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Five Tools for Classrooms Without Walls

Measurement Tape High Res

Originally appears in the Fall 2014 issue

YOUR SCHOOL GARDEN can be far more than a pretty place to grow flowers and vegetables.  Taking class outdoors for lessons and investigations will help your students apply academics to the real world, practice higher order thinking skills, and experience lesson content in a more engaging and hands-on way. Students simply love learning outside the walls of a classroom and learning gardens provide a natural instructional resource for teacher and student engagement.

To empower teachers in the United States to take their class outside more often, our non-profit has expert educators that work side-by-side with elementary teachers in school gardens, modeling how to introduce new objectives and reinforce mastery of challenging content.

When taking children outside to learn in the garden, always review expectations of working in the outdoor classroom. This involves going through the basic rules of “be safe”, “respect all living things”, “have fun”, and “learn something new.” Additionally, have children record weather observations into journals and encourage students to write both qualitative and quantitative data. These journaling activities are important for gathering data over time for future lessons, but they also help children think of themselves as scientists. This mindset is also helpful in getting children to focus on learning outside and not just playing.

Here are our educators’ five favorite outdoor teaching tools and lessons, which we hope you will find useful, so you too can turn your garden into a great outdoor classroom. All of our lessons follow the 5E educational model, and can be aligned with state standards.


Sidewalk chalk is a quick and easy way to get kids engaged in an outdoor lesson. This tool can be used to encourage and deepen understanding of a learning objective or simply to provide a writing tool when no other is available. For example, in the Fact/Opinion lesson below, students use chalk to keep track of facts and opinions they have identified in the outdoor classroom.

Fact/Opinion Lesson

Have students independently write a paragraph, or 3- 5 sentences, about an area or object they choose to observe in the outdoor classroom. After modeling examples in a central gathering area, have student partners work together to underline the facts and circle opinions in their paragraph. Then, have student partners create a T chart, with sidewalk chalk, separating the facts and opinions through their observations of a new area or concrete object in the schoolyard.


Teach measurement in a hands-on way by giving students a measuring tape. Lower grade students can compare lengths of real objects in the outdoor classroom, and upper grades can master perimeter, area, and volume using this simple tool. First-hand experience helps the concept be absorbed and remembered by students.

Area – Math in a Fertilizer Bag

Review the needs of plants and explain the role of compost or fertilizer. Show students a fertilizer bag and ask them what they think they would need to know in order to figure out how much fertilizer they should put onto your school’s garden beds. Lead students to see that they will need to know the size (square footage) of the garden beds that will be fertilized, and give students time to measure the dimensions of the beds that will be fertilized and work on solving the area problem in their journals. After settling upon a solution, have students use scales to measure out the correct amount of fertilizer and spread it evenly over the beds.


This tool helps students zoom into animal characteristics, analyze plant parts, and compare soils from around the schoolyard. For the lesson on inherited traits, students observe the fine characteristics of each of the leaves. Looking deeper into the structures of plants allows students to better understand their functions. Hand lenses make students feel like real scientists, and guiding them through a micro look can transform their perspective about the subject being taught.

Inherited vs. Learned Traits

Allow students to wander the outdoor classroom collecting 10 or more different types of leaves, and then sort their leaves according to common traits (shapes, texture, color). Pass out hand lenses, magnified glasses, or loupes to allow up-close leaf viewing. Invite students to make a T chart in their journals with structure (traits) listed on one side and function on the other. Explain that the shapes/structures of the leaves are inherited traits similar to the way they inherited traits from their parents. Discuss how they think different traits or structures benefit the plant and help the plant adapt to its environment (Ability to hold water, protection from consumers, ability to repel water during heavy rains, etc.). Have students record their structure and function findings inside the T chart.   .


Teaching weather objectives outside just makes sense. Encourage students to use their five senses as a tool for making weather observations before allowing them to interact with thermometers and cloud viewers. Use these tools to gather weather data as a regular practice before entering into your lesson objective. The Weather Data lesson below is perfect for getting kids to make observations and predictions.

Weather Data – Being a Meteorologist

Pass out cloud viewers, and have students identify types of clouds and record their findings. Students should also try to sketch the specific clouds in their journals. Point out air thermometers, soil thermometers, and rain gauges and allow them to gather weather data without first instructing them on how to use the equipment. Once they have attempted to gather data, explain what a meteorologist is and introduce weather vocabulary like humid, overcast, and precipitation. Model the correct way to use the tools and record the data.


“Oh NO! It’s the TERRIBLE TAPE!!!!!!Put down the scissors. Tear by hand packaging tape is essential for your outdoor toolkit. Teachers can help students apply their learning by taping concrete objects into their journals. Elementary students can tape a flowering weed into their journals and label the parts of a plant during a lesson that compares human body systems to plant life. This hands-on manipulative helps activate meaningful reflections of their experience in the schoolyard. You’ll need plenty of “terrible” tape for the Human Parts vs. Plant Parts lesson below.

Human Parts vs. Plant Parts

Set up an experiment to demonstrate that leaves breathe and perspire just like humans (respiration). Use a cooperative teaching technique to create student teams of two or three. Once students are in their teams, give them plastic wrap and tear-able tape. Model identifying a plant in the outdoor classroom, and carefully tape the plastic wrap over a bundle of leaves (sunny location). Once student teams have completed the task, have them discuss and record in their journals what they think will happen.

As students are waiting for the leaves to transpire, have student teams dissect a weed in the schoolyard. Ask them what happens when they puncture the stem. How is this similar to the human body? (Circulatory system – The liquid of the plant is similar to blood). Allow students to tape the weed into their journals and label the parts of the plant.

Students return to their wrapped leaves, and teacher allows students to make conclusions about their findings. The vapor from the leaves transpired on the plastic. Leaves don’t use lungs but they inhale and exhale gasses just like humans. The liquid moves up and out of the plant like human sweat.


To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.


Logan LeCompte guided 102 teachers one-on-one with their students in 2013/2014 on how to use outdoor classrooms to create meaningful hands-on experiences with the core content being taught inside.  Logan is a Dallas County Master Gardener, holds a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from Tarleton State University, and has a Masters Certificate in Global Education from Rice University.