling days, we lived in a tiny apartment over a parking lot with almost no natural light and no room to spare. I distinctly recall our first season in that apartment, hugging up to the one decent window and longing for all of the homeschool spaces I’d been saving for months on Pinterest. We made do for awhile, conducting the majority of our homeschooling time on the living room floor. But when the first spring rolled around, we needed a change of scenery.

One particularly beautiful morning, I packed all of our books, notebooks, and crayons into a hiking backpack, along with a picnic lunch and a blanket. We headed out to a quiet pond nearby and set up our classroom for the day on a lush, flower-dotted hillside in the shade of a cottonwood tree. For the whole day, we danced between concentration and distracted fascination with every sound, every flitting insect, every passing cloud. Over the spring and summer, we discovered many more outdoor classrooms like this one and spent nearly seven months homeschooling outside most days. Here are some of the most important things I learned during that first outschooling season:

Tip #1: Allow for the Settle-in Stage

There is a bit of an art to the outdoor classroom. First, I had to let go of the idea that the kind of work my kids did outdoors would be the same as the work they did indoors. There are a lot of interesting things going on outside and, at first, it can seem distractions overwhelm any attempt at lessons. But there’s a settle-in moment that comes, once they’ve had a chance to indulge their curiosity for awhile. They sink into the History Read-Aloud as they stare up at the sky. They melt into the writing assignment, stretched across a blanket on the grass. Some of the best work my girls did that year happened outdoors, but only when I was patient enough to wait for this settle-in stage.

Tip #2: Plan a Three-part Routine with Time for Play

One of the best ways to ruin an outdoor classroom day is to overplan it. The sweet spot seems to be around three activities or lessons per outing. For us, this was usually a group read-aloud period from a History or Science book, a group nature study or math activity, and one individual assignment.

After a few attempts, I learned to let the session start with play and exploration as I set up our space. Then I would call the girls over to eat snack while I read to them. After snack, I released them for another round of open-ended play. Just before lunch, we would do our group lesson. After lunch, they were usually calmer and ready for some quiet one-on-one time; that’s when they would do their individual work. We would end the day with more play before packing things up.

Tip #3: Pack with a Minimalist Mindset

Our first few trips were a disaster for my poor back. I shoved every single thing we would have used for an indoor homeschooling day into the backpack. This was a rookie mistake that I quickly learned not to make.

5 Tips for Homeschooling OutsideWhen packing your tote, consider all the materials you’ll naturally have on hand outside. For example, there’s no need to bring along math counters or manipulatives when the outdoor classroom is full of pinecones, sticks, pebbles, and shells that can be used instead. There is no need for a miniature dry-erase board and markers for printing practice when a stick scratched into the sandy bank of a pond does just as well.

Usually all we needed for the day were a small pencil case full of writing utensils, a single notebook or workbook per child, and a couple of read-alouds. I also learned to let the girls carry their own little packs which held their lunches and water bottles.

Tip #4: Let Nature Be the Teacher, Too

Conducting class outside comes with the additional benefit of teaching support. Nature loves to surprise us with her wonders, if we are willing to pay attention.

One afternoon, we were settling in for individual work when my oldest daughter found a roly-poly beneath her spot on the blanket. I watched her as she carefully picked it up, letting it crawl back and forth across her hand. She set it down and followed it as it meandered toward the pond, then discovered a whole colony living under a large piece of bark on the ground. She spent the rest of the afternoon observing them as they rolled into tight balls and wandered around the bank. I could have called her back at any point to finish her work, to focus on her lesson. But I would have been interrupting valuable learning in the process.

When we got home that day, she pulled out her nature book and asked me to read about roly-polies to her. She wanted to know everything about them—what they ate, if they hatched from eggs, what happened to them in the winter. She ended up learning plenty of natural science in a delight-directed fashion!

Tip #5: Think Like a Hobbit

One of the most important pieces of advice I can give as an outdoor homeschooler is to pack three times more food than you think you’ll need. Something about the fresh air makes my children ravenously hungry, and our first few outdoor days were cut short when we ran out of food too soon. Always pack enough food for a small army, and you’ll be just fine.

We are lucky to live in a place where we can have class outside at least once or twice a week during most of the year. In the hottest summer months, we simply head out earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon. In the winter, we’ve learned to invest in really good gear to stay warm and dry. We’ve spent time in classrooms that we won’t need to visit twice, and we’ve found absolute gems that have become favorites for life. I love the freedom that outdoor homeschooling gives us.

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About the Author

Kristina GarnerKristina Garner is an artist, a writer, and a homeschooling mom to her two young daughters. She writes regularly on her blog Blossom and Root about secular, nature-based homeschooling with a focus on STEM and the arts. She also enjoys traveling, making a fantastic mess with paint, exploring the beautiful Colorado Rocky Mountains, rock climbing, and reading.

Kristina’s top tip for homeschool planning: create a weekly, running checklist of all the things that you hope to get done. Each night, write what you actually did into a planner, including things that weren’t on the list. Move any lingering tasks into next week’s list. This allows for just enough organization and structure while allowing for interest-led learning and inspired activities to happen.