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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many outdoor educators found themselves needing to quickly adapt to online programming. It was no different for the naturalists at the Environmental Science Center in Burien, where I work. How will we continue to get students out on the beach with online learning? How will our beach field trips translate to a virtual space? By the time our beach season started, many teachers and students were pretty burnt out on using Zoom, Teams, or Google Meets. Some schools were even preparing to return to the classroom or were using a hybrid model. We had to design a program that could adapt to a variety of scenarios and use the virtual space in a way that would be interactive and exciting. After much research, the Environmental Science Center was able to acquire equipment that would allow us to do live virtual field trips on the beach. Here, I will briefly explain the equipment set up used on the beach and then I will go into some teaching strategies I use to engage kindergarten through second grade students in exploring the environment virtually. Here is a list of the equipment we used and a picture of how we set up it.

  1. iPad – used for accessing Zoom or other apps for streaming live video to virtual classrooms.
  2. Bluetooth headset – used for audio.
  3. Signal booster – strengthens data connection for streaming live video and audio.
  4. Tripod – used to keep the booster elevated.
  5. Metal shield – prevents feedback from booster.
  6. Battery – powers booster.
  7. Plastic container – keeps booster box and battery protected from weather.
  8. Wagon – used to carry the equipment

While this set up may seem high tech to some, including myself, the reality is that our naturalists look a little funny when we are out on the beach with this stuff. There was a steep learning curve to using this equipment, especially out in the elements. For example, we quickly learned that it is crucial to have a furry cover on the microphone to reduce wind noise. Also, there are a lot of not-so-high-tech parts of our equipment, like the reusable bag that we fill with rocks and tie to the booster tripod to keep it from blowing over in the wind. An important member of our team is the virtual naturalist who joins us in the virtual classroom from the comfort of their home. They are there with fun videos of marine life and slides with pictures for when the naturalists out in the field need to transition to a new spot or in case they do lose connection.

Hanna Jones Beach Equipment

Now that I have explained the technical aspects of doing live virtual field trips on the beach, you are probably still wondering how we could possibly teach a program over Zoom that once relied almost completely on the students themselves to make discoveries, ask questions, and investigate marine life. There are a few teaching strategies that I lean on when teaching virtually.

First and foremost, I try to constantly remind myself that this field trip is about the students and what they are interested in exploring. I start by asking them what they hope to see on the beach during their virtual field trip. Then, I try to make it feel like they are out on the beach with me by including some narrative of what I am thinking and experiencing in the environment. I orient them to where we are by giving a land acknowledgement, showing them a wide shot of the Whispering Rocks, and describing the condition of the tide. Throughout the field trip, I allow myself to be interrupted by exciting nature moments like seagulls eating clams and herons catching fish.

One teaching method I think enhances virtual learning is using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) (Connolly et al., 2019). These are questions originally developed for engaging people in discussing paintings in art museums. More recently, they have been applied to doing science at places like the Seattle Aquarium. In VTS, the essential questions are as follows:

  1. What do you notice?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

I aim the iPad at a rock covered in marine life such as barnacles, mussels, limpets, chitons, or seaweed, and I pose the first question by asking students to use their science goggles to make observations. Students share what they notice, and I follow up with the second and third questions, occasionally making other connections. What I like about using the first two questions is that they give the educator a way to prompt students to share, and then asks them to expand on their ideas without placing a value judgement on their observation. I think this works especially well in this context because, I think we can all agree, marine animals can look strange! Students make a lot of observations that, to me, seem completely out of left field. An example is, one time I was showing a crab molt (empty crab shell that a crab has outgrown) and a student said, “it looks like chicken!” I asked, “What do you see that makes you say that it looks like chicken?” The student then went on to explain that the white parts look like chicken bones, and I was able to make connections to how the skeleton of the crab is on the outside of its body unlike a chicken that has its skeleton on the inside, and that is why a crab must molt.

Another way I can follow up initial observations is by using my other senses to collect evidence for them since they cannot be in field with me. I frequently show them how to use sense of smell to differentiate between a crab molt and a truly dead crab. I engage the whole class in making a prediction by using the thumb-o-meter to share if they think a dead crab would be more stinky than an empty shell. Sometimes it can be difficult to describe or make connections with sea cucumbers or anemones, so I offer to touch them. I ask the whole class if they think it will be hard or squishy and then describe what I feel to them. If the animal reacts to my touch, then the students can also see how the animal moves. When students’ observations are conflicting or imply something incorrect you can use this method to help them draw their own conclusions based on evidence. It also gives me the opportunity to model and narrate stewardship practices on the beach by getting my fingers wet before touch gently.

