The benefits of being outdoors for our emotional, mental, and physical health are well known. But how can being outdoors benefit literacy?
This week we’re joined by Valerie Bang-Jensen and Amy Ludwig VanDerwater as they talk about Valerie’s new book Literacy Moves Outdoors: Learning Approaches for Any Environment. They walk through five easy ways to move literacy class outdoors, and how we already engage with literacy outside the classroom every day.
Below is a trancript of this episode.
Amy: Valerie, I am so excited to talk with you today about your new book, your newest book, Literacy Moves Outdoors. And I was wondering if to start us off, maybe you would just be willing to tell us a little bit about outdoor learning and why it's important.
Valerie: Sure. It's great to talk with you again, Amy. And here in New England, spring is approaching and it makes me think about this topic 24/7. So moving literacy outdoors, it's a little bit tricky because actually literacy is outdoors already. If you think about it, when you go about your daily lives, you see street signs, you see stop signs, you see advertisements. Maybe your city or town is having a festival and there are banners about it. There's chalking on sidewalks. There are little libraries everywhere. So I think that what I really want is for teachers to help students see that literacy is not just for the classroom, but it's something they can bring with them everywhere they go and they'll start to recognize it in the context of their daily lives. And I think one of the things that happened in the pandemic, if you can call it a silver lining, which is dubious, is that when they could teachers moved their classes outside.
In fact, some schools erected tents when we were keeping distance. And at first it was really tough to figure out how to do outside what we do so well inside. But then the more they got used to it and established routines and systems, many of them realized that teaching literacy can work outside. I've interviewed some incredible teachers that say, anything I can do inside, I can do outside. And that includes reading discussions and phonics work. So I think that what having children learn outside does is it offers a sense of place and their reading and writing can help them make connections to what's around them. They use their senses. Richard Luv talks about immersing them outside in how they use their senses to understand what's around them. And there's a wonderful Scottish educator named Juliet Robertson, and she says that doing anything outside is outdoor learning. And that students have to do a different kind of problem solving. Where is the shade? Where is the ground smooth? How do I get from this place to another that's already been figured out for them inside.
Amy: You're making me remember, Valerie, when my children were little and how they would point to signs and we would look at the things in our own environment. And I live really far out in the country, but I know some schools are in more urban settings and there are schools in all different types of locations. And can you talk a little bit about how this is accessible really to any teacher in any school and any child anywhere?
Valerie: Sure. I think outdoors doesn't necessarily mean nature, although going outdoors pretty much offers clouds and sky and trees wherever you are. I think that a lot of urban teachers have found areas of the blacktop where they can invite students to study cracks in the sidewalk and use the blacktop for chalking spaces and discover little rocks and stones and how worms even in the city find their way out of the most amazing places. And I think that using the walls of an urban school can be a setting for story walks, which is one of the approaches that I talk about in the book. And for some schools that don't even have outdoor spaces, you can move some of these approaches indoors if you really need to. I think all kids should be getting outside, but if you need to set up a story walk along a hallway, I saw one school do that in the hallway to the cafeteria so that as students waited their turn to pick up their lunch, they would read this story.
And I think then you can find partnerships whether you are an urban school, a suburban school, or a rural school. I've seen schools partner with parks, the conservation organizations or city parks and take walking field trips or even invite conservation officers into their schools to talk about how trails are set up or what kind of signage or other kinds of pamphlets and things like that that the parks might use. There's one school that I was working with where the school ground in the city became a tree nursery for little seedlings and saplings and the conservation officer came and worked with the students to grow these. And then the students wrote to various organizations that might want to receive these little sapling seedlings once they were able to be transplanted. And that involved literacy in the sense that they established signage for people to read about the nursery and they wrote letters to various organizations asking whether they would like to receive some of these trees.
Amy: You mentioned story walks and signage, and I know that your book really focuses on five approaches to bringing literacy outdoors. Would you be willing to just share a little bit about each of those five?
Valerie: Absolutely. So I'd like to think of this book as offering lots of different ways for teachers who'd like to move literacy outdoors. And some of them are really simple. In fact, the whole idea for the book came about when a friend who's a teacher said, sometimes it's such a beautiful day, I just want to get outside without any planning, but I want it to be worth our while and I want it to help my students meet my literacy goals for them. I'd just like a grab and go backpack. So the first approach I just call grab and go and it requires very little planning. And one of the teachers I spoke with said, it's a nice day. We grab some old towels that I've been collecting, I take our read aloud and we go outside. There, you've just moved literacy outdoors. But if you start to plan for that, you could create a backpack that has the book It Looked like Spillt Milk, which is all about looking up at the clouds and seeing the different shapes they make.
