Outdoor Writing

In the spring especially I like to take the students outside to write. This makes a nice contrast from the classroom and can be a great reward for good classroom behavior. The favorite of my classes are journal writes, because students get to choose their own topics. Whatever type of writing you choose, make sure your students incorporate their observations of the environment around them.

Brainstorming is the name of the game here. We want our students to observe the natural world around them and then incorporate those details into a piece of writing. I will often ask for 20 or more triggers (individual pieces of brainstorming) at each observation point. Each write should increase the number of triggers so students are further challenged as they get better at observing.

Before going outside, we discuss what to look for. I tell students to use all of their senses. Start with the sky, the clouds, sun, and wind. Observe the temperature, the feel (and taste) of the air, and sounds around them. Try to focus on nature, not man-made noises. Then move down to trees. Watch the leaves and branches move, check out the shapes of the trunks, and feel the texture of the bark. Finally get to the ground. Observe the soil, the sand or clay or dirt, and start checking out what is covering the ground. Pick up the leaves, grasses, acorns, and twigs. Describe each in detail, again using every sense. Also watch for wildlife, be it birds, bugs, or other critters. Remind students they are there to observe, not interact with nature, so no killing bugs or bothering critters.

You'd be amazed at the variety of observation/writing points there are around your school building. I have about a dozen such places around the school building and grounds that my classes use. Each takes only a few minutes to reach so we can easily travel there and back and have plenty of time to write all in the span of a class period.

Generally students are quite spaced out, so I have to huff it around to check on their progress. I make it a rule that students must be at east 20 feet away from any other student. I remind students this is an observing and writing activity, not a discussion or talking activity.

The writing time I give students is about 15 minutes, from the observation to the writing. Again, I like to use the Journal Writing technique. I'll give students a prompt or two to get started if they have writer's block. Otherwise, students choose their own topic and style for writing. It may be a poem, song lyrics, a short story, a personal narrative, whatever. As always, this is drafting, so expect SMUG mistakes (spelling, mechanics, usage, and grammar). You can have your students clean up the writings (if you wish) when you return to the classroom.

It's important to share the students writing, especially if you can do it outside. Stop a bit early, gather the troops, and allow them to share (but be wary of requiring them to share!) I allow students to read all of their piece, read selected parts, or just tell us about it. Its non-threatening event, and try to give positive feedback - you can critique later.

I always have students pick up a few pieces of garbage on the way back in. Each day will require a slightly different number of trash pieces depending on how much I see on the way out. This helps teach the kids the importance of keeping their environment clean. Your school administrators and janitors will appreciate it too. And it only takes a few moments to do this, but imagine all the garbage your entire class can find! Take your kids out even once a week for a few weeks and you'll be amazed at how much nicer your school grounds will appear.

Writing outside can be a fun and memorable educational experience for your students.