Science in the Schoolyard
In addition to examining teacher practices and student experiences with teaching science outdoors, the evaluation also focused on understanding the role of Science in the Schoolyard (SSY) training in teacher outcomes. The analysis, which focused on relationships between teacher attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors and SSY participation, demonstrated that SSY training was significantly related to important teacher outcomes, including taking students outdoors for science. SSY training was also related to intrinsic motivation and confidence in taking students outdoors for science.
Fully 69% of science teachers reported that they had taken students outdoors for science at least once during spring of 2013 (when data were collected). SSY-trained teachers were significantly more likely to take their students outdoors, even when controlling for years of teaching experience, presence of an outdoor classroom, number and length of science class sessions, and fidelity of kit use. Although the number of SSY-trained teachers who took students outdoors very frequently (once a week or more) is still relatively low (n=6 or 15%), less than a quarter (n=9 or 23%) did not take students outdoors for science at all.
A primary component of SSY training is demonstrating to teachers how use of the outdoors can enhance and enrich students’ science learning. One finding suggests that SSY training is positively associated with the development of these beliefs. SSY-trained teachers were significantly more likely to report that they are committed to the goals of outdoor instruction. In addition, science teachers who reported that they were committed to outdoor instruction reported taking students outdoors more often. This effect is slightly reduced when controlling for other factors, though still relevant to indicate.
This suggests that one mechanism by which SSY training may lead to increased use of outdoor science instruction is through increased buy-in and commitment to outdoor instructional goals. It is also possible that the relationship exists for other reasons. For example, taking students outdoors more often may lead to increased buy-in, rather than the other way around. The relationship may also be bi-directional or cyclical (that is, taking students outdoors may lead to increased buy-in, which then leads to even greater use of outdoor instruction, and so on).
Another goal of SSY training is to instill confidence and comfort in utilizing and working with the unpredictability of the outdoors for instruction. Evaluation findings demonstrated that some relationships between training and confidence in outdoor science instruction exist. More specifically, teachers without SSY training were significantly more likely to agree with the statement, “I don’t know how to teach outdoor science lessons” than SSY-trained teachers. This is particularly important because teachers who agreed with this statement took students outdoors for science significantly less often than those who disagreed with that statement. Thus, another mechanism by which SSY training may lead to increased use of outdoor instruction is through the development of confidence in teachers’ ability to teach outdoor science lessons effectively. In addition, SSY-trained teachers were significantly more likely to agree that they have the content knowledge to implement outdoor science lessons.
SSY-trained teachers were also significantly more likely to agree that they aren’t afraid for outdoor science lessons to be unpredictable. SSY training focused on developing teacher comfort in the unpredictability of the outdoors and on capitalizing on unexpected experiences. In observations, some teachers demonstrated spontaneity and flexibility in their instruction, incorporating unexpected phenomena—including organisms, sounds, and even litter—into their lessons. During one observed outdoor lesson on ecosystems, several students noticed trash, both organic and inorganic, around the schoolyard. The teacher used their discoveries to engage the whole class in a discussion of how different types of trash might contribute or harm an ecosystem.
In some cases, however, teachers did not take advantage of opportunities for spontaneous instruction. For example, in one outdoor classroom during a weather lesson, a student excitedly discovered a ladybug. The teacher admonished the child and instructed her to pay attention, rather than incorporate the ladybug into the discussion.
Teachers indicated that the trainings showed them how to structure outdoor lessons, and be more thoughtful about activities. In particular, teachers who had attended SSY trainings felt that having the opportunity to hear ideas from both instructors and other teachers’ experiences was particularly valuable. As one teacher commented,
“Everyone had to go teach a lesson outside and then bring it back, tell about it, and share the students' work. And it was just great to see all the different ways that people used the classroom. I feel like I learned a lot just from other teachers. I think that's the best networking.”
Teachers rated SSY professional development highly, and generally agreed that their teaching and content knowledge had improved as a result of participating in SSY training. In particular, approximately ¾ of all SSY-trained teachers agreed or strongly agreed that SSY was a good use of their time and was an effective program.
Ratings of Satisfaction by SSY-Trained Teachers
Teachers commented that the SSY training helped motivate them to use the outdoors, gave them more ideas about how to use the outdoor space, and helped them understand how to connect the outdoors to the science curriculum. Several teachers’ thoughts on the SSY trainings are included below.
“Taking the courses allowed me to be a little more thoughtful about my outdoor lessons. I definitely take kids outside a lot more, especially now that I've also learned the curriculum I can see where the links are and plan ahead for those kinds of occasions.”
“The training—when I went to that life science course, that really opened up the box of the outdoor classroom for me. I got so many good ideas of different things that I could do. So that was really, really helpful. I got to see other outdoor classrooms and I got to be with other teachers who use them.”