And if you bring chalk or if you bring blue paper and white crayons, it can become a writing exercise as well. And an opportunity for students to be outdoors, looking at nature, but then using their literacy tools to understand it in a different way. So some of the things are very simple. And always wherever I teach, I always look for someone who's a kindred spirit. And if I worked with you, Amy, and I had a backpack with cloud materials and books and you had a backpack with everybody needs a Rock by Bird Baylor and some little handheld lenses, we could swap out. So there we go. And every year if you just add one, you're building your collection. So that's another way to grab and go.
You also might think about setting things up so that it's easy to move outdoors where each child has a bin and it has writing implements, something to sit on, anything that you might need when you're outside and it just becomes part of your routine. Grab your bin. Let's go outside. So grab and go is one of the approaches.
Another approach is story walks. As you mentioned, these are becoming very popular around the world. They were developed by a librarian here in Vermont. And the idea is that you take apart a picture book and you post the pages appropriate distance apart for your walker readers. And then you read the book walking from page to page. And there are a lot of different ways to use these. You might have a book that connects to a space. For example, Mama Built a Little Nest is a great picture book that features different nests that birds make.
This is the time of year where I live where we can kind of see the nests in the trees before all the leaves come out. And that would be a great story walk to help students connect to their place. Another kind of story walk might be related to your curriculum. If your school is studying pollinators, you might have a story walk about bees or you might choose a more universal theme about families going on a picnic. So those are different ways you can pick books. And as I said, you can put them along the wall of a school or you could put them on a path if you had access to one. And then once students sort of are immersed in that genre of story walk, they can write their own. I've seen upper elementary students post poetry at the end of a poetry unit to share their work.
Children can write their own stories. A class could write a story. And what that invites is students to think about audience, how to end each page so that it's like a cliffhanger where you want somebody to move on to the next one. So you can be practicing all the same literacy skills and develop mini lessons for story walks that you might do for other kinds of writing in your classroom. So let's see. The next one is-
Amy: What about word gardens?
Valerie: And here we go into word gardens. To explain this, I would say if you're familiar with magnetic poetry where you have little words on magnets and you move them around to make a sentence or a poem, you're familiar with the concept of word gardens and what people have done is taken stones or rocks of any size and painted them or used chalk to write a word on each one.
If you have very deep pockets, you can even have a stone carver blast a word into it. But I've also helped schools use pieces of wood that have been sanded and then kids can use marker on those or chalk or paint and also even jar lids, saving jar lids and painting a background and then putting a word. And there's so many ways you can use these. There's a theory. Well, it's been around a long time, called the theory of loose parts, and it's really about children moving things and having agency over what happens with objects or loose parts. And this is a literary interpretation. So students can create messages, they can write haiku in a word garden. If it rains and the chalk wears away, that's great. They get to choose new words or practice writing the same ones that were there before. So I've seen teachers use these as word walls for certain curriculum, all words about butterflies.
I've seen other teachers use them for sight words. And then I've had the experience of seeing a school where the guidance counselor used these and asked fifth graders to think about words that would be good touchstones for the kinds of social interactions they would like to see at their school. So there's a lot of possibility for word gardens and other teachers have made really interesting connections to social studies. There's a school in Georgia and they developed a word garden around their whole social studies curriculum about the Revolutionary War. So they would have something like the Declaration of Independence, and that was a boulder that stayed in place. And then they had different words with concepts like freedom or liberty. And then they had some important people on other stones and students would move the stones around to show their understanding of the connection of the various events and concepts and people and their teacher said that they were much more engaged with this kind of representation of what they knew than when they had to write it in an essay. Lots of ways to use word gardens.
Amy: Yeah. Could you please talk a little bit about signage and literacy trails as well?
