Our #TeacherStrong Strategy: Partnering to Share Outdoor SEL Activities

This post was written by student learning specialist Kelly Koller and psychologist Byron McClure.

Kelly: Last spring when schools shifted online, I was worried about kids spending too much time on their screens. I started wondering, “What gifts do I have to contribute and how can I help?” The environment and the outdoors have always been an interest of mine and I’ve done lots of environmental education curriculum. So I started to make videos on YouTube — I’d make up an activity and share how it could be done outside. 

This summer, knowing that physical distancing is a solution, school leaders were finally listening to the value of taking kids outside. But we needed to be sharing more resources about how to conduct class outside. Being in charge of 20 elementary students can be chaotic! I had created resources for the Wisconsin Center of Environmental Education around taking classes outside for teachers who hadn’t ever done so. I thought of refurbishing them on my own but realized it isn’t rewarding to do it by myself. I wanted a collaborator and to focus on using the outdoors for social and emotional learning (SEL). 

Byron: SEL is a way to help students grow into the best version of themselves possible. It’s a process; it’s ongoing, not a day or an event or even a class. It’s from birth all the way through life. 

SEL is about identifying and understanding your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviors, and those of others. It also involves relationship building, working together collaboratively, and making good decisions. Being able to manage social feelings and handle stress, have effective coping strategies — all these things encapsulate SEL and growth. 

A student explores outside. Photo courtesy Kelly Koller.

Kelly: When I was thinking of a collaboration, I looked at my Twitter feed. I’d read posts from Byron and started following him. What I bring to the table is that outdoor piece, but I was looking for that SEL piece and Byron has a doctorate in psychology. I sent him an email and thought he wouldn’t reply. But he did and we set up a Google Meet to chat. It turns out he’s super involved and a leader at his school in taking kids outside. 

Byron: Kelly reached out to me and in our first few conversations, it fit like a glove. It was the perfect merging of ideas into this concept of Outdoor SEL — the focused use of the outdoors to heal and nurture our capacity to manage thoughts, feelings, and emotions; empowering learners and fostering positive relationships.

Being a Black man in America and understanding my culture and heritage — it’s nature. Being able to return to where you’re from and being one with the outdoors, there’s something spiritual and therapeutic about that. So many times students will be acting up and the teacher will naturally say, “Go for a break.” Doing that outdoors is just a powerful way to get clean air, breathe it in, and find peace and balance.

Kelly and Byron’s tips for teachers looking to do outdoor activities with their students: 

  • Byron: Start small. Do what feels natural and easy so it’s not forced. If you force it, then a student might not find it pleasing and might not want to do it again. It could be as simple as going for a walk and asking a child, “What do you observe around you, what do you see?” You can challenge those senses — “What can you touch, see, hear?”  
  • Kelly: Think of it as holding class outside at first. Move class outdoors and use it as a space where you can physically distance and take face coverings off if they’re required in your school. Start with something that’s comfortable and push yourself to do more as you feel more comfortable. 
  • Kelly: Take it one step at a time — once holding class outside becomes comfortable, look for independent activities for kids so they’re exploring with whatever space they have. At one school I taught at, we had only one strip of nature — a mowed path with non-native shrubs and a couple of small trees. Even that environment provided different things for kids to look at every time because the outdoors is dynamic and always changing. 
  • Byron: Check out some of the people who are doing the work. Kelly has an awesome website — see what’s there. She has a Deep Belly Breathing activity that you can take and practice with students:
  • Kelly: I used the outdoors a lot for literacy. There is always something different to write about because it’s a different day and there is such a rich, evolving, interactive classroom when you’re outside. 
  • Byron: One of my favorite activities is reflecting on three good things — asking, “What are three good things that happened to me over the course of the day?” It can increase happiness and you can easily do that outdoors. It’s a very simple thing that you can start doing today. 

Kelly: Partnering with Byron really helped my confidence. He said, this idea is worthy, it’s a contribution that needs to be developed more. I took his advice and made a Twitter account and YouTube channel. We also hosted a webinar on Outdoor SEL:

Byron: Collaborating with Kelly has expanded my thinking around the possibilities, the options, and how we might support our students in nontraditional ways. It has taken my thinking to greater lengths of what’s possible and expanded my definition of SEL and what that could be. 

Kelly: #TeacherStrong means relying on each other and knowing that we have each other as a community. #TeacherStrong came from the pandemic but it’s here to stay as a connector for us all. I’ve found ways to try to contribute and provide resources to the community, other teachers, and parents as we all try to navigate this together. Byron is doing the same thing with his website to promote SEL. We all are trying to figure out what we can contribute to each other during this time and that hashtag puts a name on it as we’re creating strategies to share.

Ready to share your own #TeacherStrong Strategy? Craft yours using our toolkit and post it on social media to connect with and learn from your fellow educators. 

Feature image courtesy of Kelly Koller