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Mindfulness and Experiential Outdoor Education

Instruction

Consider this, you’ve just done a team building exercise and as part of the debrief you would like the students to reflect upon the emotions they may have felt or are feeling after the activity. Instead of immediately launching into a discussion, students could sit quietly, breathe, reflect, and respond to the discussion more whole-heartedly.  One basic tenet of experiential education is focused reflection. Since I began teaching outdoors, I’ve grown more and more interested in how mindfulness can help support my work as an experiential educator.  The goal of bringing focused reflection into the practice of experiential teaching is that it  will help increase students’ capacity to learn, develop skills, clarify values, and develop their capacity to contribute to their community. In what ways can I transfer what I believe to be so valuable with mindfulness-based practices, to my students’ experience outdoors?

What is mindfulness and how can it can help?

Mindfulness

Put simply, mindfulness is about noticing your breathing and the transient nature of your emotions. Research-based mindfulness practices are now being taught in schools as a way to create environments that are socially and emotionally supportive for both the student and teacher. Mindfulness practices may not work the same for everyone. It’s important to note this, and to focus on the basic tenet of the practice, which is giving your brain a break. When students are learning together in a group, the social distractions alone can be hard to overcome. When students are tired or perhaps stressed they are less likely to fully participate and therefore less likely to learn. By focusing our attention on our breath we can slow our heart-rate and blood pressure, and thus regulate our emotions more easily.

Example of using the breath as a focus point:

Find a comfortable seat on your sit pad
Draw your gaze downward with eyes either open or closed
Take a few moments to just notice your breathing
Now begin to lengthen your inhales and exhales
On the count of 3 breathe in…...breathe out in 3 (repeat this a number of times)
Simply notice the sounds around you
Notice the stillness in your body
Begin to relax your shoulders, your arms, your hands…
Continue to focus on your breathing, inhaling in 3, exhaling count to 3

You can finish this practice with any mindfulness message or reflection piece. For example, I’ve done a short 5 minute guided meditation after my students finished off a teambuilding exercise.

How can mindfulness practice be integrated into outdoor teaching? 

It may not be an easy-sell to suggest sitting quietly and silently to your students unless they understand the intention behind the practice. You can begin by putting emphasis on the students heightening some kind of sensation (sight, sound, smell, taste, feel).  Your intention could be taking time to listen to the natural world or to ponder a particular reflection question after a team building activity. Take the appropriate amount of time to settle in. The goal is provide a spacious break in the day in which students can simply breathe and refocus.  What are some ways to transition into a mindfulness activity?

How do you make your practice intentional?

It is important to set intentions with mindfulness-based activities to make the transition into sitting quietly more noticeable.  One way to set the stage for settling into any mindfulness activity is to brighten the line, or mark the transition between your activities by creating some kind of expectation for focus. Establishing this expectation for calm can be done in a variety of ways.  Change the setting and preface with the intention that it will be a silent activity and that they should choose a spot where they won’t feel distracted.  Decide how far apart students should be, keeping in mind the further out they are the more likely they can become distracted.  Start your focused-attention practice with a poem or a story can help students settle into a more relaxed state of mind. Make this practice an established routine that precedes a particular activity so students can be aware of when it’s time to focus. 

Integrating mindfulness into your outdoor teaching practice is a way for both you and your students to become more fully present.  Take the time to give your students these brain breaks to step back and reflect so as to better support them emotionally and socially throughout the day.   Mindfulness moments can be used in a variety of settings and are therefore easy to integrate into a typical day outdoors. Taking these breathing breaks will hopefully bring the resulting focus you need for your students to reflect and respond to their emotions and to each other in a healthy way.  

Consider this, you’ve just done a team building exercise and as part of the debrief you would like the students to reflect upon the emotions they may have felt or are feeling after the activity. Instead of immediately launching into a discussion, students could sit quietly, breathe, reflect, and respond to the discussion more whole-heartedly.  One basic tenet of experiential education is focused reflection. Since I began teaching outdoors, I’ve grown more and more interested in how mindfulness can help support my work as an experiential educator.  The goal of bringing focused reflection into the practice of experiential teaching is that it  will help increase students’ capacity to learn, develop skills, clarify values, and develop their capacity to contribute to their community. In what ways can I transfer what I believe to be so valuable with mindfulness-based practices, to my students’ experience outdoors?

What is mindfulness and how can it can help?

Mindfulness

Put simply, mindfulness is about noticing your breathing and the transient nature of your emotions. Research-based mindfulness practices are now being taught in schools as a way to create environments that are socially and emotionally supportive for both the student and teacher. Mindfulness practices may not work the same for everyone. It’s important to note this, and to focus on the basic tenet of the practice, which is giving your brain a break. When students are learning together in a group, the social distractions alone can be hard to overcome. When students are tired or perhaps stressed they are less likely to fully participate and therefore less likely to learn. By focusing our attention on our breath we can slow our heart-rate and blood pressure, and thus regulate our emotions more easily.

Example of using the breath as a focus point:

Find a comfortable seat on your sit pad
Draw your gaze downward with eyes either open or closed
Take a few moments to just notice your breathing
Now begin to lengthen your inhales and exhales
On the count of 3 breathe in…...breathe out in 3 (repeat this a number of times)
Simply notice the sounds around you
Notice the stillness in your body
Begin to relax your shoulders, your arms, your hands…
Continue to focus on your breathing, inhaling in 3, exhaling count to 3

You can finish this practice with any mindfulness message or reflection piece. For example, I’ve done a short 5 minute guided meditation after my students finished off a teambuilding exercise.

How can mindfulness practice be integrated into outdoor teaching? 

It may not be an easy-sell to suggest sitting quietly and silently to your students unless they understand the intention behind the practice. You can begin by putting emphasis on the students heightening some kind of sensation (sight, sound, smell, taste, feel).  Your intention could be taking time to listen to the natural world or to ponder a particular reflection question after a team building activity. Take the appropriate amount of time to settle in. The goal is provide a spacious break in the day in which students can simply breathe and refocus.  What are some ways to transition into a mindfulness activity?

How do you make your practice intentional?

It is important to set intentions with mindfulness-based activities to make the transition into sitting quietly more noticeable.  One way to set the stage for settling into any mindfulness activity is to brighten the line, or mark the transition between your activities by creating some kind of expectation for focus. Establishing this expectation for calm can be done in a variety of ways.  Change the setting and preface with the intention that it will be a silent activity and that they should choose a spot where they won’t feel distracted.  Decide how far apart students should be, keeping in mind the further out they are the more likely they can become distracted.  Start your focused-attention practice with a poem or a story can help students settle into a more relaxed state of mind. Make this practice an established routine that precedes a particular activity so students can be aware of when it’s time to focus. 

Integrating mindfulness into your outdoor teaching practice is a way for both you and your students to become more fully present.  Take the time to give your students these brain breaks to step back and reflect so as to better support them emotionally and socially throughout the day.   Mindfulness moments can be used in a variety of settings and are therefore easy to integrate into a typical day outdoors. Taking these breathing breaks will hopefully bring the resulting focus you need for your students to reflect and respond to their emotions and to each other in a healthy way.  

About the Author
Liesel Benecke

Liesel is a graduate student at the University of Washington, working towards her Masters in Education. She received her B.S. Biology from Missouri State University with an emphasis in Marine Science during her time with the semester by the sea program in Southampton, NY.  Since graduating from college she has been inspired to pursue informal education by individuals she has met at the Audubon Naturalist Society in Maryland, Seattle Aquarium, and the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.  She hopes to continue working with youth outdoors, and studying the positive effects mindfulness can have in schools with teachers and students.