SEL Spotlight

3 Ideas for Taking SEL Outdoors

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Nature-Inspired Social and Emotional Learning Activities 

As we all try to stay safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19, we also know that mental and physical healthy are key to getting through this difficult time. Outdoors is the safest place to interact with others and nature is good for the soul, so here are some ideas for heading outside to practice a little active Social and Emotional Learning. 

Here are three ideas for building SEL Competencies while spending time outdoors and appreciating whatever aspects of nature are available to you!

1. Self-Awareness/Self-Management: Tree of Strength

Use time in nature to allow for self-reflection by heading outside to admire trees and plants. Then have students design their own “Tree of Strength.”

A tree of strengths consists of leaves and branches labeled with things students see as their strengths and/or things they enjoy. You can have students bring a journal outside and choose a plant or tree to study as they write down words that could go on their tree of strength, or you can give students pre-cut paper “leaves” to write or draw their strengths on. Students can add their words/leaves to their own or a communal class “tree” when you head back inside.

As you head out, be sure to take time to encourage students to engage in quiet reflection. Have them think about:

– What they hear

– What they smell

– What they see

– What they feel

Prompt students to imagine themselves as a tree trunk. The leaves or flowers that bloom on their tree are the things that make them unique: positive personality traits, hobbies, things they enjoy and care about. These are the things they should write down or illustrate when they create their Tree of Strength.

MAKE IT INTERACTIVE: Another option is to give students leaves (either blank or with strength words already printed on them) and ask them to choose one to keep for themselves and then give away one leaf to each classmate with a positive word they think applies. If you pre-select words, it’s OK to have some words repeat as many strength words will apply to quite a few of your students! It’s recommended to print enough so that each student can give a leaf to all other students in the class and choose one to keep for themselves.

2. Social Awareness & Relationship Skills: This is for You.

Active SEL Outdoor Activities


Show care for someone with a real or fake bouquet

Start your time outside with a brief nature walk and allow students to pick up fallen leaves, branches, etc. to make into a “bouquet.” Then have students think about who in their family they could give it to to show they care. 

If fallen leaves and branches are not readily available, bring out a cluster of markers, pencils or similar classroom objects and have students draw a bouquet and then decide who to give it to. 

Have students reflect on the following questions:

  • How does a simple gift like a bouquet show others that you care about them?
  • Why is it a good idea to show others that you care?

3. Responsible Decision-Making: A Better World

Active SEL Outdoor Activities


Every student has superpowers they can use to make positive changes in the world.

Before heading outside, have students consider anything on the school grounds that they could do to make an improvement. For example, is there an area where you could pick up trash, or pull weeds, or decorate with chalk?

Have students each set a personal goal for how they will contribute to improving school grounds (for example: I will pick up at least 3 pieces of trash; I will pull weedsfor 10 minutes; I will add something positive to a class chalk mural). Have them share their personal goal with you or a peer, or write it down, so that they can be held accountable to it.

As you head outside, provide parameters for how the time is to be spent. What are the boundaries? How much time will they have?

Allow students time and space to achieve their goal, then take time to reflect:

  • How did it go?
  • Did they achieve what they set out to do?
  • If so, how did this make them feel?
  • If not, what prevented them from achieving the goal? Is there anything they could do differently next time?

Reflection can happen while still outside or once you are back indoors. Consider using a journal or facilitating peer-to-peer discussion as you guide the reflection.

More Ideas for an Active Classroom & SEL Outdoor Activities

To learn more about how to integrate movement and active learning into the school day and become a champion for active classrooms, visit activeshools.org.

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Margot Toppen

Margot Toppen

Margot Toppen is a visionary educator who works at the intersection of SEL, arts, and physical education.

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