Valerie: Signage is one of my favorites. It's something we see all the time everywhere, and yet we rarely study it as a genre. And I think it's really powerful because it involves short text, it involves thinking about audience, and it involves using visual literacy like emojis, symbols, thumbnails, as well as writing in a very focused way. So I think that first of all, signs are everywhere. They help us get about our world. We know when to stop at a stop sign. We know what the fruit is in the grocery store, all because of signage. And I think a lot of teachers have labels on the materials in their classroom. And that's a kind of sign, that's an identification sign. And I think students can learn that signs help us solve problems. So if I'm wondering where to go and that's my problem, where do I go? A sign helps me figure that out. If I'm wondering what's okay to do here in this space, that's a kind of sign.
And once you start to notice all the signs, you can categorize them. And so for example, the kindergarten is doing a play of the Hungry Caterpillar. So for the week ahead of that, there's going to be a temporary sign announcing it. That will come down. But the entrance to the school has a sign that's there all the time. So different kinds of signs achieve different purposes. And you can help students notice this. So I'll give you an example. There was a third grade teacher the end of the year, and she wanted her current third-graders to write signs in her third grade class that would help the second grade understand what the classroom was about, how it worked, what was going to happen there.
So they created labels for different areas of the classroom. They put identification signs on the shelves for the materials, and then they had more detailed in-depth signage that I would call interpretive signage or informative signage explaining the curriculum to the upcoming second-graders. You might see these interpretive signs at nature centers or museums where they've got one big panel and they try to hook you. And interpretive signage offers a chance for students to think about audience. So professional interpreters think about a special rule called the 333 rule, which I love. And that means you have three seconds to hook your reader. Okay? If you're outside, nobody's going to settle in for a long read. You have to catch their attention right away. And writing a good hook is something that's often a mini lesson in writing anyway. So how are you going to grab their attention?
And then you have 30 seconds to give them the gist. And you might study how this is done in non-fiction picture books. I was talking with Melissa Stewart, who is an incredible author of non-fiction as well as an advocate for non-fiction. And I said, do you think interpretive signage is like picture books? And she said, yes, it's layered information. It's layered in different ways. You might have thumbnail sketches, you might have diagrams, you might have bullet points. All of those are a way of getting information across in a really efficient way. So I think that interpretive signage is a great way for students to convey information about a place or a process. I'll give you a couple of examples.
One school that I visited was creating a wildlife corridor for small animals to go from one side of their school to the other, and they wanted to explain this to people who might be visiting or might be tempted to walk in that area.
So they were very explicit about what this space was. Another school had a beautiful mural painted on the side of the building, and the kids realized that when school was not in session or no one was around to explain the mural, visitors wouldn't know what it was about. So I think that interpretive signage offers a way for visitors to understand what's happening when no one else is there to explain it. But finally you asked about literacy trails, and I had a lot of fun with this one, and I realized that I was looking at them in two different ways.
And one was just sort of trails. I call them trails of application and practice. And that's just a way to get outside on a blacktop playground and create a trail that will help you practice something. So there's a first grade teacher who gives her kids chalk and has them set up a path with boxes or a hopscotch, and they practice sight words or they practice word patterns like ill or all. And so they'll write words using that pattern and they'll jump between them. So that's just being outside and practicing the same kinds of word patterns you would do inside. As she says, what I can do inside, I can do outside. And yet she says, when she comes back in, her kids feel refreshed. And it's given them the message that literacy can go with them wherever they are. And it also expands their repertoire of what they can do outside.
Amy: Reading your book, Valerie, and hearing you speak right now, I also feel refreshed and delighted because what I so often I hear teachers and administrators talk about, oh, there's just not enough time and it's so hard to find time. And this is so true. I am in schools and I know this is true, but the way you write about this and talk about it, none of this feels extra.
It feels like this is what we do, and now we're just doing it in a new place. And at the same time, I also find a magic in the fact you are, and all these teachers you've worked with, are offering so many opportunities to get out from under technology in a way. Not that technology doesn't serve us, but it is not the only thing to serve us. And so for you and all the work in this book and all the work these teachers are doing presents, I don't know, would you just say a little bit more about none of these things like chalk and rocks and trees and blacktop, our smart boards and iPads, it's a really different set of loose parts. Could you speak to that?
Yeah, I mean, I think that every week we're learning more about technology and all of its potential, but I think that all of those items that you mentioned, the rocks, the twigs, the sticks, the chalk, the books outside really keep students in the driver's seat. And teachers too. I think all of these provide them with agency and choices. And at the same time, they're interacting and navigating the wind that they're feeling and the sunshine and the sense of being outdoors and deeply involved and engaged with all their senses in a way that technology doesn't yet allow. And it also involves movement and moving their whole bodies.
