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Free Exploration: A Crucial Part of Every Day

Sense of Place

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.

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.

About the Author
Kimbrough Breitenstein