“The trainings motivated me and gave me some more ideas of other things I could do in the outdoor classroom. We don't necessarily have to be planting. Like today we went out and we listened to sounds. There's a lot of different things you can do out there.”
“I think that the training was probably the most beneficial to me, because it kind of opened my eyes into all the different things I could do out there. All the opportunities, and how I could make--I could still cover what I need to cover, because we only have the kids for six, seven weeks, so we have to get all those activities done. So if you can see a way you can connect or bring it outside--that's what some people are afraid of. We only have seven weeks, and they're afraid they'll lose a lesson if they go outside. But it's not, you bring the lesson outside with you.”
For additional details about the data collection, please see About the Evaluation.
Christian Phillips Photography
The evaluation examined how external supports and challenges can both facilitate and potentially inhibit outdoor science instruction. Outdoor science instruction and the particular practices advocated in the Science in the Schoolyard trainings face a number of challenges. These challenges aren’t necessarily unique, but it is important, nonetheless, to clearly describe them in this context and how they may be addressed. In addition, findings also revealed several factors that appear to support teachers’ ability to implement outdoor instruction. These are also described below.
Recommendations for schools and districts to address challenges are also discussed in the For Districts section of this report.
Interestingly, teachers who reported that they took students outdoors for science the most often were the ones who felt that they didn’t have time to take students outdoors as much as they would like. This suggests that teachers who are most dedicated to outdoor instruction wish that they could still do more. For other, perhaps less motivated teachers, finding the time for outdoor instruction in an already busy schedule is a challenge.
Some teachers may feel that the time allotted for science does not allow for the extra transitions involved in going outdoors. This may be particularly true in many Boston public elementary schools where a specialist model is used for science. With this model, time may be spent transitioning to a specialist’s classroom or spent during set-up for a specialist who moves around to various classrooms. One science specialist said that “the time from when the teachers bring the kids down here to getting the kids settled, reviewing the rules for going outside, reviewing the activity for outside—it leaves so little time that that's a big discouragement for me.”
In the face of many demands and with many benchmarks to meet, teachers may view outdoor instruction as something “extra,” that is a bonus, rather than part of their regular teaching practice. One such teacher told us, “Personally, I don't take the students out. I'll work on that the next year. There's too much in the regular day to try to fit it in.” Another teacher sympathized with colleagues who struggle to fit outdoor instruction in:
“I think it's time. I think we, as kindergarten teachers, have a schedule that's more flexible than the older grades. Way more, especially because of the MCAS and everything. So if we think that we don't have enough time, then I can't even imagine—and we do have flexibility in our schedule.”
Having an outdoor curriculum that directly integrates outdoor lessons into the existing curriculum can help teachers feel more comfortable going outdoors, with the understanding that they can go outdoors and still meet their learning objectives. This is described further in the Supports section below.
Having an outdoor classroom or schoolyard brings with it the additional challenge of maintaining the space. For some schools, upkeep of the schoolyards and outdoor classrooms has been problematic: volunteers or designated teachers have left or stopped maintaining the space. Some teachers reported that classes may find trash, an overgrowth of plants and weeds, and destroyed equipment, and taking students outdoors in an overgrown or littered space is not appealing. As one teacher reported, “There’s so many weeds… and we're afraid now, that we don't know if that would be a job that we would want to have the children out there doing. Because we don't know--it's such a mess.”
“Last year there were some set-ups so that we could do levers and pulleys out there, but they were destroyed, unfortunately. I've done some other things out there with landforms, types of rocks—igneous, metamorphic, identifying rocks and stuff like that. But I think that when I had them out there last year for the levers and pulleys, they loved it. Unfortunately this year we couldn't do it.”
There was no significant relationship on questionnaire responses between concern about student behavior and teachers taking students outdoors for science. However, some teachers and school leaders did express student behavior concerns. Several teachers who took students outdoors for lessons less described concerns about managing an entire class of students in a larger, open space. Some said they struggled with keeping students on task; others expressed concerns about students misusing tools and equipment. A few teachers explained that they bring their classes out selectively—they take out those they think can handle the outdoor instruction while keeping those with more behavioral issues in the classroom unless accompanied by a teacher or aide. As one teacher indicated, “[For] some it’s just way too stimulating, especially when I’m the only adult out there, it’s really hard to manage.”
“Probably some of it's management, especially if they're alone with 22 kids and they've got a couple of really challenging kids who tend to have a hard time with less structure and I think that when you go outside it's just naturally a little bit less structured, right? So people that struggle with, um, with what that looks like I think maybe have some anxiety about that.”
