Writing in the Great Outdoors
There’s a reason why professional writing retreats often take place in idyllic locations with beautiful outdoor landscapes to explore. Personally, I can often be found under a tree with a notebook. To me a notebook and the outdoors are like peanut butter and jelly, or chips and salsa, or movies and popcorn.
At one point in my career, being able to take kids outdoors for writing workshop felt like a far-fetched dream, something that existed only in fairy tales. The pressures of standardized testing and lack of school resources was a reality far-removed from a world where kids would pack up their notebooks and go.
But lately, I’ve had the amazing experience of working as a coach with a few schools where outdoor education is a priority. The director at one school told me, “My main priorities are these: 1) being outdoors, and 2) reading and writing.” My kind of place! Dreams do come true!
Now that this is actually happening, I’m left wondering, once we get over the logistical questions of administrative support and scheduling, what’s next? How do we actually bring writing workshop outdoors?
Some tips, based on my conversations with amazing outdoor educators and (limited) experience of my own so far:
- Be prepared. You’ll need to pack a backpack with supplies, so that you don’t have to run inside every time somebody has to blow their nose. Think like a ski instructor, or a mountain climber. Bring snacks, tissues, extra paper/pens/staplers. Whatever you can imagine you might need once you are out on the playground or in a field somewhere.
- Bring something for you and the kids to sit on. If you are lucky enough that your school has some type of outdoor classroom with benches or tables, that’s amazing. But most of us will need to acquire several picnic blankets, and then assign kids to carry them in and out for us. (The plastic-woven beach blankets are great because they don’t get wet as easily).
- Kids are going to need to pack too. Without a classroom writing center to go to, think of provisioning each kid with their own mini-supply of pens, tape, paper/notebook, lightweight clipboard, etc. You might form teams of 4-5 kids, with one kid in charge of carrying extra supplies (someone who isn’t already carrying a beach blanket).
- Recruit caregiver and parent volunteers. Their support is invaluable. Plus, they can carry things.
- Dress for the weather. If you’re serious about outdoor education, then you’re going to go out rain or shine, no matter the temperature (as long as it’s safe). You’ll need to communicate with families to ensure that kids come dressed for the weather, and you’ll want to build up a supply of extra gear like mittens and dry socks. Consider working out a plan to build a fire (yes! a real fire!) if you live in a cold weather climate in the winter. If your school is seriously committed to outdoor education, I’m thinking you will, at some point, want to invest in a shelter of some kind, like a yurt or lean-to.
- Bathrooms. Plan for them. Enough said.
- Last, but not least, communicate with families often to celebrate what an awesome school yours is to be getting kids outdoors!
If you’re left thinking, “What? This is real? People are going outside, and lounging comfortably on picnic blankets while kids storytell or write in their notebooks?” Not long ago, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. But, yes! It’s really happening! Many thanks to Mountain River School in Stowe, Vermont, and Brewster Pierce School in Huntington, Vermont for your inspiring dedication to outdoor education and Forest Fridays!