Get Off Your Screen! Designing Activities that Get Your Students Outside

Brian Oger

Brian Oger

Kids doing a ph-test outdoors

If I had to compile a list of phrases that are most commonly on my lips as a parent of three teenagers and one pre-teen, three of the top five would probably be variations on these four words:

Get off your screen!

I had great intentions as a new parent. I was going to make sure my kids were not glued to the television all day; they were not going to be addicted to video games like I was; they weren’t going to get phones until they turned 37. How did that work out? Well, as they say, the best-laid plans…

Any of us who are parents know that the battle over screen time limits can be a never-ending one. So when my second daughter moved to an online school this year, I was concerned. If she’s already on the screen all day for school, how do I keep her from being on a screen for every waking moment?

Off-Screen Assignments

There is no way to design an online course without screen time — at least that I can think of. There will always be readings, videos, and assignments that require a student to spend time writing, computing, or researching online. At StudyForge, though, we try to make sure that students are not on their screens all the time. What I say to myself as I start planning the assessment pieces of a course is this:

If you can create an assignment that gets them off their screen, do it.

It makes their learning more dynamic, it increases engagement, and it makes their learning real-to-life. Here are a few ideas for assignments — inspired by StudyForge courses — that help online students get off their screens.

1. Clinometer

My daughter recently took a StudyForge Math course. She had to build her own clinometer, then go around the neighborhood to measure a tall structure. She enlisted my help as a chauffeur. We headed across town, and she spent some time figuring out how to use trigonometry and a protractor to calculate the height of a building. It may not have been the most accurate measurement, but it was a memorable activity, and one that I think she will remember doing long into the future.

2. Paper airplanes

Another StudyForge Geometry project has students create their own paper airplanes, trying out different designs to see which one will fly the farthest and the straightest. Then they unfold their top designs, measure and classify the angles and triangles, and record their hypothesis about what made that design the most effective. As the near-winner of a paper-airplane contest at a regional sixth-grade science fair, I approve this message… I mean, lesson.

3. Acids and bases

Science teachers might want to get their students doing experiments using household products. If you’re studying pH, send your students to find different substances in their cupboards, like vinegar, ketchup, fruit juice, or soda. Have them measure the pH of the original substances, then measure again when they mix them together. In higher grades, this is a great chance for students to learn about finding the molarity of household liquids.

4. Get involved

As an online political studies teacher, I want my students to get involved in their community politically. One of my students interviewed the mayor of their town for this assignment. Another went to a public consultation meeting on whether a new city hall should be built and asked several good questions of their city council. Another was concerned about a parking sign near her work she thought was unfair, and she managed to get it changed. Students have to find something they care about, get off their screens, and go do something about it.

5. Worldview interview

English teachers want their students asking big questions about the world and about humanity. The works of literature that we choose to study stimulate thinking. After students have read a book and wrestled with questions of what it means to be human or what their place is in the world, send them to interview someone they look up to. Have them ask questions about their views on humanity or their worldview or their fundamental beliefs about the universe. Getting students to have a conversation with a wise mentor might just change their lives.

6. Field study

Another activity social studies teachers might like is sending students to do a field study. For example, if you are studying world religions, have them visit a local religious community; if you are studying different cultures, have them visit a local cultural center; if you are studying social justice, have them volunteer at a soup kitchen. Whatever they choose, every student has a chance to get off their screen and into their community. Have them take photos and write journal entries. Chances are, they will gain life-long memories from experiences like this that clicking around on a screen will never give them.

7. Career exploration experiences

Many jurisdictions have work experience or volunteer requirements for high school students. Have students spend time volunteering in their community, doing a job shadow, working in a part-time job, or doing some other practical outside-of-school work. My daughter did this in one of her courses, using her leadership training work at a summer camp as her experiential learning. She journalled about it along the way, and it was definitely a meaningful thing for her. Before she started taking the course, any time I would ask her, “What do you want to do after high school?” she would respond, “I don’t know.” Because of this course and her experiential off-the-screen learning, she is now saying, at least tentatively, “I want to get into education.”

Well then.

(Wipes proud tears.)

What is education really about, anyway?

A lot of the work our students will do in the future will likely be online. For some of them, their entire careers may be online. But doing online school does not mean that everything needs to be done online. As you design your courses, think creatively. Ask yourself: How can I get my students off their screens? How can I get them out into their community? How can I make it so they have face-to-face interactions with real people? How can I inspire them and send them into life-changing experiences that they could never have on a computer?

Are you having trouble coming up with ideas? Maybe getting outside for a walk will help.

About the Author

Brian Oger, B.A., MDiv

Humanities Curriculum Specialist

Brian lives in White Rock, British Columbia with his wife, four children, a dog, and six chickens. Don’t worry — the chickens stay in the backyard. He has been teaching for slightly less than half of his life, including several years in a blended classroom, but still has not achieved his professional ambition of having his class stand on their desks at the end of the year and say, “Oh captain, my captain.” He currently spends much of his working life writing online courses that he hopes will inspire the younger generation to love literature, language, history, and philosophy.

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