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Outdoors x SEL Collabs

Jimmy Chu – third grade teacher

I’d like to start by inviting you to bring your device (and a warm jacket) outside to read about Outdoors x SEL collabs and the benefits of bringing learning outside. 

Collab is short for collaboration, the intersection of two elements to create or achieve something. Collabs offer a fresh take on things. Collabs between fashion designers offer fresh looks. Collabs between music artists offer fresh sounds. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of the outdoors and SEL (social-emotional learning) to offer fresh learning. Teaching at TLS, surrounded by nature and colleagues cooking up collabs, has helped me see how bringing students outdoors and learning in that untethered space can be socially and emotionally transformative. 

What’s Been Cooking at TLS – Three Outdoors x SEL Collabs

Step Outside the Box and Find Center

Every morning I take my class into the woods. It’s a chance for us to step outside the box and the perfect place to practice deep breathing. Breathing helps quiet our sympathetic nervous system, so we can check in with our mind, body, and heart. Breathing helps students start their day feeling calm and focused. 

I encourage my students to step outside the box anytime a situation feels challenging. Taking a walk and breathing helps students identify feelings and calm down, so they are able to play and problem-solve positively with peers, engage in learning, and speak, present, or perform in front of others.


“It’s not until matters are explored more thoroughly and deeply and from different angles that they can be better understood.” (Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education)

Hear the kernel rattle inside of the acorn. Feel the spiky husk of the chestnut. Peel back the husk to reveal the chestnut. First and second graders pretended to be Douglas squirrels, inspecting the forest floor, foraging for acorns and chestnuts. This squirrel simulation provided a wondrous opportunity to explore an outdoor environment and look at the world through a different lens. Simulations and role-plays strengthen students’ perspective-taking muscles. Perspective taking grows empathy and helps students engage in constructive conversation, collaboration, and conflict resolution.  


On a crisp fall day, at the start of the school year, third graders set off on a barefoot hike. This was an environmental ed. experience. The goals involved:

“Wondering: ‘What’s beneath my feet?’ ‘What happens when we move through this space?’”

“Awakening the senses. Becoming more aware of your surroundings.”

“Connecting to a place. Building a relationship with a place.”

“Physically touching the land. Establishing trust between yourself and the land.”

This deeply purposeful barefoot hike through the woods invited students to strengthen their connection with the natural world. Experiences like these guide them to see the value in forging connections, building relationships, and establishing trust with the earth and one another. When students observe and cherish diversity in nature, they learn to also observe and cherish human diversity. Students start to think more about their connections and the impact they have on the people and places they are connected to.

Practicing deep breathing in the woods, looking at the world through new lenses, forming a connection with the land and each other during a barefoot hike – these collabs highlight the tremendous value that can be found at the intersection of the outdoors and social-emotional learning. Nurturing the social and emotional growth of our students is critical, and bringing learning experiences outdoors amplifies that growth. 

“Connecting to a place. Building a relationship with a place.”

If you are imagining an Outdoors x SEL collab and are looking to see where the nearest forest is, look no further. Wherever you and your students are, that is perfect. Just step outside the box together. 

Here are some collab ideas to try:

Practice deep breathing outside.
  • Take students on a barefoot hike.
  • Design an outdoor simulation. (Nature offers limitless lenses!)
  • Facilitate an outdoor team-building challenge.
  • Take students on a trust walk.
  • Do some sensory journaling outside.

Research shows that “nature improves health, wellbeing, and academic outcomes.”

  • Improved relationship skills.
  • Increased self-awareness and self-management.
  • Increased enthusiasm and engagement.
  • Reduced stress, anger, aggression.

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