School Outside

Keeping your sanity, getting outside, and balancing academics during school closures is crucial for mental health. The best way to do it? Take school outside!

If you work in an essential job, may be scrambling to find childcare, but still hoping to maintain your child’s education. Some of you may furiously researching home school options while stocking the cupboards and preparing for 24/7 parenting.

You are suddenly faced with having your child(ren) home for an undetermined amount of time, and we understand how intimidating and disrupting this change of routine is.

Several of the team members at Tales of a Mountain Mama are also coping with school closures. However, several of us mamas are already home schooling, and today we are offering you resources and tips to make this transition a positive memory by finding time to enjoy nature–both indoors and outdoors.

>>>Looking for more outdoor education resources? Check them all out here!<<<

School Outside

Adjust to School Closures Slowly

As a home schooling mom, I have noticed a sudden uptick in the number of folks inquiring about home school resources or searching for school-day scheduling advice. I totally get it–the kids need something to do and you want them to keep learning. If your kids have siblings, they might seem to be fighting constantly. Or your kids might be constantly whining for food or the iPad. Many folks are also afraid of their kids falling behind.

My number one piece of advice? Transition slowly. Your child is accustomed to the routines of school. Generally, if your child is home for more days than the weekend, it is when they are on vacation. This sudden shut down is completely unplanned and confusing for them.

They will probably feel like it is play time, or vacation time. Let them have a couple of days to acclimate and adjust. Begin to gently introduce routines and rhythms.

You probably aren’t their teacher. Don’t try to suddenly be one, mama. Staying up late to make full-day schedules may be frustrating if you children just want to be home like “normal”.

Remember, your kids want you. You don’t suddenly need to become their home room, art, and music teacher. They need your love and support to get through a confusing time.

They’re not going to fail their SAT’s because of a global pandemic. In fact, disruptions like this often make children stronger and more resilient.

During this period of school closures and social distancing, the most important point to remember is that your children will be fine. They need to be fed, loved, encouraged and comforted. If they only finish half of their homework, spend half of their time climbing trees, or draw dragons for hours on end, they will be fine.

By spending quality time learning in and about the outdoors (here’s 100 ways to do it + a printable!), your children will develop new skills, cultivate stewardship, and maybe even end up with new connections in their brains. There is research and articles written about the major impact that nature has on our minds.

Do Schoolwork for Limited Hours

When transitioning and finding a routine that works for your family, you will probably feel the urge to start introducing academics back into your children’s day. Your school district likely has advice on this, and one thing I strongly suggest is to not suddenly research “Homeschool Curriculum”. There are so many options that it is overwhelming even to an seasoned homeschooler!

One point important to remember is that your child does not need to be doing school for 7 hours a day. Remember that in typical schools, that 7 hours often includes breakfast, recess, lunch, PE and time waiting.

When children are in classes with many other children, the day is structured so that each student gets attention. That means that there are many moments throughout the day when children are not hyper-focused on academics. When your children are home with you, try to aim for no more than 1-3 hours of structured academic time, depending on your child’s age. Think about yourself as a fellow learner, and less like a teacher.

If your school district did not send your children home with assignments, I understand the desire to find a replacement. No one wants their child to “fall behind” by forgetting their math facts, or reversing their progress in literacy. In this post I am including some ideas, resources, and websites that are all FREE to help you.

“De-Schooling” Ideas

Eventually, having a routine, daily rhythm, or simple schedule will help keep yourself and your children saner. However, initially, it can be challenging to try to have a regimented day while your children adjust to full time home life. Children love to see their friends. It is hard for them to go through withdrawal from the social parts of school.

As your family transitions to social-distancing protocols you can gently introduce routine while including fun “non-school” activities, which help your children de-compress and build a positive outlook.

At their core, many of the ideas in this post are actually “educational”, but you don’t have to tell your kids that! My favorite activities involve nature and the outdoors, so we will start there.

School Shutdown in the Great Outdoors

Countless studies of shown how being outdoors works wonders for our brains and minds. Here at TMM, we are huge proponents of the outdoors. Your children will truly benefit from the extra time they will get in nature.

If you still have access to a backyard, park, or green way, these activities are for you. I know that some folks don’t have access, or they are quarantined and mandated to stay indoors. I’ll list some indoor/outdoor activities next.