Creating an interactive experience in the virtual space can be challenging, especially out in the field. By utilizing the equipment, we can be mobile in the environment and use VTS to activate students’ prior knowledge to help them make sense of what they are seeing. These teaching methods helped me maintain a student-centered learning experience when our program went virtual, and I hope they can help others do the same.

Hanna Jones Beach Heroes

References:

Connolly, T., Skinner, R., & Harlow, D. (2019). Sparking Discussion Visual Thinking. Science and
Children, 57(4), 44-49.

Meryl Haque intro

“Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experience.” ~Masaru Ibuka

Imagine you are leading a group of students for the first time who mostly do not seem to enjoy journaling or writing. However, many of your planned activities involve some writing aspect. You find yourself between a rock and a hard place -- do you force your students to engage in writing? If not, how can you encourage your students to engage deeply with the world around them?

Chances are, you already incorporate creative activities into your teaching. However, as a result of widespread and white-supremacist binary thinking, many people view art or creativity as a separate category of activities rather than something that can be woven into most (if not all) lessons. Instead of asking how someone is including creative activities in their teaching, I prefer to ask how they are supporting student creativity throughout their teaching.

This alternative framing draws attention to the truth that creativity exists anywhere there is space for it.
At a very basic level, creativity is like a fire; instead of oxygen, it is fed by opportunities to see and use existing materials in new ways. It is through these opportunities that many diverse needs of students can be met. Universal design is an approach to education that works to minimize or eliminate barriers to learning for students with disabilities and/or who are neurodivergent through flexibility and building consideration for learning differences into curriculum design.

Using principles of universal design, I have created an acronym (SCOPE) with strategies to weave creativity intentionally into everyday teaching:

(S)tudent choice can mean offering students opportunities to offer input on what they want to learn, supporting multiple modes of engagement, or inviting students to suggest ideas. Generally, this works best when starting with smaller choices such as which direction to go on a loop trail, and gradually moving to more complex choices such as deciding how to create a project to demonstrate their learning. This allows students to develop confidence in challenging themselves to try new things, a building block for creativity.

(C)lear expectations can look like providing students with examples of what you are asking for, giving instructions one step at a time, and being flexible to allow for diverse approaches to the same prompt. By encouraging students to self-determine how they can best meet provided criteria, educators empower students to take an active and intentional approach to demonstrating their learning. Through this process, students develop a deeper understanding and connection to the content.

(O)bservation opportunities help students to practice being in touch with the world around them. Through observation, students learn to pay attention to detail and engage mindfully with their surroundings. These habits can help strengthen creativity through offering inspiration and supporting students in reflection on their own connections to humans and more-than-humans. Options for observation activities include creating sound maps, drawing the forest or park from the perspective of an insect, and a caterpillar walk.

(P)ractice Play can involve testing out different creative mediums, challenging students to think creatively, and encouraging students to be silly. Fun icebreakers and team building challenges such as Complete the Image can be wonderful opportunities to practice creative thinking and problem-solving. Another excellent way to do this is asking students to create something new using everyday objects, and can be made to fit in with teaching content through specifying that they are to create a representation of a new vocabulary word or concept.

(E)ncourage Dialogue through practices such as role-modeling asking questions about how a student made certain creative choices for a project, providing space for students to discuss their ideas with each other, and giving students sentence stems to structure the process of sharing and discussing their work (i.e. I noticed, I’m curious about, I think it could work even better if). These strategies can help guide students in engaging with each other’s ideas in respectful and thoughtful ways. Learning to give and receive useful feedback is an important building block for creativity.

It is good practice as an educator to regularly reflect on ways to be more inclusive and flexible to meet the needs and interests of one’s students. I hope that through reading this article, you found some strategies to strengthen your creative teaching skills and stretched your understanding of creativity. Please investigate the references section for more benefits and approaches to teaching creatively, and most importantly, keep creating!

