Supporting outdoor learning
06.23.2022

In 1957, a field science program called “outdoor school” was launched in Oregon that gave students in fifth or sixth grade the opportunity to move outside their school classrooms to learn while immersed in nature.

Over the decades, outdoor schools have been places for students to learn about the natural world. It’s a unique chance for kids to experience firsthand the connections among living things and biological systems, such as watersheds or riparian forests. Instead of learning these concepts from a book, students develop critical thinking skills by asking questions in the field, and then working together to investigate, measure and report their discoveries. Topics students study in outdoor schools typically include soil, water, plants, animals, habitats and natural cycles. Often, natural sciences specific to the local community and economy are highlighted as well.

In 2016, Oregon voters passed Ballot Measure 99, authorizing state lottery funds to provide all fifth- and sixth-grade students in Oregon access to a week of outdoor school. This new source of funding, which is distributed to Oregon school districts for outdoor school by the Oregon State University Extension Service Outdoor School Program, allowed outdoor schools to expand across the state, and the demand increased for high-quality educational resources and programming that helps students learn about natural environments. That’s when the opportunity arose for OFRI’s K-12 forest education program to partner with outdoor school. 

In Oregon, forests are the setting and backdrop for many outdoor school programs. Knowing that forests feature prominently in many students’ outdoor school experiences, OFRI supports outdoor school in a variety of ways, including by serving as an ex officio member of the OSU Extension Outdoor School Advisory Committee. We also provide educational materials and other resources to outdoor schools and, in the Salem area, help host a non-residential outdoor school that doesn’t require students to spend the night away from home.

Using forests as a living laboratory engages students in profound ways. It not only helps connect them to classroom learning, but also gives them concrete, on-the ground experiences they can draw on throughout their lives. Direct experiences with nature through programs such as outdoor school have been shown to improve students’ overall academic performance, self-esteem and community involvement.

To support these important learning experiences, OFRI recently created a new educational resource called Investigate the Forest that’s designed specifically for outdoor school programs. The Investigate the Forest journal pages were developed to guide students in learning about Oregon’s forests while they explore the outdoors. The journal pages offer hands-on, student-centered ways to study the forest or other natural environments just outside their door. The journal pages may be used before, during or after attending an outdoor school program, to enhance students’ understanding of Oregon’s forests and how they’re a vital resource. 

You can download the full journal or individual pages covering topics such as tree identification, wildlife habitat and wildfire prevention from the new outdoor school resources page on our forest education website for K-12 educators, LearnForests.org

OFRI is also a partner in the non-residential outdoor school program called PAWS (plants, animals, water and soil). PAWS Outdoor School is organized by a coalition of agencies and organizations dedicated to environmental education and offers unique, top-quality outdoor school experiences. PAWS provides a multi-day outdoor school experience at various sites throughout Marion County.  Over the course of four days, students rotate through different field sites, which include The Oregon Garden, Oregon 4-H Center, Minto-Brown Island Park and Keizer Rapids Park. Salem-Keizer elementary schools attend the program in the fall, and schools from other districts attend in the spring.

From its beginning in 1957, outdoor school has come a long way. During the 2018-19 school year (the year before COVID-19 impacted K-12 education), 37,965 students (81% of eligible fifth- and sixth-grade students) attended outdoor school. This means that during that school year, Oregon’s fifth- and sixth-graders cumulatively spent 148,887 days outside. For many of these students, it was their first chance to experience the wealth of natural resources in our state. OFRI is proud to partner with this important program that makes such an impact on young Oregonians. 

Norie Dimeo-Ediger
Director of K-12 Education Programs

Add new comment

CAPTCHA Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive. Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.