What is an outdoor classroom?

students on the Kellogg Elementary trail in October

Sharing with parents at an Elementary PTO Meeting

A couple weeks ago the president of the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) at my daughter’s former elementary school messaged me and asked if I could come to the next meeting and talk about outdoor classrooms. 

Sweet! My favorite conversation!

They had a successful fundraiser and wanted to invest in an outdoor classroom but they weren’t sure where to start. I asked what would be most helpful for me to share and after a quick round of messaging she shared, “I think parents need a better understanding of what the outdoor classroom is and how it can benefit our children.” 

second graders hugging tree_Kellogg Trail

Here’s what I shared with them and I hope it helps others have conversations about getting kids outside during the school day. We already have a great area with an existing trail system and LOTS to explore!! So my goal was to share simple steps to support teachers (and parents) in using the existing trail now and starting to envision future uses.

What is an “outdoor classroom”? An outdoor space where learners’ curiosity can be sparked by the natural world.  

What are the benefits of learning outdoors?


  • Increased attention span (including helping students with ADHD) (1)
  • Increased test scores (2)
  • Increased motivation (3)
  • Interest in science and science careers (4)


  • Reduces stress and anxiety (5)
  • Improves feelings of connectedness (6)
  • Helps students develop a sense of place and care for the environment (7)


  • Being outside decreases the transmission of disease such as COVID-19 (8)
  • Opportunities for increased physical activity (9)

(#) Footnotes are connected to the reference list on our Teaching Science Outdoors – Urban Partnerships website. Benefits list and resources curated by Eleanor Kenimer.

Skull find_Kellogg Trail Fall 2019That’s it! Lots of benefits and no special equipment needed, just an outdoor space. Yet there remain barriers to using outdoor spaces for learning, some that I come across in my work with teachers (through the Teaching Science Outdoors – Urban Partnerships program) include: 

  1. Concerns about student safety
  2. Lack of training in outdoor instruction
  3. Lack of confidence in knowledge about the natural world

With these benefits and barriers in mind, how can parents and PTOs support outdoor learning in their schools?

  1. Listen to teachers: Ask them what are they curious about? How would they like to use the outdoor classroom? What are the barriers to learning with students outdoors? What do they need to feel comfortable and confident taking their students outside for learning? 
    1. Training, volunteers, seating, maps of the trail, signage?
    2. PTOs can support teachers by fundraising to support needs.
  2. Listen to students: Ask them what they are curious about? What would you like to learn and do in the outdoors? Share these interests with teachers and administrators,
  3. Get out there and explore the existing trail! Safety on the trail is a concern I hear from teachers I work with. One solution is to have more adults outdoors during lessons, parents who are available and know the trail could be a huge help!


A couple days after sharing this information with the PTO I hosted an after school walk for families on the school’s nature trail. We had 10 families join us for this walk! #win

Want to learn more?

A list of resources for parents interested in learning more about the benefits of time outdoors for kids. Many thanks to my friend, Rachel Larimore, Chief Visionary at Samara Early Learning for brainstorming these resources with me!