 

References & Further Reading

Ahern, G. (2018, July 31). Move it, move it: how physical activity at school helps the mind (as well as the body). NPJ Science of Learning. https://npjscilearncommunity.nature.com/posts/37205-move-it-move-it-how-physical-activity-at-school-helps-the-mind-as-well-as-the-body 

Ahern, G. (2018, November 4). One man’s trash: how using everyday items for play benefits kids. NPJ Science of Learning. https://npjscilearncommunity.nature.com/posts/40614-one-man-s-trash-how-using-everyday-items-for-play-benefits-kids 

Baker, A.R. (2015). Thinking critically and creatively. In Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom. Open SUNY Textbooks. https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/foundations-of-academic-success/chapter/thinking-critically-and-creatively/

Bordreau, E. (2020, June 24). Helping every student become an artist. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved June 8, 2021, from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/20/06/helping-every-student-become-artist 

Bryant, W. (2017, November 7). At the intersection of creativity and critical thinking. Getting Smart. https://www.gettingsmart.com/2017/11/at-the-intersection-of-creativity-and-critical-thinking/

Caruso, N. (2019, May 13). 5 ways to create spaces that unlock creativity & encourage collaboration. ESchool News. https://www.eschoolnews.com/2019/05/13/create-spaces-that-unlock-creativity/

Danyew, A. Field notes on music teaching & learning: Zig zag: the surprising path to greater creativity on apple podcasts. (2021). Apple Podcasts. Retrieved June 7, 2021, from https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/zig-zag-the-surprising-path-to-greater-creativity/id1494988923?i=1000474345729

Day, E. & Liebtag, E. (2017, November 3). Philadelphia is reimagining arts & creativity education. Getting Smart. https://www.gettingsmart.com/2017/11/ed-philadelphia-arts-integration-program-post/ 

Exploring the creative process. (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2021, from http://www.globalonenessproject.org/lessons/exploring-creative-process

Hatin, B. (2021, February 17). The key to learning is fun. Npj Science of Learning Community. http://npjscilearncommunity.nature.com/posts/the-key-to-learning-is-fun

Johnson, B. (2019, January 16). 4 ways to develop creativity in students. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/4-ways-develop-creativity-students 

Mendis, L. (2018, February 12). The link between creative thinking and learning. NPJ Science of Learning. https://npjscilearncommunity.nature.com/posts/30076-the-link-between-creative-thinking-and-learning 

Moeai, P. (2015, May 12). Teaching students creative and critical thinking. Minds in Bloom. https://minds-in-bloom.com/teaching-students-creative-and-critica/ 

Pedagogy of play. (n.d.). Project Zero. Retrieved June 8, 2021, from https://pz.harvard.edu/projects/pedagogy-of-play# 

Schordine, A. (2011, September 8). The 5 ps of the creative process. The Inspired Classroom. https://theinspiredclassroom.com/2011/09/the-5-ps-of-the-creative-process/

Stepping into the wild: Creative outdoor learning. (n.d.). Action for Healthy Kids. Retrieved June 8, 2021, from https://www.actionforhealthykids.org/activity/stepping-into-the-wild-creative-outdoor-learning/

The Kennedy Center. Arts integration and universal design for learning. (n.d.). The Kennedy Center. Retrieved June 8, 2021, from https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/articles-and-how-tos/articles/collections/arts-integration-resources/arts-integration-and-universal-design-for-learning/ 

Universal design for learning and adaptive design. (n.d.). Children’s Museum of the Arts New York. Retrieved June 8, 2021, from https://cmany.org/schools-and-community/staff-development/universal-design-learning-adaptive-design/

 

I have a deep love of the arts, music, and poetry. I also have a love for the outdoors, teaching, and specifically teaching young students outside about the environment. I often like to combine my two passions of environmental teaching and the arts with the students I teach. Each time I am pleasantly surprised at how well fourth-sixth graders respond to the integrations of arts and the environment, specifically to poetry.

I have a lesson that I’ve done quite a few times with students, that I have adapted and made my own. I call it the perspective and “I am poem”. I often do this poetry exercise when talking to the students about perspective, and that is often when we are high up on the suspension bridge, or at the very top of the canopy tower. After having a conversation with students about what perspective is, I introduce the “ I am poem” exercise. I have them open up their journals, and write down “ I am, I hear, I feel, I see, I think, I am”. Then I have them choose an animal or organism to take a perspective from. For example, one student chose a bat, and wrote “ I am a bat, I hear people talking, I feel the wind blowing, I see the trees down below, I am a bat”. You can make this poetry exercise as simple or complex as you want. I try to listen to what my group wants to do, and then adapt it to that.

