"So all you do is play outside...?" 3 Techniques for Making Learning Visible in Forest and Nature School Programs
“So all you do is play outside?”
If you’re in this field, chances are you’ve heard that question more times than you can count. And if you’re just beginning to dip your toe into the realm of nature play, it’s probably one of the key objections holding you back.
The truth is, simply telling someone that outdoor play supports academic achievement, promotes social-emotional development, or lays the foundation for lifelong environmental stewardship is rarely enough. You need proof to support these claims. And while there’s an abundance of research out there that will back you up (and you should certainly be comfortable referencing it), there’s nothing more powerful than evidence taken directly from your own program.
Whether you’re trying to enroll new students, secure grant funding, convince administrators to get on board, or simply explain what you do at a cocktail party, you need to be armed with information that quickly and clearly conveys the depth of learning that takes place through early childhood outdoor play.
Today I’m going to outline three simple techniques for making learning visible in forest and nature school programs...
When you’re introducing people to an unfamiliar approach, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Chances are you carry your phone with you everywhere already, so pausing to snap pictures periodically should be easy. The key is to focus on candid shots - images that offer an authentic representation of the student experience - rather than staged pictures.
Photos are a wonderfully versatile tool since they can quickly and easily be shared via social media or email, inserted into newsletters or flyers, and incorporated into printed displays. The key is to remember that a picture alone is not enough - your job is to serve as translator, narrating the specific growth and learning that’s been captured in the photo.
Take this image as an example…
To the uninitiated, they’re “just playing” (and even worse- they’re getting dirty!). Your job is to narrate what’s happening here, to unpack how a myriad of skills, from creativity, cooperation, self-regulation, sensory processing, spatial awareness, and identifying local leads and plants, are all demonstrated by this single image.
When context and narration are provided, this image tells a rich story. It demonstrates communication and cooperation (you can clearly see the children working together), STEM learning in the form of engineering and physics exploration, gross motor skill practice (the children built this structure on their own, which required moving heavy objects with coordination) and self regulation (they were taking turns to roll the ball down the ramp).
Video is a wonderful medium in that it allows the viewer to become more fully immersed in the student experience. That said, it offers less versatility than a photo, so you have to pick and chose when and how to utilize it. The best uses are for sharing on social media or including on your program website.
Once again, authentic representation is key. The best videos are generally taken when the children don’t even realize you’re filming, although on occasion “prompted explanation” is a useful tool as well. For example, if you notice a child hard at work on something, a simple, open-ended question like “can you tell me about what you’re doing” may be appropriate.
As with photos, it’s essential to provide narration to help viewers understand exactly what they’re seeing. While the skills being demonstrated may seem glaringly obviously to you as an educator, more often than not, an outsider will need some additional context and explanation to full appreciate what they’re seeing.
Let’s look at this video…
This clearly captures an understanding of and ability to create AABB patterns, as well as demonstrating important communication and cooperation skills. A still photograph of the same scene would fail to capture these details.
3. Student Documentation
This third option requires a bit more effort than photo or video documentation, as you’ll have to create space for it in your schedule, but the results are definitely worth it.
Allowing students to tell their own “story of the day” through journaling is a fantastic practice with dual benefit: in addition to being another tool in your toolbox for making learning visible, it also supports your students’ reflection and higher order thinking skills.
I’ve written in the past about why I’m a huge advocate of whole-group journaling (the benefits are far-reaching and incredible), but if your primary goal is making learning visible, you could certainly get similar results with individual journaling.
I often find that examples of student documentation are especially powerful when combined with relevant photos or video footage as in this example:
This pairing of a “prompted explanation” video with a sample of student documentation demonstrates the student’s ability to accurately recall and represent his experience outdoors at a later time.
A Final Note: Know Your Audience
This may seem obvious, but I’ve found that it’s all too often overlooked. The fact of the matter is that the benefits of early childhood nature play are practically endless. To maximize impact and avoid overwhelm, it’s your responsibility to identify the specific concerns and language of your audience and then tailor your examples and messaging to align.
For example, if you’re seeking grant funding from a nature organization, it would make sense to curate photos and videos that highlight how outdoor play fosters a conservation ethic. If you’re making a pitch to administrators, think about selecting images that demonstrate student's engaging in activities that tie in to current buzzwords like “grit” or “STEM.”
At the end of the day, as long as you know your audience and keep two things in mind: curation (selecting appropriate examples) and narration (pairing these images with thoughtful explanations), you'll always be prepared to respond to tough questions with compelling answers.
Want some extra support in making learning visible in your forest or nature school program? I’m happy to help! Go ahead and schedule a complementary 30-minute phone call so we can discuss your situation.