An indoor classroom that reflects the complexity and wonder of nature generates enthusiasm for outdoor learning.  Outdoor learning activities should not be isolated experiences that appear disconnected from what is going on inside the classroom. Here are a few quick ideas for making your indoor classroom an exciting gateway to outdoor learning.

Birds—up close and personal: Think of it as an avian TV reality show! Imagine a small camera that fits inside a birdhouse. The camera is usually connected by a cable (100 feet or so) to a monitor inside of a classroom. Many cameras come with a microphone and infra-red imaging, so students can both see and hear what is happening in the birdhouse.  During nesting season, students are fascinated to watch birds hatch and be cared for by the parents. It’s even possible to stream the video via the internet to a school website.  

An internet search using “birdhouse spy cams” will yield dozens of possibilities. Many wildlife observation cameras are available for less than one hundred dollars, which is a feasible expenditure for many parent-teacher organizations. The camera lasts for years and can easily be shared by many classrooms.

Some schools use the camera for more than bird observation. They can observe bird feeders, fishponds, creeks, and animal homes of all types.

Create a pond in your classroom: Do you have a kiddie wading pool gathering dust in your garage? Consider transforming the pool into an interesting mini-pond for your classroom. Ohio middle school science teacher, Sue Cook, calls her classroom pond a “kid magnet”. The unique classroom feature attracts interest and provides many opportunities to teach about nature.

Sue placed the wading pool on a table, added a few rocks, and then filled the pool with water to within three or four inches of the top. Since her school has well water, there was no need to treat the pond, although tablets for chlorinated tap water are easily obtained at a fish supply store.   She also added an aerator to keep the water moving and fresh. Inhabitants of the pond included crayfish, tadpoles and minnows. The key, of course, is to use small critters. Sue included small turtles in her pond also, which necessitated the addition of a light. Over the summer, some students took critters home, but most were released back into their natural habitats.

The basic rule that governed the pond was “keep hands out—use your eyes to observe.”  And students did observe many things! The pond served as a teaching tool for concepts like camouflage, adaptation and life cycles, to name a few. The presence of a pond in the classroom provided a powerful link between the indoor and outdoor environments.

Nature happenings chart: Although Sally Massengale at Glenwood Elementary in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, does engaging outdoor learning activities, she starts building enthusiasm for nature indoors. Sally made a simple hand-drawn map of the school grounds on a sheet of poster board. The map was placed outside of the cafeteria (probably the busiest area of the building) with index cards, markers and yarn close by. If a student spotted an interesting plant or animal at recess, the child would draw the find on an index card. The name of the critter or plant was also put on the card, sometimes with Sally’s help. The index card was taped to the wall and a piece of yarn went from the card to the location of the plant or animal.

The impact was dramatic. Students were excited to look at the chart and see what had been found that day. The next time students were outside they would look for the plant or animal that had been placed on the chart. Of course, the animals had usually moved on, but often students found new nature items because they were taking the time to look closely at the outdoors.

The chart is a marvelous low-tech way to encourage children to look carefully at the natural environment. It is a powerful interactive visual aid that shows at a glance that the schoolyard is full of life.  


(Herb Broda is the author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning, and Moving the Classroom Outdoors )

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Replies to This Discussion

Wow. These are great ideas. I can see how the indoor pond would be a "kid magnet" easily. We recently added tadpoles to our outdoor school ( and it has been a main attraction. I keep some magnifying glasses and books on the life cycle of a frog next to it. It's in a small fish tank because we don't happen to have any ponds nearby but your idea is basically what I already have--on steroids! Love it! 

I also love the video idea. My dad happens to be a nature photographer and he has a type of night camera that takes pictures of things at night triggered by movement. This might also be an interesting thing to add. The children could learn all about nocturnal animals that inhabit their immediate area.

All of these are going to be wonderful additions to our rapidly growing school--thanks for sharing!

 I really like the night vision camera idea. You could put out some dog food or corn and see what might be attracted at night.  Could be a great way to talk about nocturnal animal movement.

I was thinking the same thing...I actually have a chicken coop that seems to attract animals as well--so that might be enough bait on its own! I've come out at night and scared off some pretty large raccoons, and a neighbor walking her dog alerted me to the fact she's seen coyotes coming near our yard at sundown... 

(I just ordered your latest book by the way--can't wait to read it!)

Thanks for your kind words!

Lovely post. I'm also a fan of nature tables and natural curiosities placed inside that children can examine, talk about and use as props. 

It truly is amazing how very routine items like pine cones or unique stones can generate great discussion. I am curious about the types of objects that you have found to be especially useful in fostering discussion.

These are great ideas, thank you for sharing! I love the pond idea and will add it to my list of activities for the classrooms we visit.

I really loved the classroom pond idea. I can imagine so many thing one could do with a pond as a teaching tool. 

About the camera idea, setting up the camera may not even be necessary as they are a few sites that transmit 24/7 images of wild birds. I  know a few here in Portugal ("grifos in the web" is one of them, check out the website ) but I am sure many more exist around the world. 

This is the "Helping Hands" tree we made with Girl Scouts a couple weeks ago - and we do this in classrooms as well. Kids color and share what they do to celebrate and help nature. First we read the book, Helping Hands, then share in conversation, then color, cut and paste. The recycled tree is made from cardboard (guess what kind of triangle you have to cut?) and an old hat stand. Indoors, we put right up on the wall.

It can be a part of "daily inspirations" in the classroom which help keep kids excited and motivated about connecting with nature. A great, hands-on project for libraries as well.




 What a wonderful way for children to share their enjoyment and concern for nature! Thanks so much for sharing the picture.


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