This spring quarter, I was teaching 6th graders every Friday for 8 weeks in a row. I realized quickly that they love writing and are very thoughtful, so I often add more complex writing lessons in our day. One time I tried to do the “I am” poem with them, and they decided they wanted to do Haikus instead, which was great.

Any advice I can give is to not underestimate your students ability to listen and write poetry while outside. More often then not, being outside will inspire them to write more, and focus on writing what they see and hear around them. I would also advise not to underestimate fourth-sixth graders ability to listen to poetry. I am often pleasantly surprised that each time I sit down to read them a poetry book, they are all very excited and invested in the poetry story. Especially if the poetry book has pictures, the students are often excited about how the pictures match up with the storyline, and the poems.

At the beginning of this year, I was hesitant blending arts and the environment, because it seemed that the students might just want to run around and do more hands on activities after being in online school all day. I have noticed a need for still wondering, observing, and curiosity when it comes to books, and especially poetry for the students I have taught. They have inspired me to keep going and to continue to teach poetry and the environment outside!

The bottom of my field teaching backpack usually contains a section of rope, a habit that carries over from backcountry trips. Rope is an incredibly versatile tool that can be used for many things, including teaching in the field.

My “teaching” rope has yet to teach any knots. I could, of course, use it to teach students a figure-eight, square knot, half-hitch, clove-hitch, fisherman’s and so on. I’ve taught knots in other settings and doing so can be a great way to break the ice, occupy time with something productive and provide a challenge that involves both the hands and the brain.

knots

Most frequently the rope gets used to teach students about teamwork. One good entry-level team-building exercise involves tying the rope ends together to make a circle and have each student take the rope in their hands. The task is to work together to make a square, a rectangle, a hexagon. Have every other kid turn around and face the opposite direction to make it harder. Or skip the shapes altogether and have the students all lean backwards at the same time so the rope becomes taut and holds them up. This is sometimes referred to as a “yurt circle” and works best with an even number of students.

If the rope is marked in increments it can be used as a giant measuring stick. Stretched out straight it can serve as a transect line, or it can section off a specific area for close study like a quadrat. Want to know how tall something is?  Figure out how long the rope is, then hold onto one end tightly while throwing the other end upwards: you can get at least an approximate idea. I’ve also used it as a human continuum, with students lining up along the rope according to how they feel about something. One end of the rope could be “my favorite food is broccoli”, the opposite end “I consider broccoli evidence of evil in the world”.

BrianSidebar

I’ve used the rope as part of a ceremony to bookend teaching, inviting students to join me inside the rope circle at the beginning of the week and asking them to step outside the circle at the end of the week. The rope signifies group membership and reinforces a shared sense of language and shared customs. Crossing the rope becomes a symbolic rite of passage.

Orchestrating various lessons is easier with a piece of rope. Making knots in a piece of rope can be used as a mnemonic device for breaking down complex tasks: narrate the individual steps, tying an alpine butterfly as you go, then have the students walk through the steps themselves, tugging on each butterfly loop as they recall the step. You can even leave the rope out and the knots visible as a reminder for students.

Rope can be used in all manner of games, to designate a starting line, delineate a safe area or simply provide a boundary.

Need students to circle up and listen to instructions? Make a circle on the ground with rope and have students line their toes up with the rope.  It’s like wrangling students with the teaching lasso!

Whatever you end up using it for, a piece of rope in your backpack can be an invaluable teaching tool.

 

A student arrives to their overnight environmental program, a smile beaming from ear to ear with excitement and a camera ready at their hand to take photos- of everything. That student might end up taking a lot of photos during lessons and cameras and that can be distracting for the entire group. For this reason many places have taken the model of ‘leave your technology at home’

Cameras are something that the majority of people have now. Because of this social media sights like Instagram are popping up and encourage people to take pictures of their life and what they are doing, all the time. Some organizations have taken full advantage of these media sights and have photo contests nationwide to get people outside, like the Find Your Park campaign by the National Parks. Environmental educators’ audience have expanded because of social media. But, we have also been ignoring the fact that we’re inspiring people to go outside themselves to get that next epic photo. As an educator, I feel that we need to educate people so they can go out and get that photo in a proper and responsible way.

