Life Lab

Life Lab cultivates children's love of learning, healthy food, and nature through garden-based education.

Managing an Effective Outdoor Classroom

Life Lab's Effective Outdoor Management Handout (Two page PDF or view text below.)

More resources on effective outdoor management:

  • Observe School Garden Lessons taught by veteran garden instructors
  • View our Easy "Back Pocket" Activities that all garden teachers should have ready to share. Many of these work well as independent learning garden stations.
  • Download descriptions of two of our favorite ice breakers, Group Juggle and Lighthouse, from The Growing Classroom
  • edWeb's Growing School Garden Community Webinar on Outdoor Classroom Management, presented by Life Lab's Education Director Whitney Cohen.
  • FOSS Science Curriculum and The Boston Schoolyard Alliance teamed up to create Taking FOSS Outdoors Folio, a 28 page guide for teaching science outdoors. Their site also has videos of teachers instructing outdoors.

How Can I Possibly Manage 30 Kids Outdoors in a Garden?

Outdoor classroom management is an integral part of a successful school garden program. Many teachers find it challenging to work with their classes outside because of students’ high energy and the distractions that exist outdoors. When we are able to channel students’ energy and enthusiasm toward focused learning activities, however, and use “distractions” — such as spider webs, birdcalls, or ripe strawberries — as teaching tools, then the garden becomes an exceptionally effective and exciting space for learning. Ultimately, a well-managed garden provides teachers with new ways to motivate students and demonstrate concepts, and provides students with abundant opportunities to explore the natural world, apply skills learned in multiple academic areas, discover the joys of healthy eating, and work together. Educators have identified the following management strategies for making garden-based learning effective and enjoyable.

Tone Setting, Comfort, and Routine

The school garden is a unique learning environment, with activities that are usually more structured than recess, but also often more physical and open ended than those done in the classroom. In order to set the tone of this new learning environment:
• Design the garden so that it is easy for students to follow the rules. For example, make pathways wide, mark beds clearly, and create a labeled and organized space to store all tools.
• When introducing the garden, use language that reflects the goals of the space, such as "garden classroom" or "living laboratory."
• Clarify for yourself and then for your students what types of behaviors are appropriate in the school garden, and how expectations and consequences will be similar and/or different from in the classroom. For example, informal conversation is often more welcome in a school garden than in a classroom, but put downs are not allowed in either location.
• Create and follow predictable routines, such as starting each class by gathering in a circle to talk about the main idea and activities for the day, and review behavior expectations.
• Discuss the importance of staying safe and respecting all living things, including plants, animals, one another, and the adults in the garden. Enlist students' ideas to establish a simple list of garden rules toward this end, as in the illustrated sample.
• When using tools, establish and model safe use of those specific tools. Some sample tool rules include:

  • Keep the pointed end below your knee at all times.
  • Always walk when moving with a tool.
  • Clean and put tools away when finished working.

• Establish a call back signal, such as a coyote howl or a ringing gong, to let students know when it is time to rotate groups or return to the circle.
• Help students stay comfortable: When you're addressing the group, wear a sunhat and look into the sun so that they won't have to. A shaded gathering area can be very helpful. Also consider other equipment, such as work gloves for hands and carpet squares for kneeling or sitting on the ground.

Foster Students' Sense of Ownership and Buy In

• Start your year out with something highly engaging, like harvesting and eating Six Plant Part Burritos or feeding the worms in the worm bin.
• Provide plentiful opportunities for students to harvest and eat from the garden, and also to use tools they can manage.
• Look for opportunities to provide students with choices. They may be able to choose, for example, which chore to work on or which seeds to plant. 

Cooperative Learning

• Give students opportunities to practice cooperative learning skills, such as listening and sharing responsibilities. The first chapter of The Growing Classroom is full of activities designed to encourage these behaviors.
• Divide students into small groups for hands-on activities. In some instances, all the groups might be doing the same thing in different parts of the garden. In other instances, you might have multiple stations for groups to rotate through.
• Make sure that everyone in a group has a clear task. For example, a group building a compost pile might have a browns team, a greens team, a soil team, a waterer, some choppers, and some corner monitors, each with clear roles for contributing to the pile.
• Balance quiet, reflective activities with active, hands-on activities.
• When possible, use support from other school staff, parent or community volunteers, university students, or other invested adults to reduce the adult-tostudent ratio in the garden.
• Consider buddying a younger class with an older class for cross-age-tutoring out in the garden.