The unpredictable and sometimes unpleasant weather in Boston can present another challenge for teachers taking students outdoors for instruction. There were no significant relationships between concern about unpredictable weather and frequency of taking students outdoors for science, but this may be because many teachers appear to not even consider outdoor instruction unless weather is warm and agreeable. When describing outdoor lessons, most teachers only mentioned taking students out in relatively pleasant weather. Some described the “short window” for outdoor instruction as being early fall and late spring, and many did not appear to even consider taking students outdoors in rain or snow. One teacher said that “pretty much the whole winter you can’t go out, so whatever unit you have in the wintertime, you can’t go out, whether it lends itself to it or not.” A few teachers also mentioned that weather issues are exacerbated when students come to school without appropriate warm clothing, and that the unpredictable or cold weather can present significant planning challenges:
“I just think sometimes I would like to do more. I was saying, it's the New England weather and how cold it is. Kids don't come in prepared. Even if I want to do something, I'd ask parents to send in snowsuits, and they won't. So then it limits your ability to do certain things.”
“Sometimes if I want to do something that's over time, I just do it in my classroom because I can predict and count on the fact that I can do it any day I want. So if I have planting, or growing, or different things like that. We had a really cold, snowy spring, and that--if I was just planning to go outside, then I would have missed a lot of those days. So sometimes in my mind, I just start planning things for inside.”
The presence of a Boston Schoolyard Initiative-installed outdoor classroom was marginally related to frequency of taking students outdoors. Nearly¾ of science teachers with an outdoor classroom reported that they took students outdoors for science class a “few times” or more the previous spring, whereas only about half of the science teachers without an outdoor classroom reported taking students out a “few times” or more.
In addition, teachers who agreed more with the item “the outside area at my school is not sufficient to teach science outdoors” took students outdoors for science significantly less. While there is marginal evidence that presence of a full outdoor classroom was positively related to frequency of taking students outdoors, it is important to note that a “nice enough” space, even if a full outdoor classroom is not available, may be sufficient to make a difference.
Several teachers reported student enthusiasm and school pride in their renovated outdoor spaces. A few described their outdoor spaces as “special” and as a “little oasis right in the city.” One teacher indicated that the space allows students to feel more like scientists. Another describes how the new space has transformed the school lot:
“We had—this was all concrete, no playground or anything, with the Schoolyard Initiative we got the playground. It was just pavement out back. So we get the playground, the paint on the back, and the outdoor classroom. So before that we just walked around, just the exterior, mainly for erosion because there were some spots where you could see the rocks trickle down. So we would go outside, but not to the extent that we're able to now.”
Science teachers who agreed with the statement “teaching outdoors is a common practice at my school” took students outdoors for science significantly more often. Although principal support was not significantly related to taking students outdoors, evaluation findings suggest that a social environment conducive to outdoor science instruction can be an important positive influence on a teacher’s perception of his or her capacity or willingness to take students outdoors.
Some teachers talked about collaborating with others who teach different subjects to go outdoors. For example, one teacher described working with a gym teacher and incorporating student physical activity such as pruning, weeding, and raking. In addition to allowing these teachers to work together, this activity allowed students to engage in physical activity, and helped maintain the outdoor space.
Another teacher talked further about the benefit of interdisciplinary collaboration between PE, science, and other subjects outdoors:
“This year, actually, the physical education teacher and I teach a class together of K-1 students, and it's science and PE. And we use the outdoor classroom to teach that class. It's been this amazing teacher collaboration… we work really well together, and we teach the older kids together, we do lots of interdisciplinary stuff… we have done amazing stuff. We've done PE units, we've done science units… We've also done shapes in the outdoor classroom, so we'll make shapes with our bodies in the courtyard, and then we'll go look for shapes in nature in the outdoor classroom. It's amazing.”
Non-science classroom teachers (at schools where a science specialist model is utilized) and school leaders offered another perspective, citing the school science specialist or another person as the driving force in getting others to use the outdoors in their own practice. Rather than direction coming from the principal, it sometimes comes from a teacher peer who champions the cause of outdoor instruction.
“[Teachers] need a good and strong advocate. Whether it be the principal, or an excellent science teacher who's able to rally the troops, so to speak. So there's always—you've got to have someone or a small group of individuals who are willing to carry the work through.”
“I think we're lucky that we have [her], she's such an outdoor person, that she's really comfortable with it and actually knows what she's talking about. Having a resource like that available to schools, I think is really important, because you may have people like me who like going outside, but doesn't really—you know, I'm not a gardener. I'm not an outdoorsy person, I don't have real knowledge in it, but I enjoy going out with my kids… So somehow having that type of support too, like an actual person that can be a resource to staff members that don't have the knowledge themselves but have the interest.”
It is widely accepted that access to necessary resources and materials is important for teachers to effectively teach a variety of topics and lessons. Findings from this study indicated that outdoor instruction is no different. Teachers who agreed more with the statement “I have sufficient materials to teach science outdoors” reported taking students outdoors for science instruction more frequently. Conversely, teachers reported that a lack of appropriate materials limits teachers’ abilities or motivation to teach outdoors. For example, one teacher explained that she would like to do more planting, but the lack of shovels and other tools makes this difficult:
“I saw the benefit of it as long as you have the proper materials and resources. And that's always a struggle for us, and a school this size, a large school, where materials come up missing a lot, not getting replaced.”