Due to the lack of education, people are hurting themselves and the place environmental educators are trying so hard to protect. A great time to teach people, especially children, about this responsibility is during an overnight environmental programs, like IslandWood School Overnight Program.

Here at IslandWood, lessons can be done with IPods and cameras with the students to have them take photos while they are in more of a nature setting. Going over a few things will set them up for them later on as they explore with their cameras at hand.

Some possible things to talk about when doing a lesson about responsibility when taking photographs:

1) Do Your Research- Know some background pieces about the subject. Where and when should you go? Is it mating season for this particular species? Is this ecosystem more delicate in some seasons?

2) Cause No Stress- Lack of disturbance must be a priority.

a. Know the proper distances to keep. According to the National Park, a person should stay 25 yards (about the size of two school buses) away from large mammals like elk, moose, etc and 100 yards (the length of a football field) away from large predatory mammals like wolves and bears.

b. Be mindful of not following a certain subject. They might have young they don’t want to lead you to or they might become accustomed to seeing a person and become unafraid.

3) Leave No Trace- Stay on trails, using a quiet voice, camp on durable surfaces, and carry in- carry out. You want to limit your presence as much as possible.

Some questions to ponder before going out:

What is my end goal for this picture? Is it just for me or am I trying to inspire other people to come here? What will happen if a lot of people do come here? Can the environment and wildlife handle it?

As an environmental educator, I want people to interact with nature with cameras in a responsible manner so people and nature stay happy and safe.

When I first brought along the little grinning monkey with long Velcro limbs, I didn't have a lot of confidence in my ability to convince a group of 10-12 year olds that it would be a fun and an important part of our team.  Aren't students that age getting pretty concerned with being cool and not being little kids that play with toys?  After using my now very familiar and very dusty monkey friend over the course of the past several months, I'm totally convinced of its efficacy as a catalyst of positive social emotional development.  Even 6th graders didn't scoff at it.  From observing other instructors and making some of my own additions, I've utilized the following techniques to transform an inanimate object into a tool of positive social emotional growth and to foster a culture of appreciation.

1. Let the suspense build: On the first day, I attach the monkey to my backpack but don't mention anything about it.  There's usually at least one student who asks about it right away.  By the end of the day, several others are wanting to know what's up with the monkey.  Why's it here? Can they touch it?  Does it have a name?

2.Build up to the introduction: On the second day, I usually pull out the monkey and make a big deal of introducing it and let everyone know it will be an important part of our team.  By this point, most of the students have their eyes locked in and can barely stand not playing with it.

3. Naming as a team building exercise: I then hand the monkey over to the students and ask them to go away from adults and come back when they have a name (Bob seems to be a pretty popular one, with creativity award going to Chanjella).  When they come back, the first thing I do is check in with everyone and have them rate 1-5 if they felt like they were heard and respected in the naming process.  If there are a lot of folks rating the process low, we brainstorm how to make the process more inclusive, and then I give them another chance to decide on a final name.

4. How the monkey travels through the group:I then ask everyone to think if there is anyone who they can appreciate for being helpful/brave/generous during the naming process.  Once several students have received appreciations, I hand the monkey to the student who received the first appreciation.  I then explain that every hour or so (when we're circled up and not in the middle of a lesson), the person who has the monkey will pass it to another group member with an appreciation.  Everyone will hold the monkey during our time as a group.  It’s Important to mention that appreciations should be specific, and not only directed at friends that you already know well. When a student first receives the monkey, I remind them that they should be paying attention to other group members so that they can notice when someone deserves an appreciation.  I also give them a few minute warning before a circle/monkey pass so that they can gather their words, and so that no one student has the monkey for too long.

The outcome has been overwhelmingly positive.  In some groups where the interactions are pretty negative, the passing of the stuffed animal really keeps the group morale afloat.  I had one group of students that typically interacted with irritation and there was one little boy in particular that rarely said anything positive to other students.  When someone appreciated him for helping with lunch I saw the first smile of the week.  Although his attitude didn’t completely change, I did notice him interacting with several students in a positive way after receiving that praise. The infusion of structured positive interaction has real potential to support the health of a community.

Other possible adaptations/ideas:

  • have some (or all) of the passing be outside of circling up, more of a private appreciation between two students
  • pass it around at the end of each day for group appreciations
  • come up with a song for the passing/appreciation

When working in the back or front-country wilderness you may find yourself convincing your students or clients about the ease and comfort of disposing of their

human waste in a natural setting. You may have fumbled through a tutorial once or twice about “digging a hole and aiming”, or tried to explain the benefits of using a composting toilet with a seemingly-endless black hole and unfamiliar air currents.

