Victoria Hackett, an environmental education consultant, explores how environmental education and literacy can be linked in work with children.

Step 1: Create signs

What is the first thing you see when you walk into an outdoor classroom?  Is it a welcome sign?  There is nothing more inviting than a welcome sign!  A welcome sign is an invitation.  A welcome sign gathers community.  Welcome signs come in all shapes and sizes, as do communities.  A welcome sign invites visitors to the outdoor space and leads them into a new space.  For learning and teaching, welcome signs are like the front door of a house and often give visitors their first impression of your outdoor classroom.  Using signs to interpret your outdoor space is a first step to linking environmental education into literacy outdoors.  There are many types of signs and lots of benefits to adding signs to your outdoor space.

Signs can….

  • Demonstrate the life cycles of insects and animals using words and pictures
  • Show pictures of the parts of a butterfly in the butterfly garden
  • Show plants and tree identification with leaf matching picture games
  • Label types of gardens and educate visitors about the different areas
  • Give friendly reminders about staying on the path, picking food and sharing the rules of the area
  • Ask curiosity questions to the viewer
  • Label areas of study like The Decomposition Log
  • Include inspirational quotes to allow the visitor to ponder
  • Be in many different languages
  • Connect a garden to a nature-based children’s book

Step 2: Add a Little Free Library

A second step to linking environmental education into literacy outdoors is to add a Little Free Library to the outdoor classroom.  A Little Free Library is a “take a book, leave a book” free book exchange.  They come in all shapes and sizes, but the most common version is a small wooden box of books.  Anyone may take a book or leave a book to share.  Like signs, Little Free Libraries invite communities to gather and lead visitors into a world of books.  Little Free Libraries are the perfect vehicle for infusing literacy outdoors, especially when they have a sign-in journal inside for visitors to leave notes.

Stwp 3: Add Wonder Boxes

Wonder Boxes are smaller mailboxes that are distributed throughout the outdoor classroom.  These little gems hold wonder.  The contents inside can be changed daily, weekly or monthly.  Wonder Boxes may include a nature-based book with puppets, science materials for outdoor exploration and/or supplies for mathematical games.

There aren’t any limits to how many Wonder Boxes can be in an outdoor classroom.  Therefore, the possibilities are endless. Add Wonder Boxes to a garden that feeds or a bird sanctuary.  Create clues inside the Wonder Boxes that lead the visitor to each garden. Include curiosity questions, clues to where the next box is, and directions on how to travel there.

Step 4: Provide Curriculum-on-the-Go Kits

A fourth step to linking environmental education into literacy outdoors is the use of Curriculum-on-the-Go Kits.  These are backpacks that house materials for enjoying reading, writing, drawing, storytelling, vocabulary and nature-themed activities.  It’s always good to refresh and renew these kits in order to keep your outdoor experiences rich and exciting for both you and the children.  A basic Curriculum-on-the-Go Kit might include: pencils, scrap paper / notebooks, portable seats, clipboards, light-coloured cloth, chalk, magnifying glasses, pots / viewers, natural materials, digital equipment, identification guides, books, fun hats to wear when telling a story, a talking stick, and puppets that live in the Curriculum Kit

Think for a moment.  What if every child in every school had access to an outdoor classroom that included signs, Little Free Libraries, Wonder Boxes and Curriculum-on- the-Go Kits for teachers? What would the impact be?   Vicky Stever, Director of the Hurlburt Field Library [in Florida, USA] notes: “A child’s quest for knowledge about his world, which is energized by experiences in the outdoors, leads naturally to literacy. Kids have ques- tions, and books have answers.  A child who enjoys The Tale of Peter Rabbit will be on a continuous search of discovery that makes reading possible.”  The simple task of creating literacy-rich environments outdoors with signs, Little Free Libraries, Wonder Boxes, and Curriculum-on-the-Go Kits invites educators to make the shift into environmental inquiry.  Growing literacy outdoors inspires inquiry-based learning and nurtures children’s sense of wonder.

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Victoria Hackett MEd. is a leading education consult-ant who specializes in outdoor learning and play.  She is the founder of outdoor-classrooms.com, a virtual community for Natural Teachers.  Her mission is to create an international virtual community of Natural Teachers who inspire children to reconnect with nature. Her vision is for every child, in every school, to have access to an outdoor classroom.  Contact: victoria@outdoor-classrooms.com   More information: outdoor-classrooms.com

This article first appeared in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education, Vol 119.  To read articles like this when they are first published, please join NAEE as a member: naee.org.uk/join-naee