Many teachers and school leaders indicated that a curriculum specific to outdoor instruction provides an important support for teachers who want to take students outdoors. While a few teachers report that they enjoy taking students out for their own original activities, others are less confident about teaching in a schoolyard or outdoor classroom. Many teachers report that having an outdoor curriculum in place, such as the BSI-created guides that accompany the FOSS program, is extremely helpful—especially for those that may be new to teaching science or other subjects outdoors. As one teacher said,
“One thing that's helped me is looking at the FOSS. They have a whole section on outdoor classrooms and how it is related to each module. Looking at that, and as I get the kids outside just incorporating that—they even have stuff for electricity and magnetism out there, for all the different modules they offer there's something that they can tie into the outdoor classroom.”
Some teachers may be comfortable taking an entire class outside on their own, however, many teachers said that they are more likely to take students outside when they have another adult with them. Similarly, some school leaders said that they more comfortable about teachers taking classes out when those teachers are accompanied by a paraprofessional or other adult. Having an extra person may relieve concerns about student behavior and safety, and allow teachers to work in smaller groups with students in order to fully capitalize on doing science in an outdoor environment. One teacher said that she felt challenged going outdoors for instruction, and waited until she could find a second or third person to accompany her. Several teachers described the importance of having another adult present during behavior issues:
“If a problem arises or if I’m dealing with managing the equipment, I have another person outside who can do the job. Or if a student’s having a tough time, someone who can take the kid inside for a break. So that’s a big factor.”
Another teacher reported having more success by reaching out to other hesitant teachers and suggesting that they go outdoors together:
“A lot of the times, if I go out with the teacher, I have a lot more success. If I say, "I'll go with you, I'll help you take the kids out" then they're not as afraid to go out with them by themselves. Because some people just need that structure of a classroom, that they don't like anything else that's not that structure. But the outdoor classroom is actually really structured, and the kids do know the rules because they come to science class.”
For additional details about the data collection, please see About the Evaluation.
Observations, interviews, and questionnaires provided data to help document and describe outdoor lessons and science instruction across Boston public elementary schools. The analysis examined the range of practices during instruction outdoors as well as relationships between frequency of outdoor instruction and particular instructional strategies.
Even with this variability, however, student observation and exploration were consistently present. During observed lessons, the students often spent time exploring the schoolyard or outdoor classroom, making and documenting observations, and sometimes completing scientific drawings. When asked what they usually do during outdoor lessons, they most often described these kinds of exploratory and observational experiences. As one student said, “What we do outside is we observe things that we find. And observe small bugs. We can observe plants and draw them, and we can observe closely.” While some students and teachers described other kinds of activities such as investigations and experiments, teachers also reported on the dominance of observations and general exploration in outdoor lessons:
“As the science teacher, I did a lot of observational drawings. That's been a lot of the time. Especially in the younger grades, really looking at things closely, looking at every little structure of it and every little piece of it. We didn't have the outdoor classroom yet, but we used to go out there and look at the plants that were there and rocks and things that were out there.”
Of those who responded to the questionnaire, 69% of science teachers reported that they had taken students outdoors for a science lesson at least once this past spring. Of those teachers who reported they had taken students outdoors for science, nearly half indicated they took students outdoors “a few times” (47%). Seventeen percent indicated they had taken students outdoors only once, 12% indicated that they had taken students outdoors about twice a month, 13% indicated they had taken students outdoors every week, and 11% indicated they had taken students outdoors more than once a week.
Teachers report using outdoor science instruction for a number of reasons. The most common and perhaps simplest reason focused on simply getting students outdoors. The largest proportion of science teachers (nearly 2/3) indicated that they frequently take students outdoors just to give students “time to explore the natural world.” Only 2% of teachers indicated that they never take students outdoors for this purpose. Other reasons focused more on science specific goals. For example, about half of science teachers reported that they frequently take students outdoors to find real-life examples of science concepts, and about half also reported that they frequently take students outdoors to plant, cultivate, or harvest a garden. Teachers were least likely to indicate that they frequently take students outdoors to assess student understanding (20%) or because an activity was too messy to do indoors (17%). In interviews and focus groups, teachers explained that most of the time, they use outdoor lessons as an extension of the curriculum, to reinforce a concept with a fun or different activity. Only a few said that they use outdoor lessons to go deeper into content or to introduce new content.