The reality is, once a novice has one positive experience of using an alternative or natural toilet, the task becomes less embarrassing and stressful.

What are the options?

  • Nature pee (and pack it in-pack it out)
    When at a remote campsite or in high-traffic day hike areas, you may find yourself needing to embrace a nature pee. Teaching kids from a young age about proper stance and appropriate locations to “use the woods” will reduce soiling oneself and embarrassment on everyone’s behalf. Furthermore, to be a true steward in high-use areas without other facilities, packing out one’s solid waste in zip-top bags is common practice.

  • Outhouses and Portable Toilets
    External toilets are a part of our national heritage: these toilet systems have been around since the 1940s! They also use 90% less water than traditional flushing toilets. Many state and national parks use portable restrooms or restrooms that are drained throughout the season; while they can be odorous and occasionally soiled, the most effective way to be a steward is to ensure the lid is closed after each use and to have hand sanitizer available once you have left the units.

  • Composting Toilets
    These eco-friendly bathroom alternative use no water and they compost our human waste into a new product: soil! The composting toilet system works through aerobic decomposition of the solid waste and evaporation of the liquid waste resulting in solid garden mulch. Explaining to younger users how the composting toilets work and why they are great for the earth can help to alleviate fears and mistrust of unfamiliar systems!

Why does it matter?

Education Director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, Ben Lawhon, states that human waste and what we do with it can be one of the most significant impacts that faces lands used by the public for recreation. It impacts disease transmission and health, water quality, aesthetics, and social realms --and it's something that a lot of people just have a hard time dealing with.” As environmental educators and explorers we strive to minimize the impact on our planet and our communities; our waste is certainly included in that impact. Using these three steps, doing your business in nature can become peaceful and stress-free:

  1. Familiarity: Determine the most efficient and sanitary waste system available to you and become familiar with it early on in your adventure. Introducing your friends or team members to composting toilets and how they function will help to alleviate stress; starting a backpacking trip with a hypothetical display of removing excessive clothing, digging a hole and squatting will ease those with concerns about future bowel movements and what to do when they occur in the backcountry.

  2. Promote Sanitation: Determine what materials you will be using (toilet paper, smooth rocks, leaves, etc) and how you will dispose of them. Pack it in, pack it out in sealable plastic bags and/or compostable toilet paper materials. Change into clean clothes as often as possible.

  3. Ask Questions! If you are unsure about the appropriate protocol for your outing, ask a friend or a local guide. Ecosystems are often fragile and susceptible to bacteria from human waste. Ask before you “go”!

Further Resources:

http://www.backpacker.com/skills/beginner/bathroom-etiquette/

http://www.gotugo.com/blog/resources/fun-facts-portable-restrooms/

 

 

It is a scene that is repeated over and over. A student finds a stick on the side of the trail and soon enough, they are walking towards you as if they have just begun a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. As an environmental educator, with safety as a priority for my students, I feel myself getting ready to say “Please put the stick down”. However, unless the child is using the stick as a wand, sword, light sabre or other object that needs to waved in the air, I find myself taking a different route now, one that embraces the use of sticks in the field. I have ultimately come to the conclusion that using sticks in our environmental education setting can truly have significant benefits.

Sticks for Learning about Engineering

Incorporating a structured activity using sticks can be an educational and fun experience. Using sticks as a medium, it can be focused on the concepts of design and creation. Students can work in small teams to find a location to build a bridge, shelter, or something else, depending on the prompt. The level of difficulty can be adjusted, even going as far as creating a walkable and sturdy bridge over a puddle. After building and testing out their projects, each group can present their creation, explaining the design, process and complexities of their structure. The process of building will be an experiential learning experience about what works and what doesn’t, as well as offer a small scale glimpse into major concepts that are a part of building anything.

Sticks for Learning about Teamwork

Not only are students learning about different engineering concepts, they are also working as a team in the process. Decision making comes into play as soon as the teams are formed. What location will we pick? Who is charge of what parts? What design should we attempt? What size materials should we use? Team members get the opportunity to work together for a concrete task, all while practicing very important communication and decision making skills. At the very end, students can share about their experience building together and discuss what went well or could be improved.