And one other striking thing that teachers who were able to move outside during the pandemic told me is that once they came back inside, kids seemed more to use the current language, more regulated, more calm, and more able to engage in whatever was next.
I think that one of them said that reading and writing and doing a nature journal outside every day improved the other kinds of writing that they were doing inside about other topics, just because they started to observe and develop patterns of ways of looking at, for example, what was around their sit spot that they went to regularly, that they just started to expect changes and that they relied on their senses to notice those. So I think that those are all important. I think that we've given kids the message that literacy is inside and reading is for inside and only for school. And when you go home, you can go on your screen. And so I think that this is one way to push that a little bit for all of us who are in schools.
Amy: I think... Oh, sorry.
Valerie: No, go ahead.
Amy: I think your book honors the wholeness of a child's experience, that it is more than consuming things that other people make to be a child that we can experience, as you said, the wind and the feel of the grass under our feet. And in this way, while your book is about moving literacy outdoors, it also opens children and their adults up to really just the wonders of nature and of science. So at the same time, we're exploring so many things.
For a teacher right now who might be thinking, I never have moved literacy outdoors. We always have literacy this certain way. Is there something, or a couple quick things you could suggest that if I were listening to this on my drive to work that today I could move literacy outdoors in this simple way that without even a lot of materials or without having read the book?
Valerie: Sure. Well, I think one is obvious, the grab and go backpack, but you don't even have to go that far. You have your read aloud, hopefully a novel you're reading a chapter from every day or even a really gripping non-fiction chapter book, like All 13 about the Thai soccer team or picture books that you're reading, depending on the age of your students. As long as the ground is dry, just go on outside and read them a book. There you did it, you'd moved literacy outside. And then if you have a little more time, gather some clipboards or some chalk and head outside with the idea that you might practice the spelling words of the week, or you might have a piece of paper on the clipboard and have them notice five things about the trees that are around you. So there are a lot of ways that you can think about your reading and writing goals and just move them outside.
Amy: Yeah, you're making me think even as a person who likes to write a lot, I sometimes am not sure what to write about. And just going outside immediately fills me with new impressions and sights and sounds, and then the ideas are there, but they weren't at my desk, but they are outside. Is there anything that you would like to also say about this book that I haven't asked you that is important for a teacher to know or an administrator to know, or even, I feel that many of these techniques and approaches you're talking about, parents could bring to their own children. I could read outdoors to my children as a mom.
Valerie: It's just so exciting to me. There's so much you can do outside. And in the book I write about joining a second grade team as they were trying to plan. And they were exhausted. It's been the pandemic, it's been a moment. And one of them was saying, just grab a book and go outside. Just try one thing. And I think what I hope this book does is offers a lot of ways in for any teacher in any school to try one thing. And it's a little bit like having a bunch of people at a pool or a river or some people are going to dip their toes in. Some people are going to wade in up to their knees and some people are going to plunge in and it's all good. And I think that I'm just hoping that there's something for everyone and it can happen over time. You try one thing this year and then you start thinking in that way and you start predicting and anticipating how you might add to it in the future.
Valerie Bang-Jensen is Professor of Education at Saint Michael's College, where she has earned the college’s Rathgeb Teaching Award. She received her A.B. at Smith College and MA, M.Ed., and Ed.D. degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University. Valerie has taught in K-6 classrooms and library programs in public and independent schools in the U.S. and Paris, and was the district elementary writing coordinator in Ithaca, New York. She serves as a consultant for museums, libraries, schools and gardens for children. Valerie's areas of interest include children's literature, nonfiction, and connections between literacy and first-hand experiences. Valerie co-founded the Teaching Gardens of Saint Michael’s College, including one called Books in Bloom, which features flowers found in children’s books.
Author of Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres and co-author of Poetry: Big Thoughts in Small Packages, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater also writes books for children. Her titles include Forest Has a Song, Every Day Birds, Read! Read! Read!, and With My Hands, and her poems appear in many anthologies. A graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, former fifth grade teacher, and writing teacher of 20 years, Amy leads school assemblies, offers writing workshops for all ages, and speaks frequently at conferences.