Teachers who are not science specialists also described the ways that they use outdoor lessons. Most often, these teachers (as well as students) described going outdoors for writing and reading. They explained that the outdoor classroom or schoolyard provides a calm place, or a space of inspiration. Teachers described writing poetry, creative pieces, and persuasive environmental pieces in their outdoor environments. Some even suggested that they felt writing came more naturally to their students outdoors. One explained it well:
“We do writing out there, creative writing. There's something about them finding their own spot and doing their own work, where I feel like they're able to imagine, or just kind of have this reflective place that they don't feel in the confines of a classroom with all their books.”
Teachers and students also provided other examples of using the outdoors for everything from history to math, Easter egg hunts, practicing prepositions, and sketching. One explains:
“They love to be outside in the outdoor classroom, and therefore the teachers are great in taking them out and doing math experiences—it's not just science. They do math outside; they do social studies; they do a lot of writing outside. They read outside. It's a beautiful setting for all areas of the curriculum. And I think the children—it's a very motivating factor to be out in nature and appreciating the classroom, the outdoor classroom, that we have.”
Science teachers tend to enact strategies at essentially the same rates whether the instruction is occurring indoors or outdoors; no significant differences were found as a function of where the instruction occurred. This finding is consistent with BSI’s theory of action, which holds that teaching strategies may not differ indoors and out, but that the value comes with the environment of the outdoors itself. The outdoors may provide opportunities for students to learn in different ways, but their teaching strategies generally stay the same, regardless of environment.
This finding is supported by teacher reports as well. Several teachers who take students outdoors for science or other classes said explicitly that they don’t teach differently outdoors than they do inside the classroom. As one teacher explained, “I try to make my whole class just an opportunity for always learning. Just an opportunity for everybody to get it… I think outside, inside, I try to just make it as meaningful to them as I can make it. Outside is just like another big classroom.”
Teachers spent significant time articulating and revisiting rules and expectations for having science outdoors. Almost all of the observed teachers spent time indoors reviewing the activity they would do outside, the specific behaviors they wanted to see (or not see) from students, and the general rules for science class outdoors. Doing this indoors is strategic, teachers said, “so there are fewer distractions.” Some teachers presented rules to students, while others asked students to recall rules that they had previously discussed. Many teachers regrouped with students to review expectations once outdoors, “just to remind them,” and completed a short review of the lesson at the end of class. Teachers felt that it was especially important “to just have a clear task for the kids to do” and to “frame why we’re going out, what we’re going to be doing, what I expect to see or they should have by the end.”
Despite mixed findings about behavioral concerns during outdoor lessons (described in the Challenges and Supports section), many observed teachers exhibited a fairly “hands-off” strategy for class management. As described in the Student Outcomes findings, students were often allowed latitude for independent exploration. This was consistent with student reports that when outdoors, their teachers will help them or answer questions if they ask, but often just watch them, and sometimes point out things that they notice themselves in the environment. Teachers generally allowed students to explore freely for large periods of time, regrouping to check-in on progress or review rules when noise levels rose, or when students appeared to be off-task. As expected, behavior issues did occasionally arise, and when this happened, teachers used a variety of strategies including: assigning students to sit in a certain spot and complete their work; asking the student to stay with them; and giving warnings. For the most part, however, students were engaged and on-task, and teachers stood back to let them work.
On questionnaires, teachers reported the frequency with which they used a variety of science strategies. Science-strategy use measured in the evaluation focused on strategies defined as core to the SSY model and emphasized during SSY trainings. Although the findings did not reveal any differences between SSY-trained and non—SSY-trained science teachers on the use of these strategies, there were some differences between teachers who took students outdoors and those that did not take students outdoors for science.
One important strategy that teachers may enact during science instruction is the facilitation of science communication. This can include use of vocabulary as well as verbally expressing ideas, knowledge, and arguments. Science teachers who take students outdoors enacted several “science talk” strategies at significantly higher rates than science teachers who reported they did not take students outdoors. Further, science teachers who reported taking students outdoors for instruction at least once during spring semester indicated significantly higher rates of revisiting vocabulary learned in a previous lesson and verbally reminding students to ask questions. Student reports support the notion that there are more science communication opportunities with outdoor lessons as well: students who report going outdoors for science instruction also report engaging in certain aspects of science talk to a greater extent. This is highlighted further in the Student Outcomes findings section.
Science teachers who took classes outdoors reported enacting two other strategies with greater frequency than those who did not take students out for instruction. Science teachers who reported taking students out at least once during the spring semester reported significantly higher frequencies of structuring activities to allow students to work at their own level, as well as marginally greater frequencies of demonstrating science skills (such as how to observe or measure). Both strategies are critical for student comfort and confidence in their ability to carry out science activities.
For some teacher behaviors no relationship was found between outdoor science lessons and frequency of those behaviors. These include asking students to make predictions, analyze data, explain reasoning, consider alternative arguments, make and support claims, relate concepts to the everyday environment, and articulate what they are doing and why. There were also no relationships between outdoor science lessons and teacher reports of how often they group students to encourage interactions, or describe how current lessons are related to prior lessons.