Sticks for Demonstrating Trust

Whether or not it is a building project, it is important for my students to know that I trust them to responsibly handle large sticks. This element of trust is a huge foundational piece for me, one that is extremely important to weave and communicate throughout any teaching experience. As mentioned before, one situation that comes up often when working with 5th graders is the desire to have a walking stick. I don’t ever bring up the idea of walking sticks unprompted, but as soon as a student inevitably picks up a stick I use it as an opportunity to explain my specific protocol that answers the following questions.

  • When and where will we be able to use walking sticks? This should be very clear. I often pick a trail that is removed from the main campus and doesn’t involve tricky terrain.
  • What does it look like to use a walking stick responsibly? Don’t underestimate the power of modeling this behavior. Pick a student and have them show everyone.
  • How tall can your walking stick be? Below shoulder height is usually easy to manage.
  • Where can we get a walking stick without harming our surroundings and each other? Make sure that getting a stick does not involve stepping into harmful plants or breaking branches.
  • Most importantly, why are you allowing walking sticks when the common expectation is to leave them on the ground? Without this, you may as well not let your students have sticks. I explain that I trust them and know they will show me this too.

There is not denying the magnetic force between sticks and students. The connection is quite real, and I think it is an opportunity to use sticks for good. I have never had any issues with students using sticks, whether as part of a more structured building activity or casually on the trails. When expectations are set high, and it is clear to the students that you trust them, they will rise up. I like to believe that all students will rise up if given the chance. Having this foundation of trust is when learning outdoors truly happens.

Students have a general affinity towards sticks and the potential to use it for learning responsibly, while still having fun, exists. Let’s embrace it.

Teaching in outdoor and informal education settings poses a number of unique challenges for those who choose this exciting and rewarding career. For example, instructors are faced with the monumental task of creating and maintaining a positive learning environment for students that they have just met. Additionally, informal educators must provide students with excellent learning opportunities in unfamiliar, exciting, and often totally distracting places. Finally, informal educators have a limited amount of time with their students to teach new concepts, address alternative conceptions, and stretch student thinking. Whether an educator has only an hour or an entire week with their students, most would agree that time is precious and should be spent learning and exploring.

How do we, as educators, maximize the limited time we have with our students? How do we ensure that we make the most of our instructional time? One strategy to help students transition smoothly from their classroom to a new environment is to set clear behavioral expectations early on and to hold students accountable. Well-defined expectations serve as a reminder to students that they are in a learning environment and that their behavior should align with the behavior expected of them in a classroom setting.

Through a series of trial-and-error teaching experiments, I have created a combination of 3 expectations that have proven to be exceptionally useful in concisely articulating my expectations for my students. It just so happens that they each start with the letter “P”, which works to my advantage, as it allows me to assign a snappy nickname to this grouping of behavioral norms: The Three Ps. The Three Ps are Participation, Positivity, and People Respecting Other People Speaking (otherwise known as P.R.O.P.S).

When used in conjunction, these three expectations address the majority of common behavioral challenges that I face as an outdoor educator. They are fairly straightforward, require little explanation, and, due to their simplicity, are easy to casually bring up when gentle redirection is needed.

I have found it most effective to introduce these expectations shortly after meeting my students and make sure to include my reasoning for each behavioral standard. The immediate presentation of expectations sets the tone for the remainder of an instructor’s time with their students. Once the norms are established and understood, the instructor can reference and enforce them quickly and efficiently. Additionally, a clear explanation of the “why” in addition to the “what” can help students understand that expectations aren’t the same as rules. Instead, they are guidelines intended to promote a successful learning experience for all members of the group.

Just as each and every student has a unique learning style, each instructor has his or her own distinct teaching style. I urge educators to play around with different sets of expectations and see what works for them. When brainstorming expectations for a group, consider how the skills they are practicing can be transferred to their home communities. Participation, positivity, and P.R.O.P.S are behaviors that can (and should) be used in any setting, educational or not. If there are exceptions to your expectations, consider leaving them out. It is confusing when expectations vary based on the setting or context. Expectations are most effective when they are constant.

In sum, here is a recap of how to establish and successfully use expectations in an educational setting:

  • Create expectations that are transferrable and universal.
  • Introduce expectations early on.
  • Explain the “why” of each expectation, not just the “what”.
  • Enforce expectations and provide reminders when needed.