Activities to Teach Literacy Outdoors – Teaching Reading and Writing Outside
There has been lots of research to show the benefits of learning outside, so these are some of my favourite ideas for taking literacy lessons outdoors. There are many different ways to take learning outside of the classroom, from forest schools, gardening, school trips and more. They each offer various benefits and learning opportunities for children.
Research continues to provide evidence that learning outside the classroom offers many lifelong benefits to children. A review of the evidence demonstrates that learning outside the classroom enhances critical thinking skills, reinforces academic learning and aids long-term memory (Dillon et al. 2003, Ernst & Monroe 2007; Fabian, H. 2005). It also benefits children’s social skills and behaviours, mental health, self-esteem and improves levels of physical activity and health (Taylor & Kuo, 2006; Bagot, 2007; Malone, 2006; Hoffman et al. 2007; Mygind, 2007).
The following are some ways to take literacy outside the classroom. I have found these are great for engaging children and making literacy more interesting for everyone.
Outdoor Reading or Story Time
Having children read outside or taking story time outside is an easy way to begin. If taking your class outdoors seems daunting, this is an easy way to try it out. You may want to read some stories outside, especially ones with content with a link to the outdoors, such as an informational book, or stories that relate to the environment in which you are reading (e.g. garden, playground, forest, etc.).
Outdoor Phonics Games
It can be enjoyable to take phonics lessons outside as a way to get children active. Phonics outside can be especially helpful for younger children, or for those who particularly enjoy physical activity. These are some simple games that you can play outdoors with children to help them practice and reinforce classroom learning.
- Letter Sound Run – First, write out letters around the playground which might include diagraphs or trigraphs. Then call out letter sounds and have children run around to find them. Similarly, children can also run and find tricky words (words that can’t be sounded out and they need to learn by sight).
- Initial Sound Object Hunt– Children can go on a hunt outside to find objects that start with a specified initial sound. Older children might go on a short/long vowel (e.g. trigraphs, diagraphs), hunt, seeking items that have different vowels somewhere in the word.
- Spelling Rocks– Children can use letter rocks or logs to create words, and to practice using the letters they have learned to spell words.
- Writing Large Words – Children can write large words with chalk on the pavement using the trigraph(s) or digraph(s) they are learning or practising.
Outdoor Handwriting Practice
Handwriting practice can be a fun literacy activity to take outdoors. Handwriting can be done in different ways depending on children’s ages and abilities.
- Copying Letters on the Pavement – Children can write over letters or words on the pavement. If the words are already written out in chalk, children can write over them with chalk, or paint over them with water.
- Freehand Practice on the Pavement – Children can practise writing letters or words freehand, either using big chalk or painting with water or chalk paint.
- Upright Writing – It can also be great for children’s physical development to practice largescale upright writing. This activity can be done with paint on a large wall or easel, or with window pens or foam paint on a large window.
Outdoor Story or Poetry Inspiration
For older children, using the outdoors can be an inspiration for poetry or story writing. To get started, teachers can help children come up with a list of words to describe what they see, hear, smell, taste or feel. They can then put it together and come up with a class poem. Alternatively, children can come up with their own poems using the word bank they have created.
Similarly, children can use a garden, forest or other outdoor areas as the setting for their story. They might even create animal characters based on animals that they see. Older children can write several drafts and develop a final product over a week.
Outdoor Story Map
Story maps are an excellent way to help children get ready to write a story. They involve drawing out pictures (like a comic strip) to help them sequence their story from the beginning to the middle and then the end. This type of literacy activity can be taken outdoors, as well.
Children can draw 3-6 boxes on the pavement with sidewalk chalk. Then they can draw different pictures depicting the main events of the story. It can also be nice to add in natural objects onto the images to enhance their story maps. They can then practise retelling their story using their story maps to help them remember the order and the details of each part.
Above is a child’s story map of Jack and the Beanstalk. Children can also use natural objects to represent different objects from the story (e.g. feather for the goose that lays the golden egg, leaves for the beanstalk, beans, etc.).
Nature Walk or Field Trip and Recount
It can be an easy and lovely field trip to take children on a quick walk in a park or natural environment around the school. Have the children look for natural objects that they can collect and observe closely. As part of this activity, they might make a journey stick or journey bracelet to help them recall the different things they saw or did on their walk. This can serve as an excellent prompt for writing. When the children return from their walk, have them describe the experience including the different plants, animals, etc. that they encountered. Similarly, if children go on a field trip somewhere else, they can also write about their trip (recount), including what they saw, did and learnt.
Class Book on the Local Area
One of my favourite ways to take literacy outside in Key Stage 1 (years 1-2), is to make a class book based on lots of little trips around the local area. I’ve taken my class to places such as the local church or synagogue, train station, post office, market, library, fire station, park or pond, theatre, or high street. You can take your class to a new place every week or two over a month or two. This is a wonderful way for children to learn about the different features of the local community, what goes on in each place, and what people do for work.
After each trip, children can write an informational piece about the place they visited. These writings can then be compiled into a class book. Finally, the lovely book can be placed in the book corner and the children can enjoy reading it for the rest of the school year!
Linking Writing to Gardening and Outdoor Projects
Setting up an outdoor project such as a school garden can be a fantastic prompt for writing. Children might journal about things such as, what they’ve done in the garden, how to label plants, and how to plant seeds or seedling, or look after different plants. They could also record data about plants that they are growing and use it as inspiration for scenes for story writing. Younger children are often interested in drawing interesting plants and animals that they discover. They may also label their pictures, write sentences or even create stories based on what they see and find.
Ideas to take Literacy Outdoors – Teaching Reading and Writing Outside
I hope that you find some of these ideas for taking literacy outdoors helpful. Teaching reading and writing outside has many benefits to children and can also make teaching more enjoyable.
Bagot, K, Kuo, F.E, and Allen, F. (2007). ‘School playgrounds: nature and attention’, in Asia Pacific EcoHealth Conference. Deakin University.
Dillon, J, Rickinson, M, Sanders, D, Teamey, K, and Benefield, P. (2003). Improving the Understanding of Food, Farming and Land Management Amongst School-Age Children: A Literature Review. National Foundation for Educational Research, King’s College, Department for Education and Skills, The Countryside Agency.
Ernst, J, and Monroe, M. (2006). ‘The effects of environment-based education on students: critical thinking skills and disposition toward critical thinking.” Environmental Education Research, 12, 429 – 443.
Fabian, H. (2005). Outdoor learning environments: Easing the transition from the foundation stage to key stage one, Education 33(2), 3-13.
Hoffman, A., Knight, L. and Wallach, J. (2007). Gardening Activities, Education, and Self-Esteem: Learning Outside the Classroom. Urban Education, 42 (5), 403-411.
Malone, K (2006). Building a Child Friendly Community: Children’s Research Workshops, Pilot Study Report 2006, City of Bendigo, Child and Youth Interdisciplinary Research Centre, University of Wollongong.
Mygind, E. (2007) A comparison between children’s physical activity levels at school and learning in an outdoor environment, Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 7:2, 161-176.
Taylor, A, and Kuo, F.E. (2006). ‘Is Contact with nature important for healthy child development’, in Spencer, C and Blades, M. (Eds) Children and Their Environments: Learning, Using and Designing Spaces. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.