It is not fully clear why significant differences between teachers who take students outdoors for science and those who do not are not evident across more behaviors, as well as why there were no direct effects of SSY training on the implementation of any of these strategies. There may be an indirect effect of SSY training (which is related to increased outdoor science instruction) on implementation. This may occur for those implementation items (such as several “science talk strategies”) where differences were seen between teachers who include outdoor science lessons and those who do not. In addition, there was a marginal effect of teachers who reported having some outdoor science education content in their BPS FOSS kit trainings on several implementation strategies. Thus, for some teachers, other inquiry-based professional development (such as FOSS kit training) may mask effects of SSY training on teacher implementation. It’s possible that, as suggested in BSI’s theory of action, while it is important to enact the various teaching strategies outlined by SSY and other inquiry-based curricula developers, the true effect of teaching outdoors may not necessarily manifest in the teaching strategies themselves, which can occur at high levels both indoors and out, but in the added benefit of experiencing these strategies in a rich, natural environment.
Additionally, a number of practices emphasized during SSY trainings were not evident during our observations. While our visits to schools provided a very good snapshot of science instruction, they were not exhaustive, and the fact that we did not see certain strategies or behaviors does not mean that these are never present in instruction, indoors or out—only that they did not occur during our observations.
More specifically, with a few exceptions, during outdoor lessons we did not see teachers demonstrating science skills to students or reminding their students to ask questions during outdoor lessons. We did not see teachers grouping students for differentiation; as mentioned above, students were typically allowed to work independently or in groups of their own choosing. There also was little to no evidence of the outdoor environments inside the classrooms. In most of the classrooms that we visited, we did not see rules or guidelines for the outdoors posted, artifacts that had been that had been collected and brought indoors, or student observations or drawings done outside.
For additional details about the data collection, please see About the Evaluation.
Christian Phillips Photography
A key evaluation question focused on understanding the student outcomes associated with outdoor science instruction. Findings showed that participation in outdoor science lessons (as reported by teachers or students) is associated with higher levels of several positive attitudes, behaviors, and activities. The Key Findings sections highlight those outcomes that were statistically significant and/or well-supported by qualitative data.
According to the Boston Schoolyard Initiative’s theory of action, learning about the natural world in the outdoors provides an enriched experience that cannot be duplicated indoors. BSI’s theory of action indicates that science experiences come to life when experienced outdoors: students have sensory experiences, they see spontaneous real-life examples, they move and feel the air on their face. The students recognize and appreciate these facets of outdoor science as well; as one said,
“I think that science, outside science, you can—like, nature is just science itself. And you can also learn new things by—let's say you were, like we were trying to look for snails, we had to look inside nature and we got to feel how it was and you can feel the breeze, the weather in nature. Anything and everything around you would be nature.”
Many teachers also reported that when their students are able to touch, feel, and interact with phenomena outside, they not only are more interested, but the learning is more authentic and meaningful to them. As one teacher said, “A lot of the stuff is hands-on. It’s real; it’s meaningful to them. It’s a great way to really bring kids in and get them interested, if they can actually see it, touch it.”
Students echoed these sentiments, reporting that when outside, they get to see the “real thing,” touch things, feel things—“instead of imagining everything that she just says, you can go outside and see it”.
“It's really fun and everyone in my class seems to enjoy it a lot. Instead of just talking about it, we're actually going to see it. And we get to see it and touch it, and do all sorts of experiments along with it.”
“I think it's better to go outside because when you see, like, different kinds of animals you can discover their features and know new things about them and look at them very closely.”
Taking students outdoors for instruction can also provide students with a way to make a connection to their environment. Teachers reported that it builds their students’ compassion for plants and animals, and gives them an understanding and a respect for nature that they may not have had before. This reaches beyond the objective of teaching science in a natural environment to something even bigger and more profound; students can develop a greater appreciation of nature and sensitivity to the living things around them.
“It's not just science… It's just that understanding of nature, that it's not out there for us to rip branches off of trees and step on snails that you see outside. So it's a learning aspect, but also just more of understanding and growing up in life and understanding the outside world.”
“I think kids have this kindness, that they really care about animals or plants or nature. And they may not feel that connection in the classroom. I don’t know what it is, but there seems to be something special that happens outside.”
“They make such a great connection. And I think that’s what it’s all about. We’re here to make the connection. And I think they definitely benefit. And it’s amazing, isn’t it… How you can take what we’re teaching and connect it to outdoor activities, and nature in general. It’s just so important for them to know that science is everywhere, all around us, all the time.”
Students who reported that they have outdoor science lessons showed several significantly higher positive attitudes toward science than students who reported they never went outdoors for science. Although differences were not seen across all measures of interest and self-efficacy for science, a few important distinctions emerged. These differences were statistically significant, though sometimes subtle.
