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Teaching in the Outdoors: A Primer

Jay Roberts
Article Date:  May 10, 2007


Teaching in general can be a scary thing. We are put in a position of authority and knowledge whether or not we feel like an expert in the particular area. We can feel pressure to know “everything” and be able to answer all questions. We want our students to have confidence in our ability to lead them through new experiences. This is all compounded by the fact that we don’t teach in a nice, organized classroom environment. Instead, we teach outside—with all the good and bad that can come with that. Sometimes we are given “teachable moments” that make it easy to educate. Other times, despite our best lesson plans, our students are too bored, too hungry, too scared, or just plain too distracted to pay attention. Teaching outdoors is definitely a challenge and there is no one way to do it right. But there are a few things that might help you along the way.


When you teach a lesson and for how long can make a huge difference between success and failure with your students. Consider carefully the timing of your lesson. Will it be immediately useful? Is it a snack break lesson, a before dinner lesson, and after dinner lesson, a morning lesson, or a layover day lesson? Each time frame presents challenges and opportunities. Match your content and your objectives with your timing. Generally speaking, mornings are better for intellectual topics, afternoons are better for hands-on activities, and evenings are better for interpersonal discussions. Think AM-Brain, PM-Body, and Evening-Heart.


Almost every teacher that ever stood in front of students has made the mistake of trying to do too much. This is especially true in outdoor contexts. Your students will be easily distracted and many factors will influence their attention spans from temperature fluctuations, to bug bites, to hunger pains, to homesickness. Less is more. Chunk your information into 25-30 minute units maximum. Break up longer lessons with active movement and reflection. Think of your content as gum and your students processing, practicing, and reflecting as the chewing. You want less gum and more chewing.


Know your stuff. As an old crusty teacher of mine used to say, “worry about what you know, not what you don’t know!” Spend the time to develop a strong lesson plan—use this useful experiential lesson plan frame: EELDRC (Enroll, Experience, Label, Demonstrate, Review, Celebrate) or some other frame to help you hit all the important stages of an effective lesson. Write it down—maybe even show it to your co-instructors and get their feedback. The more comfortable you are with your design the more you can teach people and not content. Finally, be in a “positive state of non-expectancy.” That is, once you have a bomber lesson plan, be prepared to throw it all out based on how you are relating to your students and how your students are relating to the content.


You can’t sell the steak without the sizzle! How do you “fire up” your lesson to encourage maximum attention and retention? Here are a few quick tips: 

1.) Use visual aids. Portable flip charts are the best for this and be sure to include different colors on your visuals. Pre-made flips are the most effective as presentations can be sloppy written in the moment. You can make a simple backcountry flip chart with Avery Write-On Cling Sheets and some duct tape or a simple white garbage bag, dry erase markers, and a sleeping pad. Put the whole shebang in a ziplock bag and you’ll have a lightweight, portable flipchart wherever and whenever you want.

2.) Think about where you are presenting. Are your students facing into the sun? Are you in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp? Is it too windy? Look for great teachable moment sites like a high point for map and compass or glaciology or a mood inspiring campfire for a more introspective talk. 

3.) Get good coaching. Have your co-instructors give you feedback on your presentation style. Have them focus on how you are presenting—not your content. Are you mumbling? Do you do annoying motions with your hands? Do you establish good eye contact?

4.) Classroom design. Horseshoes work best for lecture style; circles for more cooperative discussions. The more scattered people are the more scattered the class environment will feel.


Too many times this is missed and latest brain research is affirming the absolute necessity of this step in the learning process. Give your students multiple opportunities to reflect on your lesson. The general rule of thumb is 10-24-7. You should reflect/review new material every 10 minutes, every 24 hours, and every 7 days. A few ways to make this happen: 

1.) During the lesson, use the “turn to your neighbor” tool. Part way through the lesson have students turn to a neighbor and review what was just delivered. This can be done creatively with good questions (e.g “turn to your neighbor and tell them one thing you really understand from the last 20 minutes and one thing you have a question about…”). 

2.) Use large group de-briefs to cement the learning. At the end of your lesson, do a go-around where everyone shares one thing they will take away from the lesson. 

3.) Give them skill practice in the middle of the lesson. This is the “demonstrate” stage of the lesson plan I included earlier. Often misunderstood as the teacher demonstrating to the student, it is actually the exact opposite. How can you get the students to demonstrate to you whether or not they are getting the material?

4.) Give them immediate opportunities to apply skills just learned (e.g. teach a river crossing lesson “dry” knowing that you will have one to do the next day. When that moment comes the next day, sit back and watch them perform without your assistance). 

5.) Journaling on what they have learned on the course so far in a list to help them realize what they have accomplished so far. There are many, many ways to reflect. Honor the learning by allowing adequate time for this.


There are many other tools that can be useful to sharpen your lesson plans. Be curious and observant and you can pick up many tricks and techniques along the way. The most important thing of all? You guessed it, AUTHENTICITY. Be yourself, know your limits, and be honest with yourself, your co-instructors, and your students. No one expects you to be a know-it-all (and how annoying would you be if you were!). Model the principle of life long learning by being willing to change, adapt, adjust, and be vulnerable to your group. Remember that techniques alone are not what makes for a transformative teacher. The more you let your life speak through your teaching, the more your students will respond in kind.

Jay Roberts
Asst. Professor, Education
Director, Wilderness Programs
Earlham College

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