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Sharing Magic: Meaningful Learning Experiences in Unexpected Moments

Instruction

A perspective graduate instructor at an outdoor school shadows a field group on a temperate spring day. She joins the group as they are about to cross a 190 foot suspended bridge, 60 feet over a small stream at the base of a ravine. The green of each Sword Fern below is like a little firework to the city dwelling prospective student’s eyes, which have become used to gray concrete. After a short trek down the trail on the other side of the bridge and a quick introduction with the poised and confident instructor, she stands at the base of a tower. Hundreds of stairs wind around the structure as it ascends into the canopy, the observation deck at the top barely visible from the ground. The college graduate stands among fifth graders; all are transfixed. Together, they make a slow and steady climb to the top. Each flight of stairs brings a new perspective, and everyone forgets how tired their legs are. At last, they reach the observation deck and are greeted by a wash of bright blue and the gentle warmth of sunlight on their cheeks. Looking out, it is green as far as the eye can see. The perspective student catches her breath. Here, as tall as the tallest earthbound species can reach, anything feels possible. Just as the prospective student makes her decision that she will study and teach here, two bald eagles soar up from the canopy and begin to circle overhead.

…One year later, the perspective student is now a practiced instructor, sitting in a garden classroom with her own field group. One by one, ten fourth graders add a handful of herbs to a steaming pitcher. As each tips their fragrant harvest into the water, they share a way they would like to grow over the week. Many speak of making new friends and having new experiences. The tea tastes like the essence of a Pacific Northwest spring—green, earthy, with just a hint of mint and honey. In a quiet moment as everyone sips, one student remarks, “This is a very special tea because it is our team tea. No other team could make this tea exactly like we did.” Other students join in the conversation, reflecting on the one-of-a-kind nature of the experience, and also the brevity of it; once the tea has been drunk, it will never exist in quite the same way again. There in the garden sun, nine-year-olds contemplate how human experience can be deeply meaningful yet fleeting.

Tinhof Article TallIn my short tenure as an Outdoor Educator, I have seen my fair share of magic. That spark of wonder led me to the field and it is never missing from my teaching experiences for long. Nature is giving when it comes to magic moments: A perfectly timed wildlife sighting, a sudden rainstorm, a breath of sunlight in an otherwise dreary day, the simple beauty discovered in the pattern on a leaf.

Magic moments contribute to shared experience in the field. Shared experience builds comradery and trust within the group, bolstering team-building experiences. It also helps foster a sense of group identity (for example, “let’s ask that team that saw the owl!”), which provides a good foundation to ensuring that all group members feel welcome and included in the group. Shared experience can help build a connection between instructor, chaperones, and students, helping bridge the divide that can sometimes be felt between facilitators and students.

 Magic moments can also help scaffold content. Years from now, when asked what I remember most from my time as a graduate student and instructor of outdoor school, I will not recount the most complicated science terms I learned or the data my students collected in any given investigation. I will tell the stories of these magic moments. I will feel what I felt watching eagles soar. It seems logical to assume that it is the same for younger students: what is meaningful about outdoor school is not vocabulary learned or facts recorded, but what is felt and understood at the heart level. This magic provides a powerful “why” behind all the science content we are asking students to learn and the stewardship practices we wish them to adopt. Without that spark of the magic of nature, the value of examining it under a magnifying glass is lost.

How can you embrace the magic with you students?

  • Be ready for it. Unfortunately, we cannot cue the magic when teaching outdoors. What we can cue is how students respond when it arrives. Model enthusiasm for exploration, wonder at discoveries, and a sense of value in taking time observing and enjoying.
  • The magic is different for everyone. For some students that magic moment may come when examining fungi under a microscope. For another, it could be the taste of a carrot freshly pulled from a garden bed. Plan activities that have potential for diversity of experience and be ready to support students when they find their own magical experiences in nature.
  • Use metaphor and art to activate non-literal thinking. Prime students to be thinking about symbolism, aesthetic beauty, and other subjective concepts by incorporating metaphor and art into your teaching. This could be as simple as beginning your field study by reading a poem aloud.
  • Capitalize on the magic when it happens! Ok, you had a magical experience with a coyote on the trail! Now what? Make the most of whatever your students found most magical about the experience and build content learning experiences from there. Perhaps they were really taken with how silently the coyote moved. This would be a great jumping off point to learn coyote anatomy or discuss behavior and physical adaptations of the coyote.

“In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.” –John Muir

May your next outdoor teaching experience be filled with magic!

