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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

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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.

Many of us have experienced that quieting our minds can help sharpen our sensory awareness. During this process, we might observe external and internal factors that went previously unnoticed. One method for attaining this state is to take away one or more of our senses, which frees up neurological capacity that was previously attending to sensory input. In the environmental education context, augmenting sensory input can give students an opportunity to experience themselves and others from a different perspective. This article focuses on several ways to take away one of our most utilized senses – sight – in order to heighten awareness and developing team trust in the field.

To start, you will need materials that safely and comfortably block sight. If blindfolds are not available, use anything that can create a complete light barrier around the eyes. Possible alternatives include shirts, bandanas, beanies, and hoods worn backwards.

Beginning with low stakes, the sit spot is an activity where participants quietly observe an ecosystem. Without their sense of sight, participants are invited to focus on the sounds and smells all around.  

The caterpillar walk is a great activity for trail walking, especially at night. To do this, blindfold participants and make a single file line. All participants put their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them. The facilitator, who is not blindfolded, slowly leads the group down a trail.

Considerations:

  • Use a trail that is free of roots, sticks, or other tripping hazards.
  • Walk slowly.
  • This activity is most powerful when participants maintain silence throughout.
  • Consider having a second non-blindfolded person walk alongside the caterpillar and guide any folks who veer off course.

For the trust run, find an open field and get all participants into partner groups. In each pair, one partner is blindfolded, the other can see. With arms linked, pairs walk around the field, careful not to bump into each other. As group comfort allows, the facilitator can invite participants to increase their pace from walk to jog, and even full on sprint. After about 2-3 minutes, switch partner roles.

Considerations:

  • This activity requires a considerable amount of team maturity and trust to operate safely. If you have any doubts, try a lower intensity activity and build up.
  • For the safety of participants wearing blindfolds, make sure the chosen area does not have any ruts or sudden changes in grade.

The human photographer is also a partner activity. The blindfolded partner is the camera, and the sighted partner is the photographer. The photographer leads her camera around and takes pictures by opening and closing the shutter. When the photographer opens the shutter, often by placing a hand on the camera’s shoulder, the camera takes his blindfold off for two seconds to observe the scene.  

The tree challenge is a partner game that focuses on tactile experience.  In this game, blindfolded participants are lead by their sighted partners to nearby trees.  Blindfolded participants have three minutes to use their sense of touch to explore the tree. They are then lead back to the activity’s starting location and instructed to take off their blindfolds. Finally, participants are invited to try and identify which tree they were stationed at while blindfolded.

Considerations:

  • With younger participants, it is especially important to discuss how to effectively lead blindfolded partners over obstacles like roots or rocks. Tips are: encourage slow walking and consistent verbal communication between partners regarding obstacles.

Finally, the sense test challenges blindfolded participants to identify items by using their remaining senses. The facilitator may give some mint to smell, or moss to feel. The blindfolded participant uses adjectives to describe the objects as an exercise communicating without using the aid of sight.

Considerations:

  • Since participants do not know initially know what type of item they are interacting with, it is key to check for allergies and to make sure that anything that will be observed using smell or taste is safe.

In summary, each of these activities aims to give participants a different sensory experience with the hopes of sparking more awareness through observation and inquiry. Feel free to tweak and expand any of these activities depending on the needs of your group. Happy explorations!

Free exploration, or specific time given to students for meeting a new place, is a crucial part of any outdoor/nature/environmental/experiential education day. This time is usually given upon entering, or arriving at, a new physical space. Students are allowed to explore on their own terms, seeking whatever interests them.

This practice is important for several reasons. Building in time for students to be together for periods without specific instructions guiding them forces them to cooperate and create their own sets of specific instructions, making it an essential practice in social norm creating and interpersonal growth.

 An instructor can learn a good deal when observing free exploration, making the time a valuable formative assessment. What are your students most interested in? Who is a leader? Who is shy? Knowing these and more can help insure successful future lessons and a successful day. Finally, this activity helps to dispel distractions, getting students’ jitters out. Students can satisfy curiosities specific to a space that would serve as future distractions.

Although the premise of free exploration is that it is “free,” there should still be thought that goes into it. Setting expectations is a must. Particular spaces and particular instructors will all have their own specific rules (careful of that slippery terrain, don’t eat crabs at the harbor, etc.), so this article will not attempt to address them. But yes, you should lay out safety guidelines and expectations. Instead, I will focus on two important things to remember that may be less obvious.

The first one takes place upon arrival when you introduce a place and set your expectations for behavior. Remember that your students are impressionable and that you can have a big impact on where and how their curiosities unfold! You can steer student inquiry in subtle ways. An instructor planning on a more history-focused lesson after exploration may slip a simple, “keep an eye out for man-made debris while you look around” into their rolling out of safety expectations. That, in and of itself, can spark student curiosity and spur many questions from students, but it is best to allow them their time to explore. “When you teach someone something, you rob them of the opportunity to learn it.” Alternately, if you planned on a marine biology lesson, simply explain more rules and specifics for handling and observing marine life. They will cling to the opportunities to see such things.

The second practice to remember takes place once the free exploration has begun. You must model proper behavior! Don’t go sit on a bench and mess around on your cell phone. Get out there, turn over rocks, look around trees, smell the earth, get on all fours and look at it. Your students look up to you, and will mimic your moves. Some students may not even know how to explore; these especially need modeling. Take your student’s hand, and lift them to a place they cannot reach otherwise, due to social and/or mental road blocks. You must engage with students’ curiosities and develop your own. Physically showing this will help your students to dive in.

An outdoor educator needs to be conscious and deliberate of their every move. Students will key into everything you do, spoken or otherwise. Be aware of the “hidden curriculum” you espouse,  use it as a positive force for learning and growth.