Be Prepared

• In addition to your planned activities, have a set of "back pocket activities" ready to go, in case a student or group finishes their task early or requires some redirection.
See Back Pocket Activity Videos mentioned above.
• Keep a first aid kit, sunscreen, and drinking water in your garden.

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Teaching a Growing Classroom Workshop at @OakSpringGardenFoundation in collaboration with I feel like I’ve fallen into a small French village. This is the former estate of Paul and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon in Virginia. Mrs. Mellon was an avid horticulturalist who designed the White House Rose Garden! I am staying in the room where Jackie Kennedy stayed when she visited here!! Sharing a weekend in this space with teachers who love kids and gardens is a truly unforgettable experience. ... See MoreSee Less

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Just when I thought we’d seen it all ... this is an agrophotovoltaic school garden underneath massive solar panels at @Manzo.Ecology in Tucson. The elementary school students here gather and analyze data on how the shade from the panels helps the plants grow and how the plants help cool the panels and increase their efficiency. What?!?! It’s amazing and gives me hope. Oh, and also they have a desert tortoise in their courtyard. ... See MoreSee Less

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Have you heard?! Life Lab is one of New Leaf Community Markets' recipients of their EnviroToken program at their Westside Santa Cruz store! So get your shopping on, bring your reusable bags, and donate 10¢ to Life Lab with every bag you use! Thank you, New Leaf!
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What happens when Whole Kids Foundation partners with you to bring 50+ leaders from School Garden Support Organizations from across the country together to get to talk shop, inspire each other, problem-solve around shared challenges, and eat amazing food prepared and served by happy 5th graders? MAGIC. That's what happens. #sgso2018 ... See MoreSee Less

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Have you heard?! Life Lab is one of New Leaf Community Markets' recipients of their EnviroToken program for their Westside Santa Cruz store! So get your shopping on, bring your reusable bags, and donate 10¢ to Life Lab with every bag you use! Thank you, New Leaf!
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We are so grateful to be starting 2018 with such strong support! Because of so many generous gifts from our supporters like you, we surpassed our 2017 fundraising goal of $124,000, with all campaign donations totaling $125,835.

These funds will help make Life Lab field trip and summer camp programs possible for children from families and schools that could otherwise not afford them. We believe that ALL children deserve the chance to love learning, healthy food, and nature. Thanks to your support, this year we will serve even more children in Santa Cruz County and across the nation.


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Happy almost 2018, Life Lab fans! We are only $809 dollars away from reaching our $124,000 year-end fundraising goal! Before you ring in the new year, will you help us ensure a promising 2018? 100% of the funds necessary to do this important work come from grants and from individuals like you. Will you join us in ensuring that we can continue to deepen and expand our reach, so that even more children can experience the joy of loving learning, healthy food, and nature? Your tax-deductible gift made by midnight tonight will go directly to supporting our programs.
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Life Lab has been the most innovative and relevant organization in this field. From providing the best curriculum to their cutting edge professional development, we have relied on Life Lab as our go to organization for support, ideas, and collaboration.
Rachel PringleSenior Director of ProgramsEducation Outside
Life Lab provides truly inspiring training. Their breadth of experience, joy for teaching, and commitment to sharing knowledge highlight the best practices in food and garden education.
Erica CurryTraining and Professional Development ManagerFoodCorps
Thank you for such a wonderful field trip experience! Your leaders did such a great job at keeping our kids engaged.
Sheila BrickenKindergarten TeacherSan Lorenzo Valley Elementary
Terry had another awesome two weeks at Life Lab. I think he learns more there than in any other part of his year. School is great, but he’s passionate (and often dogmatic) about what he learns there.
Tara NeierCamp ParentSummer camp mom