Teaching Outdoors

Understand Your Audience

Why is your audience there? To learn content related to a class? Skills training? Casually gathering to see what's going on? The needs of your audience will determine what you do, but all audiences appreciate active learning. If you are talking, ask questions for them to consider and to respond. If you are demonstrating, try to arrange a way for them to try it, too.

  • Children need activity and free time. Discovery is fun.
  • Adults love to interact and learn from each other. They also appreciate opportunity for some autonomy.
  • Mixed ages and abilities require some flexibility, options to participate. Family groups may need to step aside or access rest areas between scheduled breaks. 

Prepare participants ahead of time about clothing, shoes, food and any personal items they should or should not bring.

Once they've arrived, create a friendly and trusting atmosphere. Provide a game plan.

  • Introduce yourself and the theme or purpose of the visit
  • Orient them to the site. Include starting and stopping points, where water and bathrooms are, landmarks and destinations.
  • Provide maps if you are traveling out of sight of the starting point.
  • Address basic needs and expectations, such as where you will start as well as where and when you will end. 
  • Tell your audience where and when there are bathroom breaks, water to drink, etc., and who to alert if they encounter a problem.
  • Accommodate all participants. Consider if your trip will involve strenuous hikes, go off a paved path or other experiences requiring a certain level of ability. Ask participants to let you or a designated assistant know if this will be a problem and consider alternatives such as assistance or alternate but equivalent experiences. Be respectful and creative to be as inclusive as possible.

Be kind to your audience. Some in your group may have little or no experience exploring the outdoors and may be uncomfortable in this setting. Reassure them about any wildlife encounters. Some will be concerned that “lions and tigers and bears” are lurking and ready to pounce!

Safety First

Discuss safe behavior, expectations and outdoor ethics. Do they need to stay on a path? What about electronic equipment? May they collect items? Be sure to know the rules at the location you are visiting.

Will you be near water? Discuss water safety, including wading.

Show a picture of anything they should be avoiding, such as poison ivy. Enlist the help of the group to alert each other about these. Remind the group that they can have fun and easily avoid potential hazards.

Count noses before you go, then use a buddy system or divide the larger group into small groups. Instruct the group that at each stop along a hike or station in your learning experience, they are to be with their buddy or members of their group. Have a volunteer take an overall count periodically.

Agree upon a signal to regather as a group at a specific time or place.

Remind the group that if they cannot see you, they have gone too far.

Have your emergency plan in place before you go, including phone numbers and people in charge in case of a medical or weather emergency.

Identify group leaders by name and relevant information. Having identifiable caps, shirts or other visible cues for all leaders is best. If going out of sight in small groups, have at least two adults assigned to a youth group for safety and liability.

Engage Your Audience

Project WILD participant, “This information is very helpful in getting children actively involved in the learning process.”

Ignite wonder! Engage participants with an experience for everyone that is fun, well organized and meaningful. 

Fun – Everyone wants to enjoy themselves.  It also opens minds and hearts to new experiences and learning. Are there amazing facts and fun things to do and see? Be enthusiastic and genuine. 

Organized – have your activities and equipment organized ahead of time.

  • Know how and where you want people to physically move through the experience.
  • Do the activities need to be in a certain order for understanding?
  • Will some activities take longer than others?
  • Have back up plans for bad weather, missing or malfunctioning equipment, people arriving at different times, etc. Plan for the unexpected.

This organization will ensure that participants are engaged and trusting of the experience. Sitting around while organizers are distracted and distraught will quickly derail the experience. Do plan for some play or unstructured time, too.

Relevant – How would you answer "So what?"  What’s the big deal about why you are there or what you are learning? How does this relate to the lives of your audience?

Thematic – Themes are statements that provoke thought, reveal meaning and relationships and inspire participants toward their own personal truths. Themes will help you frame your comments and chose activities. Here's an example from interpreter/trainer Sam Ham: Compare working with the topic of “forest trees” to the theme “Nowhere is the mystery of nature’s design more apparent than in a forest.” or the topic “conservation” to the theme “The history of nature conservation is a story about villains, heroes and the will of a people.”

Encourage participants to ask questions and offer their thoughts. Acknowledge and verbally reward participation. Vary your questions, such as What do you see? What comes to mind when you think of ____? What are some ways that _____? How does ____ compare to _____? Why do you think ____? What if ______?  

Assign participants specific tasks such as helping carry supplies or equipment.

Use activities that vary between group work and those done individually. Individual activities should be completed within a buddy system or small groups. Having some activities that are observations or personal responses assures that everyone has a chance to participate.

Recognize and use “teachable moments.”  Leaders don’t need to know everything and rarely do. Perhaps someone in the group has the answer to a question. Look up answers together either at the time or when you get back.

Model Stewardship

Healthy Habitats provides grants to schools across Texas.

Have participants help clean and pack supplies and equipment.

Leave the area better than you found it. Everyone should help clean up. Bring trash bags and offer a small prize or acknowledgement for the most collected.


Reflect on the experience as a group.
• What surprised you about this activity/experience?
• What worked well?
• What didn’t work so well? What would you do differently?
• What might you tell others about what you learned?

Celebrate the experience with stories, snacks or pictures.