1:1 in the wild: Using tablets in outdoor education

Juliet Robertson

Juliet Robertson is an education consultant who specialises in outdoor learning and play. She writes about her experiences at her blog, I’m a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here! She co-wrote the Do-Be Teach-IT Outdoors pack with Ollie Bray. In June 2014 her first book, Dirty Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide to Learning Outdoors is published for primary school teachers.

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Mobile learning devices are great for classroom use, but to get the most out of them, lots of educators believe in taking tablets outside. With British weather now entertaining the idea of being pleasant, teacher and outdoor learning-expert Juliet Robertson gives her thoughts on how best to get the most out of this field.

The idea of using digital technology outdoors continues to produce an interesting array of feelings from educators. The spectrum seems to range between love and loathing, freedom and fear, or curiosity and curtailment. For me, the lure of a tablet being part of an outdoor activity is the untapped possibilities that we have yet to discover. The value of experimenting and exploring the world around us through a digital eye is worth the time invested. It’s not because I want to see a child glued to a screen outside. It's because I know for some children a mobile device provides alternative ways of exploring the environment which may spark a life-long interest.

 It is helpful to start by knowing why you want to use tablets outside and how your class will use such tools. Much of this will depend on whether you have just one or two tablets or whether you have enough for all children to use simultaneously. The time invested in setting up devices properly for use by children is worthwhile. Make it clear that the protocol around the use of tablets extends to learning outside as well as in.

You do not need to have wifi coverage outside to begin using tablets in an outdoor space. It is very useful if you have for online research and using apps which require decent connectivity; these are mainly ones which use GPS. However, there are plenty of interesting learning activities which can still happen.

Get decent waterproof, shock-absorbing covers. My iPad would not have survived without its protective case, and it's one less thing to worry about. The children should be the priority in the class, not whether the tablets are surviving their outdoor experience.

Be mindful of the weather. It does affect use of any device. On bright, sunny days it can be hard to see the screens. Rather than working in the shade or shadows, you may wish to challenge your class to invent a portable shade for their tablets. On very cold days, pressing the buttons with frozen fingers isn’t fun. I've yet to find a cheap source of touchscreen gloves for children. So plan flexibly here and ask the children to think about how they will manage this aspect of using tablets outside.

Begin by getting to know and use the built-in apps. For example, the calculator is helpful when working out the height of trees or buildings which are too tall to measure directly. The children can devise their own strategies, based upon a quick online search. Most of the methods will involve a complex calculation at some point.

Developing photography skills is arguably hard to do without going outside. The camera and video functions on a tablet come into a class of their own. To support your teaching here, inside as well as out, get the book Learning through a Lens by Jane Hewitt. It provides a wealth of suggestions for quick activities, how to develop photography skills and bigger projects. I have found the Photo Booth app on my iPad to add value and creativity to my teaching of symmetry, shadows and plant identification.

Any photography apps your class already use will work well to enhance an outdoor activity. I’m particularly fond of PicCollage for its simplicity. For example, children can collectively create a nature alphabet. Each letter should be photographed separately. PicCollage can be used for creating mesostics or acrostics about the school grounds or a particular place outside using these letters.

Nature identification apps are a useful buy for classes which are regularly working outside or where Forest School is embedded within the school. The downside is the cost of some of the apps match their book price. Birds of Britain and Ireland is one example. As well as a very simple key, the app includes a range of bird calls and works well with children and young people of all ages and abilities.

Nature Tale is another one which I would recommend if your knowledge about nature is limited. It has common flowers and berries which can be found within the UK. Each plant comes with a photo and lots of user-friendly information about its uses, origins of the name, how animals use it, cultural information and literacy associations. If you can’t work out what plant you are looking at, you can take a photo and email it to the website where someone will respond and give you their opinion.

There are some apps which add a completely new dimension to any outdoor explorations. Garage Band has an audio recorder. This means that any sounds recorded outside can be integrated into the development of Stomp rhythms. MadPad is a simpler beginning to this process. This app enables children to video record several seconds of sound. So children can explore what sounds can be made in their environment. Then the app turns it into a beatbox where each sound can be played by tapping the videos. It’s very noisy but children like it because of the high degree of personalisation and ownership.

Finally perhaps the app which best demonstrates how digital technology is revolutionising outdoor activities is Spyglass. For geography and maths teachers, this augmented reality navigator app brings together a lot of skills and knowledge into practical fieldwork applications. For primary-aged children, the use of the 3D compass, x4 magnifier and general data exploration will be absorbing.

The use of tablets is known to engage children and is revolutionizing how we think about our roles as educators. Yet the use of tablets outdoors remains in its infancy. For me, this is one of the areas of education which has the potential to be highly innovative and creative with infinite possibilities. We have been given wings and now need to learn how to fly.

Do you and your pupils use tablets outdoors? Let us know your experiences below.

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