Back to School Doesn't Have to Mean Back Inside

Students from Dunloggin Middle School in Howard County learn about water-filtering oysters before releasing them into the Bay. Photo by Tom Zolper/CBF Staff.

It's "that time of year" again. Students, teachers, and parents are preparing to go back to school. Over the next few weeks, millions of What I did on my summer vacation essays will be written by students describing the camp they joined, the river they swam in, the beach they visited, the neighborhoods they explored with friends. But all of that is over now, it's time for back to school. Time to go back inside and learn important things from adults, and books, and the Internet.

As I watch my own kids (ages 8, 12, and 14) reluctantly get ready, it raises some questions for me: Which learning is more valuable? Why is 98+ percent of all of our instruction done indoors? Why aren't more teachers and students learning outside?

Certainly, there are a lot of challenges to leaving the four walls of the school building for learning: lack of transportation, physical safety concerns, lack of teacher experience, lack of time due to testing schedules. But there are amazing benefits to using the outdoors for learning.  Learners of almost every type are more engaged and active when they are outside. There are more opportunities for practicing life-relevant learning. And we need the next generation to understand the value of a healthy environment and the impact of our choices on it.

Based on my experience as a classroom teacher and an environmental educator, we don't give our teachers support to utilize the environment or to create the expectation that students should ever learn outside beyond their PE classes. Education is a very traditional field with massive cultural inertia. We teach the way that we are taught, and the systems have grown to perpetuate the tradition of the teacher at the front of the classroom and students in rows of desks with books. (Replacing those books with iPads isn't all that revolutionary.)

There are many forward-thinking teachers, schools, and schools systems that are making strides to change their practice to a learner centered approach, but even many of these cutting-edge educators fail to challenge the basic assumption that school has to happen inside. When you think about it, we call it "school," not "learning." If we were designing a truly learner-centered approach, I would propose that we look to how students choose to learn when adults aren't structuring the experience. If your kids are anything like mine, that learning looks like outdoor exploration.

So what can you do? You can change that expectation. If you are a teacher, you can commit to trying your first outdoor lesson or challenging yourself to modify a lesson per quarter to use the outdoors, even if it's just on your own schoolyard. If you are a parent, ask the question of your teachers and principals: "Will my children have an opportunity to learn outside this year?" (And offer to support your school by chaperoning outdoor experiences.) Or incentivize your children to learn on their own. My sons are currently researching why their dad won't let them swim in our local river until at least 48 hours after a rainstorm, hoping to get me to slack up on the rules.

If you are a student, give your teacher some feedback on how you learn best, and if your school can't accommodate learning outside, find or create your own learning opportunities. Join or create an outdoors or environmental club. If you are a school leader and need other ideas--get in touch with CBF or another environmental education organization, and we can share hundreds of ways to make your school greener.

I hope you get to learn outside this year with CBF--or on your own. And to all CBF teachers and students, best of luck in starting what we hope will be another great year. We can't Save the Bay without you.

--Tom Ackerman, CBF's Vice President for Education


Tom Ackerman



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