One of the best parts of teaching outdoors is how frequently students are on the move. Instructional days and lessons are spread out across physical space, making use of the surrounding landscape. While this increases the richness of instruction, the changing learning environment can present a novel challenge to students: “Where are we, and where do we go?” My elementary students’ typical classroom experience consists of neatly numbered rooms, line leaders to follow, and often turn by turn directions from a teacher to most efficiently move from homeroom to lunchroom to library, etc. Taken from this context of routine and structure, anxiety is not uncommon, and apathy is a frequently developed coping mechanism. Neither of these feelings are desirable in a learning environment. While one former student suggested numbering all the trees with paint might solve the problem, providing students with maps and the skills to use them can allay their anxiety and provide further educational benefits.
Sense of Place
Increasingly in the era of GPS, we navigate using stimulus response—“In 800 feet, turn right.”—rather than observation of our surroundings. Studies have shown that people using GPS have lowered awareness of their surroundings and less understanding of where they are between departure and destination. Navigating on autopilot, the space between departure and destination collapses in their mental map and the travel becomes equivalent to a very slow teleporter. Leading students from their classroom to the bathroom and back might ensure the most efficient route, but they won’t develop a sense of where the bathroom is relative to anything else. Because I don’t tell my students which turns to take, they must navigate using visual cues and landmarks while building a mental map of their surroundings. The observations they are forced to make lead to increased awareness and understanding of their environment. This mental map allows them not only to return back to point A from B, but also to find routes to C and D and return without just retracing their steps.
Empowerment and Confidence
My students often have little opportunity to be self-directed or autonomous in their daily lives, spending most of their time following others’ directions. Providing students tools and opportunity to solve a problem rather than just giving them the answer builds critical thinking skills and teaches them to trust and develop their own abilities. Success in navigating to a novel location boosts their self-confidence and self-efficacy. The feeling of empowerment that they gain from these navigation tasks transfers to other contexts as they are more likely to take on new challenges having had past success.
Communication and Teamwork
Classroom teachers frequently cite challenge course activities as being highlights of their outdoor school trips because they get to see their students working together outside of their usual academic context. While the communication skills developed on a challenge course are inherently transferable, students don’t always make those connections. Group navigation is a great opportunity to contextualize teamwork and communication to a real life task. Working together to get to their next location can be one of the hardest tasks and biggest opportunities for learning during their week at outdoor school. Before my students start a trail or follow a fork they must reach consensus within their group about the correct direction to travel. When all students have access to the same information, appeals to authority aren’t as convincing to their peers. Students find they must argue from evidence to support their claims and get real-time feedback on the efficacy of different communication techniques. Establishing the requirement of consensus in decision making at the beginning of the week quickly builds team cohesion. Requiring each student to be able to describe the reasoning behind the decision encourages students to support their peers as students teach each other how to use available resources to reach the correct conclusion.