Teaching in the outdoors creates opportunities for students to explore organisms and materials that they may have been taught to regard as gross, messy, or even dangerous. Everything from looking at animal scat on a trail to holding a worm to smelling compost may bring up a reflexive “yuck” response from students, or from adult teachers or chaperones accompanying a student group into the field. I have seen students shriek, giggle, recoil, joke about, or attempt to push their peers closer to an object they associate with a sense of “yuck.” Adults are often more subdued in their responses, but can be equally susceptible to the reflex, and their impulse to pull away from topics such as invertebrates or decay affects students’ sense of their relevance and appeal as sites of learning.
I grew up with landscape gardeners for parents, and a number of early childhood photographs show me literally sitting atop a pile of compost. Handling macroinvertebrates like worms or millipedes, being exposed to smells or sights of rot, and generally using my senses to explore became familiar processes to me very early on in life. When my students have a “yuck” reaction to things that seem mundane to me, I sometimes need to step back and check in with myself about how I can make a new experience approachable for them. What was it that adults in my life did for me to make handling soil and worms a positive experience? What have I seen be effective in the field in my own work as an educator?
Consciously modeling positive attitudes and approaches to “yuck” factor organisms is the first of the two major tools I have used to help students learn about topics they find gross in a physically and emotionally safe way. Modeling mainly comes down to expressing my genuine enthusiasm for topics like spiders or scat. If a child shouts, “There’s a spider!” and I respond with “Ooh, where? Can you show me? I want to see it,” I’ve already shaken up the response model many students are used to receiving from adults and peers. It doesn’t force students to mirror my enthusiasm, but it makes them aware that some people curiously reach towards the same experiences that make others recoil, and that such curiosity can be open to them, too.
When students internalize the message that an organism or substance is gross and should be avoided, it limits their sense of its complexity and potential to be a site of learning. The implicit message is that the proper form of engagement is to disengage – drop that frog, don’t touch that bug, go wash your hands quick! Showing curiosity and excitement towards a “yuck” factor demonstrates that there is another option. It is possible to acknowledge the discomforts and contexts through which students approach their sense of “yuck” while also modeling responsible curiosity and observational skills – set that frog down carefully, ask before touching that bug, go wash the compost off your hands when you feel done.
Multi-level, choice-based modes of engagement with “yuck” factors help students feel supported in approaching new experiences at their own pace. Is holding a millipede in the garden, or a crab at the harbor, too much? What about looking at it as it moves across the ground without touching it, or what if I hold it, and you look at it in my hand? Sometimes students will be frightened to pick an organism up on their own, but be happy to have an adult or peer pick it up and set it in their hands. Simply having a moment to prepare and contemplate the experience can make a big difference.
Take the time to identify what pieces of an experience might feel challenging for students, and consider ways to meet them with kindness at each of those challenge points. Encourage, but don’t require, that students attempt to scale up their practice of engagement with the thing that activates their sense of “yuck,” letting their own boldness surprise and enthuse them as they choose their own form of scientific adventure. You may find, as I have, that an initially fearful student will softly murmur “so gross” in a continuous loop while simultaneously holding a slug mere millimeters from their own face.
Creating a scale of intensity for such learning experiences is an important form of scaffolding for full-group engagement in a lesson. If touching worms in order to count their presence in a soil sample is too much for a student to handle, they can move the soil around with a spoon, or the back of a pencil. If that approach is still intimidating, they can visually count and record what they see while a peer digs through the soil in front of them. Offering choices for forms of engagement means ensuring that a “yuck” response doesn’t let students opt out of a lesson’s core learning goals.
Whether you are starting from a very scat and compost-friendly state of mind or navigating your own sense of “yuck” along with those you teach, you can support your practice as an outdoor educator by thinking through the ways you explore these topics with students. My major challenge has been finding ways to shake myself out of my sense of familiarity with topics like amphibians, invertebrates, scat, and rot, so I can meet students where they are. Sometimes “where they are” means “screaming in fear at the mention of a salamander,” and my ability to be a warm and reassuring guide to a new topic of scientific curiosity becomes even more important. Your challenges may be fears or unfamiliarities of your own, campus spaces that limit opportunities for engagement with “yuck” factor topics, or the perennial problem of having limited time to apply a new theme or concept to your teaching practice. Modeling curiosity and fostering choice-based engagement are not the only possible answers to the challenges of the “yuck” factor, but they can become impactful pieces of your strategy toolkit as an outdoor educator.