It’s useful to prepare for extended outdoor work with practical exercises and short introductory sessions in school beforehand. In this section we’ll look briefly at the role of Group Work and the three fundamentally important process skills of Observing, Communicating and Spatial Awareness.



Excepting for the shortest outings, it’s an essential prerequisite that children have learned to work responsibly in autonomous groups before venturing out for several hours, especially to unfamiliar places. There are two main reasons for this. First, is safety. As we’ve already mentioned, there should really be one accompanying experienced adult for every 15 children, and ideally more depending on circumstances. In practical terms this means that effective adult supervision is always likely to be less than sufficient. The answer to this deficiency lies in the level of responsibility of the children themselves. In return for the attractive freedoms they experience, they will normally be willing to take on responsibility for looking out for a number of ‘buddies’ each with a simple task to fulfill. In effect they can collaborate to keep themselves safe, coordinated and supervised by teachers. In order to work like this, they need a period of progressive training. A second reason has to do with social skills and values. Working in groups develops values such as social awareness, cooperation and solidarity. It also affords the chance of making positive contributions to those children often stigmatized as being ‘discipline problems’ in school. Very often such individuals, when entrusted with real responsibilities outside the school, show themselves to be highly positive leaders. It’s a good idea to change numbers and group sizes more than once a day, working sometimes in groups of, say, 6 to 8, and sometimes in smaller, sometimes larger groups. Even solo sessions can be handled collectively, by the teacher containing the whole group within a defined space demarcated by a landmark such as a footpath. In short, autonomous work in independent groups is a basic component of outdoor education. The more practice children have at this, the more useful and enriching will be each outing and its follow-up, both in class and in ensuing field trips.


Observing is the fundamental skill with which individuals relate to their natural environment, whether they perceive it outside in nature or inside their own sensations and personal feelings. Developing the skill of observation requires frequent practice that is sustained over some time. It takes effort and some concentration to open the senses to the sensations nature brings, which are often subtler than the brasher stimuli of the city.

Silence, for instance, is so unfamiliar to many children that at first they may seek ways of rejecting or disturbing it. With time they come to accept and enjoy it. The same is true of quiet moments of reflection, often resisted at first as ‘boring’ or ‘uncool’ – but which with time they come to relish.

Also, because our culture is so dependent on the visual stimuli of appearances, it’s good to maximize the use of other senses than that of sight. This opens unfamiliar perspectives on the world, for example, while walking blindfolded or at night. Activities like this introduce children to ideas such as balance, uncertainty and non-verbal understanding. They can be simple. The point is the purpose - developing the habit of actually noticing what’s happening around and inside the person.



A volunteer dresses in unusual clothes out of sight of the others and is shown to the group for one minute. Everyone has to remember all the details they can about the clothing worn, without talking with each other. The volunteer disappears from sight again and everyone writes down a complete description of her appearance. Finally, they reappears and the group compares notes.


Light a candle, ideally one per child. Each one writes down all the visual observations possible about the burning candle. Leave as much as 20 minutes for this. Observations are defined as that which is received by the physical senses. For example, It’s white is an observation. It’s made of paraffin may be true but the senses cannot prove it. Also avoid judgments or comments like It’s pretty. Finally, make a common list of all the observations made. Everyone will be surprised at how many they are.


Great care is necessary with hygiene and choice of substances in taste experiments. Quantities should always be kept small and unknown substances should never be tasted. One simple activity goes like this: children are blindfolded and identify the taste of different foodstuffs, such as salt, lemon, sugar, garlic, pepper, chocolate powder. Write an account of the sensations. Did you taste them all in the same part of the mouth or tongue? Did smell have anything to do with it?


One can practice with smell in a similar way to taste, by placing different substances is small perforated containers. Another experiment is to burn a piece of paper in a tray, and count the seconds from the burning out loud. The children count the seconds the smell takes to reach them. Ask them, What exactly is a smell? Discuss this with them and ask them to find out for themselves from books available.


To exercise this sense, use principally everyday sounds available. Ask, What is a sound? Does it really exist? How do you know that? Find out more, as with smell and taste.


One person sits blindfolded in the centre of a circle, guarding a ‘treasure’ that makes noise when moved, such as a bunch of keys. In complete silence, have someone in the circle try to remove the treasure. The guardian has two tries to trap the treasure hunter by pointing a finger.


One activity that’s useful, and much enjoyed, outdoors is that of careful listening. To introduce it, have the children sit silently, separate from each other, and count all the sounds that they can hear in 2 to 3 minutes. Finally have each one make a list, and then make a collective list for the whole group. This is usually much longer.


When working with touch, remember the sense of touch doesn’t lie only in the hands. We’re always noticing differences between sunshine and shade, for example, humidity and dryness, or the rush of air as vehicles pass. What do all these sensations have in common? Before long we are studying the nervous system.