  • Go for a nature walk. Bring a notebook or stack of papers and pencils. Help your child discover the small wonders of the world. Draw together what you find (artist skills not required!). John Muir Laws has great tips for getting started. Jim Arnosky is an artist and illustrator who is also very inspiring. Additionally, check out this post from TMM team member Valerie on Exploring Nature with Children. (Science)
  • Set up an obstacle course in your yard. You can watch a Spartan or Ninja Warrior video for inspiration. Use use chairs, tires, planks, blankets. Go through the obstacle course for fun. If your kids are competitive, you can even time them. Check out more ideas here too. (PE)
  • Create a nature scavenger hunt. With younger children, you can have them look for specific colors, categories, or textures. Older children can look for specific plants, animals, or other items. Here is a good starting place if you need ideas. Afterwards, they can sort and count what they have found, and even graph it if you want (Math, PE, Science)
  • Go birdwatching. Bring a bird identification guide. If your don’t have a bird ID book, Cornell Lab of Ornithology has AMAZING birding resources and an ID app. Go into your yard or park, and sit still and quietly. Listen to the bird songs, and watch for their movements. Write down what you see. (Science)
  • Pick up Trash. Several of the mamas on the TMM team bring bags and gloves for picking up on their walks with their children. This teaches your child responsibility, care for the environment, and also develops empathy. In Vermont, we have something called “Green-Up Day” every year in May, and my children get SO excited to pick up trash. (Citizenship)
  • Build an Outdoor Shelter. This could be as simple as a teepee, or more complex with layers of leaves and boughs. Engineering an outdoor shelter builds problem solving, creativity, and, who doesn’t like building forts? Bonus? You can take school out to the fort.
  • Learn Fire Starting Skills. Teach your child about fire safety first. Then show them how to build a good bed of tinder, and use proper wood to initiate a good fire. Once you have a fire, bring lunch outside and cook in the fresh air!
  • Research a new habitat, National Park, or animal near you. The National Wildlife Federation has a good selection of resources for kids.
School Outside

Bringing the Outdoors In

Maybe you live in apartment, with no access to the outdoors. Maybe you are under quarantine, and are not allowed to leave the house. Perhaps the weather is nasty where you live, and you just don’t want to get everyone organized and out the door. You can still bring the excitement and fun of nature indoors!

Valerie wrote a great post called “Bring the Outdoors In” it that you should totally check out.

One of the aspects of the outdoors that we all love is the activeness of playing, running, jumping, biking, and more. If you can’t get outdoors, you can still help everyone get their wiggles out. Try making a pillow pile to jump on, and indoor obstacle course, or a short workout challenge. Getting everyone’s heart pumping before starting school helps them focus better.

Another great resource is the curriculum Wild Math–check out our review of it!

Read Aloud Time

One of my favorite home-school rhythms is to have a daily read aloud or circle time. At its most basic, we simply have a snack at the table while I read aloud to my children. Sometimes we have tea with something sweet or fruit. Many days, it looks like a light lunch. All my children, from the 6 year old to my twin 12 year olds enjoy this part of our school day.

I generally read several different type or excerpts of books. Most days I read from a natural science book, a non-fiction picture book, a longer read aloud, a math riddle book and a poem. We often incorporate music or art study during this time.

School Outside

Explore the World of Books

There are so many amazing books out there. Your library is a good place to check first. If your library is still open, you can often send them your list ahead of time, and they can gather the books so you don’t have to break social-distancing protocol by wandering in the library. Many libraries also have books available online as e-books and audiobooks.

We have several book lists on the Tales of the Mountain Mama website that I will share. I also have added my own favorites below.

Books to promote School Outside

The Boy Who Drew Birds tells the story of John Audubon–from when he was a boy through reaching notoriety as an acclaimed nature illustrator.

Naturally Curious Day by Day is a month-by-month look at everything going on in the great outdoors. It is geared towards the flora and fauna of the East Coast and is the best resource I have found for learning about the ecosystems where we live.

Nature Anatomy is a huge favorite in our house. It has beautiful hand drawn illustrations, and has inspired my children to pay attention to the small details.

Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event takes place in the remote, Canadian wilderness. This book inspired more research into animal behavior, forest fires, and history.

Shackleton’s Journey tells the gripping tale of Shackleton’s desperate attempt to survive in the Antarctic. Your children will be inspired by this tale. It lends itself well to further research and study of history and maps.

Because of An Acorn is a great book for teaching pre-elementary children about botany and ecosystems.

Roxaboxen is simply a delightful book detailing the joy of children building their own worlds outdoors. Definitely a must-read.

Crinkleroot’s Guide to Walking in the Woods is a fantastic introduction to the world of nature mentor Crinkleroot (a fictional character invented by Jim Arnosky). Crinkleroot goes over basic safety precautions, wilderness etiquette, and how to move in the wilderness. “Crinkleroot’s” other books have always been favorites here as well.

Maps is full of launch points for further learning. My children all love reading this book, and then pursuing further study or drawing on a country or continent.

On the subject of maps, Mapmaking with Children is actually a book for you. It is an incredible resource for doing a place-based unit study with your children on maps, geography, and the world. I highly recommend it.

Literacy Ideas Beyond Books

Audiobooks, E-Books, and Podcasts

Check with your local school district to see if they have a subscription to Epic! It is a treasury of ebooks and Audiobooks. You can buy a subscription as a family, however, educational institutions get the subscription free to pass along to their students.  There are tons of audio books at your local library. Many libraries are closed to the public, but in many communities, the librarians are happy to fill a list, and leave the books for you to pick up.

Jackie recently wrote a great post on some awesome podcasts for outdoorsy kids. Check it out!

Organize Indoor Adventures

Needing more literacy ideas? Put on a puppet show! You don’t even need puppets. Any stuffed animals or plastic animals or figures, or even holey socks will do. Write out your “script” together as a family and then take turns performing.