A perspective graduate instructor at an outdoor school shadows a field group on a temperate spring day. She joins the group as they are about to cross a 190 foot suspended bridge, 60 feet over a small stream at the base of a ravine. The green of each Sword Fern below is like a little firework to the city dwelling prospective student’s eyes, which have become used to gray concrete. After a short trek down the trail on the other side of the bridge and a quick introduction with the poised and confident instructor, she stands at the base of a tower. Hundreds of stairs wind around the structure as it ascends into the canopy, the observation deck at the top barely visible from the ground. The college graduate stands among fifth graders; all are transfixed. Together, they make a slow and steady climb to the top. Each flight of stairs brings a new perspective, and everyone forgets how tired their legs are. At last, they reach the observation deck and are greeted by a wash of bright blue and the gentle warmth of sunlight on their cheeks. Looking out, it is green as far as the eye can see. The perspective student catches her breath. Here, as tall as the tallest earthbound species can reach, anything feels possible. Just as the prospective student makes her decision that she will study and teach here, two bald eagles soar up from the canopy and begin to circle overhead.

…One year later, the perspective student is now a practiced instructor, sitting in a garden classroom with her own field group. One by one, ten fourth graders add a handful of herbs to a steaming pitcher. As each tips their fragrant harvest into the water, they share a way they would like to grow over the week. Many speak of making new friends and having new experiences. The tea tastes like the essence of a Pacific Northwest spring—green, earthy, with just a hint of mint and honey. In a quiet moment as everyone sips, one student remarks, “This is a very special tea because it is our team tea. No other team could make this tea exactly like we did.” Other students join in the conversation, reflecting on the one-of-a-kind nature of the experience, and also the brevity of it; once the tea has been drunk, it will never exist in quite the same way again. There in the garden sun, nine-year-olds contemplate how human experience can be deeply meaningful yet fleeting.

Tinhof Article TallIn my short tenure as an Outdoor Educator, I have seen my fair share of magic. That spark of wonder led me to the field and it is never missing from my teaching experiences for long. Nature is giving when it comes to magic moments: A perfectly timed wildlife sighting, a sudden rainstorm, a breath of sunlight in an otherwise dreary day, the simple beauty discovered in the pattern on a leaf.

Magic moments contribute to shared experience in the field. Shared experience builds comradery and trust within the group, bolstering team-building experiences. It also helps foster a sense of group identity (for example, “let’s ask that team that saw the owl!”), which provides a good foundation to ensuring that all group members feel welcome and included in the group. Shared experience can help build a connection between instructor, chaperones, and students, helping bridge the divide that can sometimes be felt between facilitators and students.

 Magic moments can also help scaffold content. Years from now, when asked what I remember most from my time as a graduate student and instructor of outdoor school, I will not recount the most complicated science terms I learned or the data my students collected in any given investigation. I will tell the stories of these magic moments. I will feel what I felt watching eagles soar. It seems logical to assume that it is the same for younger students: what is meaningful about outdoor school is not vocabulary learned or facts recorded, but what is felt and understood at the heart level. This magic provides a powerful “why” behind all the science content we are asking students to learn and the stewardship practices we wish them to adopt. Without that spark of the magic of nature, the value of examining it under a magnifying glass is lost.

How can you embrace the magic with you students?

  • Be ready for it. Unfortunately, we cannot cue the magic when teaching outdoors. What we can cue is how students respond when it arrives. Model enthusiasm for exploration, wonder at discoveries, and a sense of value in taking time observing and enjoying.
  • The magic is different for everyone. For some students that magic moment may come when examining fungi under a microscope. For another, it could be the taste of a carrot freshly pulled from a garden bed. Plan activities that have potential for diversity of experience and be ready to support students when they find their own magical experiences in nature.
  • Use metaphor and art to activate non-literal thinking. Prime students to be thinking about symbolism, aesthetic beauty, and other subjective concepts by incorporating metaphor and art into your teaching. This could be as simple as beginning your field study by reading a poem aloud.
  • Capitalize on the magic when it happens! Ok, you had a magical experience with a coyote on the trail! Now what? Make the most of whatever your students found most magical about the experience and build content learning experiences from there. Perhaps they were really taken with how silently the coyote moved. This would be a great jumping off point to learn coyote anatomy or discuss behavior and physical adaptations of the coyote.

“In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.” –John Muir

May your next outdoor teaching experience be filled with magic!

About the Author
Sierra Tinhof

Sierra is a performer turned educator who is passionate about utilizing movement and art to teach timely and rigorous academic content with a focus on equity. Since graduating from Central Washington University, she has worked as a performing arts instructor, after school program teacher, founding company member of Rocket Theatre Lab (a new Seattle theatre company dedicated to producing original works based on science and history), and now as a Field Instructor at IslandWood, a school in the woods on Bainbridge Island. She has a deep passion for arts-integrated science education and community leadership.