Place a number of oddly shaped objects inside bags, and have groups of children identify as many as they can in a given time only by touching them.


Children go out into the school yard and find as many objects as they can of different textures (smooth, rough, spongy, wrinkled, sharp, and so on). Each object should be listed with its adjective, description and where it was found.


These have special importance, as they permit us to sharpen and develop senses other than sight.


Form groups of two. One partner will guide the other, who will be walking blindfolded. In order to do this in silence, first of all they spend two minutes working out a sign language to control the walk (Start, stop, left, right, careful, step over, etc …). Then they start to walk an interesting, varied route for up to 5 minutes or so, ending up at the starting point. The sightless walker then looks and tries to identify and walk again by the route they followed as exactly as possible. The next stage is to reverse the roles and the process is repeated. If desired, the experience and the route can be described in writing, or drawn in a simple map.


In an open space, groups of between 5 and 10 form lines ahead, with hands on the shoulders of the person in front. All are blindfolded except the person at the rear. This person is the ‘driver’ of the caterpillar, and directs it by means of taps on the shoulders of the ones in front (start, stop, left, right …). Each person in the caterpillar must relay the orders forward as rapidly as possible. After a couple of minutes, stop the caterpillars and have the heads go to the tails. Repeat the process until all members have been both head and tail.


Nature is so full of surprises it continually challenges our powers of communicating clearly and efficiently, and the diversity of these surprises demands great creativity. The underlying purpose is to develop a strategy of group communication that enables us to maintain permanent contact and therefore safe in everything we do.


Most children will know the game of passing a secretly whispered message between members of a group, and comparing the original message with the final version. It can be practiced at increasing levels of complexity until accuracy improves, even as a competition between small groups.


All the children have the name of an animal on a label on their forehead, and don’y know what their animal is. They have to find out what animal they are by asking their companions. Questions can only be answered with the words Yes, No or Maybe!


Invite the children to describe a drawing or a coloured pattern to a group of people who are simply listening on the telephone and cannot see the original, or any hand gestures helping to describe it. Those listening have to draw their idea of the drawing or pattern according to their understanding of the instructions. Compare originals with reproductions, and then reverse the process.


Ask the children, Can you describe clearly your way home from school, to a person who is new to the neighbourhood? How many blocks are there? What is that in metres? In kilometres? Is it towards, or away from, the centre? To the North or South? Ask them to write instructions clearly, and then distribute them among their classmates to see if they can understand them clearly.


To combine simple group work with the processes of observing and communicating, here is a selection of example games that will be useful both inside school and in the area, and can be adapted into different versions of the always popular ‘treasure hunt’. These can be carried out in groups of between 2 and 8. Depending on the number of tasks allotted, the children can take individual responsibility for sharing them. As well as being fun to carry out, this is a good way of preparing them for more advanced outdoor work.

One group collects leaves (from the ground) belonging to several different tree species, and asks another group to show which trees the leaves came from.

Each group has to fins, for example: one leaf – one fruit – a number of seeds – something red – something round – an animal hair – a bone – a leaf that smells – something that makes a noise – something that pricks – something eaten by an animal.

For this activity hand some lenses will be useful. Everyone finds as many living things as they can at a distance of not more than 5 centimetres from the ground. Have them draw and list these life forms, then make a combined report.

The children fill their hands with sand or earth, and identify different colours or components in the contents of their hands.

Have them search for natural objects whose names begin with each letter of the alphabet. Can they name all 26 letters?

In autumn, collect examples of as many seeds as possible that travel by different methods.

One group collects 10 natural objects of different characteristics. They show them to another group for one minute, and then cover them with a cloth. The observers have to describe them in as much detail as they can. Reverse the process.

Within one defined area, one group collects 10 objects and places them in odd places where they’re not normally found. Another group, kept separate until then, has to search for them, find them all and return them to their places of origin.>p>

One group collects a list of 10 descriptive adjectives (eg, glassy, corrugated, nibbled, bloody) related to objects they have found in the place, and asks another group to find objects corresponding to each one of the adjectives.

Each group searches for 10 different natural objects that:
>measure less than 2 centimetres across
>have different colours
>show the activity of human beings


Awareness of space and time is an area which is often little developed in urban children, but has fundamental importance in developing their ideas of environmental processes. It’s also immediately and practically useful in maintaining group safety when moving out of doors. Teachers of math, social and natural science will have many ideas relevant to this theme. Any practices of Estimation or Measuring are valuable in developing awareness of humans’ place in the universe. One fundamental reason for this is the enormous differences, for example, between the slowness with which most life forms have developed, and the rapidity of human impact over them. That is the case of forests, which in many cases take thousands of ears to grow to maturity, whereas humans can destroy them irreparably in as little as a matter of days. Time is a theme that language and history teachers can address with readings about past events in history, pre-history, and particularly the history of life’s development on earth, the earth itself and even the history of the universe. In this connection, the purpose is to expand our conventional horizons which concentrate mostly on this present human lifetime, to take in the far larger and longer processes that have made it possible. We’ve included some example readings at the end of this book, and in the website references attached. This area is also worth exercising actively because in any given group there are normally huge differences in levels of understanding. Estimation in the field is an extremely useful skill that aids in orientation. Rustic technology as simple as a stick, for example, can help to measure the height of a tree or hill, or the width of a river, by geometry of triangles. Details of such exercises can be found in manuals of survival and outdoor living.