Or, read one fairy tale multiple times in a week, really getting to know the story. Then perform it! Or act it out with LEGO characters or play mobile figurines. You can even make the performances be re-enactments of your favorite outdoor adventures.

Developing Literacy through Kindness

Take turns reading to loved ones via Skype / Zoom / FaceTime. Sometimes getting the chance to read to someone new will encourage those reluctant readers. Especially with so many older folks in isolation, this is a wonderful way to share kindness and joy. Your child can also works well with the family pet, or an audience of stuffed animals. 

Take School Outside

When the weather is nice (after the snow has melted, of course!) I like to take a big blanket outside and work on academics in the sunshine. Several of my children truly enjoy doing their math when they can do it outside. Listen to the birds, watch a bee find a flower and feel the breeze ; being outdoors involves all of the senses.

Being outside also allows everyone to wiggle more, stretch out, and feel less stressed when something is challenging. I also am a better parent and educator when I get to be outside, so it is a win-win. Being outside allows you all to discover new things to study, while escaping the confines of your home.

Include Chores in the Routine

Children are more successful when they feel part of something important. Don’t let yourself get worn down by doing all the dishes, laundry, and cooking that having everyone home creates. Assign some chores or tasks to your children. They might initially whine or fuss, but they will be more engaged in the the long run.

Your children can help with many things, depending on their ages. Some great outdoor tasks include: picking up sticks and debris in the yard, preparing garden soil, planting seeds, walking the dog, planting grass, weeding, or taking out the trash.

This also is a great time to learn bike maintenance! Find some diagrams or articles on line, or pull up some YouTube bike maintenance videos. Older children can actually help with lubrication, brake testing, and filling tires. Younger children can wipe down the bikes with a soft cloth, and maybe even add some decorative stickers (if mom allows!).

Wisely Ration Media

Whenever we have an unexpected “down” day or even hour, my children tend to ask for media. They want to watch a show, or they want to do something on the computer. They all seem to think that technology is this magical amazing thing. I generally tend to restrict media pretty heavily, since I find it makes my children grouchy and sullen in large doses.

During a shut down like you are facing, children are going to ask to be on devices all. the. time. They’re not used to this much time at home, and they will probably get anxious about being “bored”. Well, boredom is good, my mom always said. Give a bored child some cardboard boxes, seeds to plant, or just a stack of books and it is amazing the learning and creativity that can occur.

Instead of having a daily media binge, I like to save media/device time/movie for when I REALLY need them to be quiet and independent. I know a lot of parents are attempting to work from home. My husband works from home, so sometimes, if he has a conference call, interview, or other important task, I definitely turn a show on.

Given the unpredictable nature of this current shutdown, don’t feel “guilty” if your kids do end up using more media than you had planned. No one had much warning, and you can totally give yourself grace.

Take Time to Recharge

Do not feel like you need to be teaching or entertaining your larger-than-life kiddos all day long. They can learn on their own, or entertain themselves without you being there. You probably don’t have the energy of Superman or the patience of Mary Poppins (and if you do, send some my way, please!).

It is easy to want to try ALL the Pinterest projects and home school ideas, but the truth is that it can all be exhausting. You can’t pour from an empty pitcher. Take a step outdoors, dig in the dirt, or switch off with your partner to get some time away from the kids. It will help you have the mental stamina for the long haul.

Kids are tuned in to their parents’ stresses. If you are worried and anxious about current events, they will be too. Being outdoors in the fresh air and sunlight is as good for you as it is for them.

Be Creative with School Outside and Have Fun

Ultimately, this period of school shut down due to Covid-19 WILL end. (Right? Right.). We don’t know how long the the closures will be. Yet we can make the most of the time we have with our children make these long days better.

This great post is chock-full of ideas to keep your family busy during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Soon, summer will be here, and outdoor play will become easier and easier. Think of this time as summer “boot camp”. By the time “real” summer rolls around, all those bikes will be tuned up, the skis will be put away, and you might even have all your hiking gear ready for action.

Everyone’s schedules have been disrupted. Even us home school mamas are dealing with all our activities and classes being cancelled. We are home 24/7 unless we plan time in the outdoors.

I am finding that as much as I love being outdoors, I need to be intentional if we’er going to get the nature therapy that we desperately need.

Know that mamas around the country and world are dealing with the same struggles and anxieties that you are. None of us are in this alone. Help your child with their schooling as you can, but remember, the outdoors are always there, ready for exploring, discovering, and restoring balance.

© 2020, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author.


  • Rita Muller is a born and raised Vermont girl and mom of five children (yes, she knows one is missing in the photo below – she’s working on that!) She works and plays from the northeastern corner of her tiny state. She likes to think that Vermont is small but mighty. Living one hour from the largest mountains in the Northeast and a major part of the Appalachian Trail is a constant source of outdoor adventure ideas. She divides her time between cooking, chicken wrangling, gardening, teaching her children, trail running, hiking, backpacking, and getting outdoors to camp and explore WITH her children. She and her husband Ryan have a deep love of the outdoors that they seek to share with their children, even though it might look different than adventuring with adults.

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