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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?

Modeling Curiosity

Namoi ArticleConsciously 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.

Choice-Based Engagement

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.

Self Evaluation

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.

What do you get when multiple IslandWood field groups join forces to learn together? A supergroup!

What’s the purpose of supergrouping?

Although students arrive at IslandWood from their respective schools, here they are in this unique space and community together; each week a new group of students comes together as one IslandWood school. When field groups supergroup for a lesson, students are afforded an opportunity to learn about and from their peers at different schools. It is when we share ideas and build on those of others that we really start to understand, create, and innovate.

Sounds interesting… but will my students really be able to teach and learn from one another?

When your students are engaged in a supergroup lesson, you and your co-instructors are facilitating a peer-assisted learning experience. These lessons are powerful for your students because children are better suited to adjust their understanding and perception of something around the ideas of others in a similar developmental stage. In these settings, students are more inclined to examine and reexamine their ideas, which leads to higher levels of comprehension and reasoning. Finally, when learning involves social interaction with a peer, the content of the lesson involves a significant social motivation for each student, and in turn increases their level of accountability to understand the concept. While the benefits of teaching and learning from one’s peers are numerous, this type of  learning environment is likely to be new for many of your students. It is important to consider how you will support your students not only in learning the content within the lesson, but also how you will incorporate the opportunities for students to teach students authentically.

 I’m interested in supergrouping. How do I get started?

As you plan with your co-instructors, identify a lesson that allows students to draw from not only their IslandWood experience, but also their knowledge from school and other life experiences. Be prepared to share the goal with the group so that they know what they are working towards and why collaboration is so important. For example, “This week, we are going to work together to observe many of the ecosystems at IslandWood to discover how they are all connected! None of us will see all the ecosystems here at IslandWood, but together, we’ll learn from and teach one another about what we notice out there.”

The experience should pose enough challenge such that students feel compelled to ask their peers to share their input. Students will be drawn into the conversation when they have questions to ask and information to share. While the experience of meeting new people may be socially motivating for some students, others may be more shy and will need help from their instructors to break the ice. When the groups first come together, play a game that encourages students to share their name and allows them to begin to recognize the students in the other field groups. Finally, make the supergroup a priority in your week. Many students will be hesitant at first to work with students from a different school rather than someone they know from school. By providing students with multiple opportunities to interact with the students from the other groups, over time the whole group will become more cohesive. Start supergrouping on Monday, and come back to the group each day of the week.

Supergrouping is an exhilarating and collaborative experience for instructors, too! As you and your co-instructors plan for your supergroup lesson, be considering the following questions:

  1. How will supergrouping support students from each group achieve the learning targets?
  2. How will you support your students to feel safe, empowered, and accountable to teach and learn from their collaborators?
  3. How will your students’ age, existing level of understanding of a concept, home community, and other identities influence their ability to teach and learn from students from another school? How will I support ELL students or students with learning differences so that they too are successful in teaching and learning from their peers?

When working as an outdoor educator, one of the most common problems is lack of time. Depending on the type of program, students may only be there for a few days, or sometimes just a few hours if it’s an in-school field trip. Lack of time compounded with having one of you and ten to twelve of them can complicate things. This means that finding the time to get to know the students and feel like you connected with them can sometimes fall to the wayside, especially when you feel you have other lessons and program objectives to meet. But finding ways to connect with your students is vital. Why should your students care about your ecosystem lesson if they feel you don’t care about their lives, or what they have to say outside of the lesson?

While connecting with students in a short time can be challenging, here’s a few tried and true tricks to help you get started:

connecting with studentsLearn their names. Taking the time to learn your students’ names tells them that they are important to you. They aren’t just another child you have to teach something to. Learning their names honors their individuality. Figure out how feasible this is in your timeframe, and do your best with it. This can be easier if you have your students for a few days, but even if it is for only a short field trip, try to make some effort. If you are addressing a child directly, ask their name and then use it when you address them. If you aren’t good at remembering names, try some memory games to help, or use name games that associate that name with something.

Eye contact is key. This one may seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate its importance. When talking with your students, make sure to look them in the eyes. Or, if it’s a student that seems uncomfortable with eye contact, mirror the amount of eye contact they use. This is another to way to show your students that they matter to you, because it shows that they have your full attention when you are talking with them.

Trail conversations are a great time to build rapport. Walking from point A to point B with your students is a great time to connect with them. Not every single moment needs to be filled up with activities and lessons, especially trail time. By giving them time to do what they want as you walk, this time can serve as a brain break and as a time for you to chat with your students. I love to place myself throughout the group and just listen to the conversations around me. I also find that students will often start talking with me about various things, both related and unrelated to our programming, or I can strike up conversations with nearby students. This is a great start to getting to know your students: what their family is like, what pets they have, favorite movies, books, TV shows, what that keychain on their backpack is from. There are endless topics to cover when walking the trails.

Remember what they told you. Once you’ve started to get to know your students, make it clear that you remember what they told you. Use recall to bring up previous things they’ve already told you. For example, a student mentions they have a dog and tells you about some silly antic their dog does sometimes. At a later time, ask for more details. What’s the dog’s name? What kind of dog is it? How long has the student had the dog? This shows your students that you listen when they talk to you, and that what they say is important enough to you for you to remember it.

Be open and authentic. This can be a little tricky, and ultimately depends on your comfort level. Oftentimes opening yourself up and sharing yourself with your students will help them open up to you. I like to start off my time with my students by making it clear that I will, within reason, answer questions about myself and share with them. I also make it clear that I am my own person, outside of being an educator. I do my best to be myself with them, which can also help me find things we have in common. For example, when teaching throughout the winter, I wore a hat with logos of my favorite NFL team. My favorite team was not a popular choice with my students, and many of them would vocalize that, and while we would agree to disagree as to whose team was better, football gave me common ground with some of my students. Sometimes just being yourself and being authentic with your students can help create a space where they feel comfortable enough to share a little bit and try to connect with you.

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?


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.  

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