When we’re out in nature it’s always helpful to maintain a clear idea of directions, for two fundamental reasons. First, such awareness obviously keeps us ‘safer’ in the sense of knowing where we are, staying together and saving energy. Another reason has to do with the natural world itself. Everything in nature = plants, animals, soil, wind, water and humidity – everything – depends on and varies according to the movements of the sun. Developing clear understanding of these processes can help us explain so much about an ecosystem. So we can start with these questions: In what direction does the sun rise and set each day? Can you name them, and indicate where they are? (And what about the moon? Is there any direction or similarity of movement?) At mid-day, is the sun directly overhead of us? If not, which side of overhead? On the North side? The South? The East? The West? Careful – trust your own observations, not just what you hear other people saying.

At a later stage, have them observe more carefully for a while, and find out: Does the sun rise and set in exactly the same direction every day? Why are days longer in Summer, and shorter in Winter? What is the shortest day of the year? What is the longest? Is there any day(s) when day and night are the same length? When? Was there a moon last night? What shape was it? How is it changing? Draw it.


There are times when mist, rain, or darkness make it impossible to see the position or movements of the sun or moon. At such times, for clarity and even for reasons of safety, it’s necessary to confirm your sense of direction with a compass. Every compass contains a magnet (in the form of a needle, disc or sphere), so balanced that it can rotate completely freely. By the way, have the children answer these questions: What exactly is a magnet? What’s it made of? Are they natural or made by humans? The funny thing is the magnet in the compass always seeks the North and South poles of the earth? Why is that? Actually, this planet home of ours, the earth, acts like one huge magnet, because of its rotation and the different density and temperatures of its interior layers. Its magnetic force is not that strong, but it’s enough for a hanging magnet to detect. Experiment by making your own compass.


Magnetize a sewing needle by stroking it with a small magnet several times (say ten) from the middle to the point. Turn it round and repeat the process the same number of times in the opposite direction. Now it will be a magnet. Pass it symmetrically through a small piece of paper, and float it on some water in a plate. Just like a compass, the needle will turn until it points North and South. That’s because it is a compass now! If you bring the other compass needle near to it, you’ll see something strange will happen. Something similar will happen if you approach it with a nail or other object made of steel or iron. Finally, try doing the same with a small battery and watch what happens. Why’s that? Find out the connection between magnetism and electricity.


Working out of doors demands basic skills in orientation, and these will be so useful all life long that it’s necessary to get off to a good start with no bad habits. It’s worth making clear to all the children that orientation is more than just an exercise. Scientists and many other people use maps all the time. Whether they are studying wildlife, making roads, or exploring deserts, jungles, the bottom of the oceans or even other planets, maps are tools for everyone … even people in the city finding their way on the Metro. This is why an excellent way to begin learning orientation is by making simple maps, even starting right inside the classroom. Dividing the class in map-making teams of 4 to 6, and you can start an interesting and useful project, which combines the need to work as groups, estimate, measure and record a lot, as well as developing more complex spatial concepts such as proportion, scale, contours and many others. A practice map can take in an area as small as a classroom, or as large as the whole school or even more. Depending on the scale, it may include buildings, vegetation, roads and other landmarks. If no maps of the school exist, groups can collaborate to make one for hanging at the school entrance on public view.


Before embarking on the map itself, it’s necessary to clarify that any map must possess two characteristics in order to function properly:

First, it must show North. By doing so it automatically indicates the other directions, and this means that, if we draw it carefully, the relative positions of the landmarks on the map will lie in correct spatial relation to one another. This will enable visitors, for example, to see their way around the school with ease. Secondly, it must have a scale. This shows the relative size the paper has to the terrain it represents. For example, for a school building 30 metres long to fit on paper measuring 30 centimetres, a useful scale would be 1:100 - each centimeter on paper would represent 1 metre on the ground. If the paper measured 20 centimeters, the scale would need to be adjusted to 1:150 to accommodate the 30metre building. Relative proportions need to be considered right at the start, in order to have the whole area chosen fit comfortably inside the paper being prepared for the map. To do this easily, it’s useful for everyone to make a sketch with rough estimates of the whole area’s total length and width and the basic directions of all its main landmarks.