Findings show that students who reported that they “sometimes” or “often” go outdoors for science lessons also indicated significantly higher levels of science interest: they were more likely to agree that learning about science is fun than students who don’t have outdoor science lessons.
Further, students who reported that they have outdoor science lessons were also more likely to agree that they want to learn more science. And finally, these students were also more likely to report that they do science activities at home, even if they don’t have to.
Several students gave rich examples of science activities they did at home, which often connected to learning they had done in science at school. One student explained, “At my house, I actually have a garden, and I learn what plants need in science class. I learned that they need water and sun when I was in K-1 or K-2. I learned how if you don't give them water or what they need, it affects them and they could possibly die. And now I'm planting kale and I water them every day.”
These findings suggest that participation in outdoor science lessons was associated with students generally having more fun in science learning. In addition, participation in outdoor science lessons was related to increased motivation for students to learn additional science content and engage in science outside of school hours.
Students who reported that they go outdoors for science were more likely to agree that they can do well in science. Other findings of self-efficacy were slightly mixed, but generally positive. Students who had outdoor science lessons were slightly more likely to indicate that “Even if a new science topic is hard, I can learn it,” and “I know I can learn science if I work hard.” Thus, in addition to interest, there is some evidence that outdoor lessons are associated with students’ confidence in science ability.
Both students and teachers reported on a wide range of activities and behaviors that students might engage in during science lessons. Students who go outdoors for science “sometimes” or “often” (as reported by the students or their teachers) also show significantly higher rates of participation in several core science activities and behaviors.
Students who said that they “sometimes” or “often” go outdoors for science lessons reported significantly more instances of conducting investigations and making observations. Those who participated in outdoor lessons were 10% more likely to indicate that it is “always” true that they make observations during science time. Additionally, students who participated in outdoor science lessons were more likely to indicate it is “sometimes” or “always” true that they conduct investigations than students who didn’t participate in outdoor science lessons.
Students may interact differently in outdoor environments than they do when they are indoors in a classroom. Not only can they interact with the environment itself, but they may also engage with each other in different ways. Some students expressed that when outdoors for science, they were able to talk about their work more freely with peers, partly because teachers expressed less concern about noise levels. For these students, communicating with their friends or group members more openly, and with fewer constraints, was a great benefit of the working outdoors:
“I like doing science outside because you're allowed to talk about your experiments to your partners. And every time you go outside you have a group that you're with… And when you're outside, you're allowed to talk.”
“If you're doing it inside, if you're noisy, the teacher has to tell you to be quiet, stop talking, but when you're outside you get to talk.”
According to many teachers, students are not only talking to each other more outdoors, but they are also using more science vocabulary. Some reported that being outside and experiencing the science concepts directly helps their students build vocabulary. Some teachers spoke about increased use of vocabulary as a general phenomenon; others indicated it was a benefit particularly for younger or ELL students. One teacher provided an especially rich example of the outdoor environment helping students learn and use vocabulary:
“My third grade class, they're learning about the water cycle and it's hard for them, it's abstract concepts, really technical language… and getting them to use the vocabulary was hard, you know, precipitation, condensation, evaporation—they all sound very similar. But I took them to the outdoor classroom recently and we looked for signs of the water cycle outside, so they could see exactly where it happens and would happen. And we attached the name to that part. An example being the rain barrel, we talked about how it serves as collection in evaporation, and runoff comes from it… I'm noticing them using the vocabulary more correctly and in context since we went outside, and they're really engaged in it.”
Other findings also suggest a relationship between going outdoors and communication. Students who reported that they “sometimes” or “often” go outdoors for science lessons also reported significantly higher frequencies of using science words when they answer a question or talk to their classmates. In addition, students who reported that they have outdoor science lessons also indicated significantly more engagement in good listening skills during science.
In addition to providing new opportunities for direct engagement with natural scientific phenomena, the outdoor environment may also provide opportunities for students to have new experiences in science. Students who reported that they “sometimes” or “often” go outdoors for science lessons indicated significantly greater frequencies of being willing to try something new or different in science.
Further, the outdoors may support students’ independence. Although there was no quantitative relationship between outdoor lessons and teacher reports of students exploring independently during science, independence was frequently observed during outdoor science lessons. Teachers often allowed students to have freedom and to make choices about how to use their time. Students were allowed to explore the outdoor environment at will, finding their own spots to work and making observations of phenomena that were attractive or interesting to them. This independence also allowed students to do their work at their own pace and explore new things at will.
Finally, teachers who take students outdoors for science lessons were also significantly more likely to report that students ask questions that stem from their own curiosity. The more often teachers reported taking students outdoors for science, the more they reported students exhibiting this curiosity.
These findings suggest that outdoor science lessons may be associated with students having new experiences or ideas, as well as engaging in independent learning.
Teachers who take students outdoors for science reported significantly greater levels of students identifying connections between lessons. While simply taking students outdoors at all was associated with an increase in making connections, the more teachers reported taking students outdoors, the more they generally reported students making connections.
Students may also make direct conceptual connections between what they learn indoors and what they see outdoors. No quantitative relationship was found between outdoor science lessons and students making lesson connections to real-life phenomena, though many teachers spoke about the connections they see students making outdoors (both facilitated and spontaneous) to content learned indoors:
“I think even today, we're learning about the life cycle of the butterfly, and then outside they were all, "Oh, I think I see a chrysalis attached to the tree!" So they did, they're definitely making the connection.”
“I try and set it up so that they can hopefully go outside to make that connection. I try not to give them all the information in here so they can go out and discover it themselves.”
Classroom teachers also reported that outdoor instruction helps their students make connections between science and other subjects. Although there were no quantitative relationships found between outdoor lessons and students making interdisciplinary connections, teachers described interdisciplinary connections their students made during reading and writing activities. As one teacher said, “I feel like what we do outside always carries over into our reading and writing work. Because we'll do read-alouds that connect to what we see and do outside, and then their writing is also based on that, the activities that we continue with once they come back in.”
While significant differences were seen between students who do and do not go outdoors for science across the several activities and behaviors described above, there were no significant differences between these groups on other measures of science activities and behaviors. No differences were seen between these groups on reports of activities such as students engaging in writing, making predictions, working well together, making connections to other subjects, making connections to real life phenomena, explaining reasoning, supporting claims with evidence, considering alternative arguments, reflecting on experiences, following procedures, exploring independently, or connecting science to other disciplines.
Elementary students and teachers spend the majority of their day at school, inside a classroom. And in an urban location like Boston, many teachers reported that students have few opportunities, even outside of school hours, to explore an outdoor environment. Teachers and school leaders who are committed to outdoor instruction report that it provides students with the opportunity to have critical time outdoors, among plants and bugs and dirt.
During observations, teachers’ announcements that the class would be going outdoors for science were almost always greeted with sheer joy. Although some students did not want to get dirty or touch snails, nearly all enjoyed interacting with the plants, dirt, insects, and other living and non-living things they found outdoors. As one student put it, “When you're outside, it's more fun and everybody's having a good time.”
The questionnaire data also supported this finding. Three-quarters (75%) of the students surveyed who reported that they “sometimes” or “often” go outdoors for science indicated that it’s always true that they love going outdoors for science. Nearly 2/3 (60%) indicated it is always true that going outdoors for science is better than learning science inside.
Students were also asked to describe “one thing that they learned during science outdoors that they really liked.” They provided a variety of rich experiences and reactions. Click the image below to see an interactive visual with a selection of students’ responses.
Across the entire sample, most science teachers agreed to some extent that outdoor education “helps special education students and English Language Learners (ELL students) to be successful in science.” Several teachers expressed that the activities experienced in the outdoor environment allow special education and ELL students to participate in a different and more meaningful way than they are able to do when reading, writing, or talking in a classroom. Some teachers also reported that having instruction outdoors helps their ELL and special education students build vocabulary and use it in context.
“[My ELL students] actually try to write more, they ask for more help, versus sitting and if they were to just do book paperwork. They're able to see the things, they're able to look at it and try to explain it even if they don't have the words to communicate. They'll try and often will go back to their home language and say it in that, or ask another student, ‘How do you say that?’ So they're more expressive, verbal, about sharing things. They get more excited when they actually see it.”
“My special education class of 3-, 4-, 5-year olds, varies widely… people have to hold their hands all day, it's very structured, and when they go outside they are allowed to walk around and even—they can touch everything, and this is the only place probably in their lives where they can touch everything. And I noticed in the classroom, they'll try to put stuff in their mouth all the time, like chronically. But outside they won't do it. It's like they just touch it with their hands, some kind of sensory thing, and then they move on to the next thing. And they just are amazing… the language, too, that comes out is incredible. They'll just start saying leaves, stem—they'll just start using all the stuff I use inside with them. I think for that population, the outdoors is incredible.”
Science in the Schoolyard (SSY) training may also be related to this belief. SSY-trained science teachers were significantly more likely to agree that outdoor lessons help special education students, and were marginally more likely to agree that outdoor lessons help ELL students and students with language disabilities to learn vocabulary more effectively.
A few teachers did note that behavior can be more of a challenge when taking their ELL or special education students outside, as the environment can be over stimulating and hard to manage for some. This reflects the more general concern about managing an entire class of students outdoors, and the need for extra support (in the form of another adult) in order to take students outdoors for science or other instruction. This is discussed further in the Challenges and Supports section of this report.
For additional details about the data collection, please see About the Evaluation.