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lucy1We are asked to model all the time.  Doing so one-hundred percent of the time is unrealistic.  How do we explain the margin of change from one-hundred percent “normal societal” behaviors?  How do we avoid justification, or utilizing an “inherent value of age?”*  In moments of expected modeling, what do we say when we are called out by a student for our non-normative, or expected, societal or classroom behavior?  

Even so, what is modeling one-hundred percent? This suggests normative behaviors and therefore also carries the weight to validate stereotypes.  These patterns are symbolic of issues much larger.  Our efforts to be thoughtful carry ample responsibility and power; to mobilize transparency, we can prepare ourselves to model decision making rather than decisions. Modeling decision making could look as basic as, pausing in front of a snail or a salamander on the trail and deciding whether or not to move the organism from a main thoroughfare-- how, why and for what reason-- and discussing this decision-making process aloud.  Or, after building bridges in the woods out of natural objects opening a dialogue about whether or not we should leave our engineering art as it is, or disperse it; these are great practise moments for students to consider not only their impacts but also the many facets that go towards making a decision. The reverse of this could look like the educator just telling the students what is going to happen at the end of their building time without including them in the dialogue (whether or not you have a goal in mind, the conversation is the rich part of this).  

This article aims to promote explanation versus making excuses during “grey area” times of modeling.  There will always be a grey area; how can be teach transferrable tools and process, rather than absolutes?  We know as outdoor educators that more trials equal better results but how can we express this inherent value of age to someone younger than us?  As educators, we shouldn’t have to rely on inherent value of age as reasoning for our actions, as there are-- and essentially should always be -- specific reasons for asking students to do something.  

Instead of not doing what you believe, or what suits your lifestyle choices -- modeling just to model-- be prepared to articulate your choices.  The very best teacher is adaptable to many situations and is able to practise the power of the when and the how. The when and the how can be discerned through authenticity and discretion: every choice is a moving target.  The most powerful lesson lies in modeling decision making with evidence and experience rather than authority.  An expert leader has a non-analytic, appropriate, and holistic sense of all situations and the repertoire to respond in a prepared, salient way.  

There are various strategies for challenging current stereotypes and inequality in outdoor education, and we need them all. Some of these strategies include:

  • challenging the idea that the generic outdoor participant is a mythical norm that often encodes an assumption of ability, prosperity, whiteness and similar ideas of wildness;

  • improve practical access to outdoor exploration (gear libraries, work trade, childcare, financial support);

  • examine values instilled in basic ideas of the field (wildness, adventure, culture);

  • willingness to question and discuss unjust practises while maintaining positivity;

  • provide innovative tactics to transform ideas of difference through intentional curriculum design (Newbery 3).  

There is built-in power that we carry as educators of youth, and adults alike.  This power can manifest in many ways, however one poignant place where we can stir critical thinking into our work is through ways of modeling.  By being comfortable in our actions, through body language and articulate explanation, we provide strong alternatives to societal expectations and fill in gaps where conversation can begin and students can explore self-identity.    

I believe that demonstrating differences of opinion is a responsibility that every educator carries.  Modeling is a great avenue for breaking down norms and encouraging critical thinking about subliminal societal expectations.  We hold much power in these moments of testing student expectations-- they are observing our every move subconsciously or consciously.  Explaining our behavior, for example, “this was the right choice for me at this time because…,” values variability, consideration of all aspects and flexibility.  Rather than delineating a decision derived from one scenario, this allows our students to re-consider stereotypes, absolutes and norms.  When we create absolutes, we encourage archetypes**; is that something to aspire to?   

*”inherent value of age” is colloquially referred to in this article as, wisdom gained through years of life experience.   

**a statement, pattern of behavior, or prototype which other statements, patterns of behavior, and objects copy or emulate (Merriam-Webster).  

Newbery, Liz.  “Caution: Education Is Very Messy! Social Difference, Justice, and Teaching Outdoors.” Pathways: Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario Series Winter.  Issue 15 (1) (2003): 2-3.  

daniella1The idea behind emotional intelligence is more than noticing ones emotions. It is also the act of using empathy as a form of communication and understanding between people. Throughout my time in working in the outdoor education world I have seen more and more the importance of emotional intelligence. It is a skill that takes a whole life to develop and master. Even though teaching how to be emotionally intelligent is a difficult task, I think helping students recognize the process and why its important is the best way to go in teaching it. 

daniella2Emotional intelligence is often times an expectation or a skill we work on as we discover, learn and explore together the ecosystems or own personal challenges while being at Islandwood. This characteristic is introduced and framed first thing when I meet the students. I explain the importance of recognizing ones own emotions when they first arrive and then give them the time to assess what to do next. The best moments to bring up in conversation emotional intelligence are after a team challenge, or after a long day of hiking. I reiterate again the importance of emotions. Together in our circle, we say out loud what we are feeling and often times the students jump into expelling why they feel certain ways. If they don’t provide evidence I usually ask for an example. Now in those moments if a stranger would have walked into that moments my students may have not said the same answer as they would have said to me. I set the standard about sharing emotions and recognizing them when they happen. Its something we do everyday especially during debriefs at the end of the day. Even a simple questions of asking, “How is everyone feeling?” and getting real answers in which the students know that you are truly listening to what they have to say. Once this ambience is created there is a sense of trust and respect that is gained. In this setting students become more willing to learn with you and be challenged by you. Working with emotional intelligence allows for your students to do some self reflection, regulation and also self awareness. In their recognition, they then feel more confident in themselves which allows for you to help stretch their answers. Asking a lot of why questions helps them to communicate effectively why they are saying the things they are saying. 

daniella siderbar2Emotional intelligence ties in with social emotional learning. The idea of learning empathy, how to communicate to others how you feel and why are skills that are important to every student. The setting does not matter, but in outdoor education there is the space and tons of opportunities to learn the importance of emotions while learning.  

Yell out “Camouflage!” in a group of environmental educators anywhere in the country, and at least a few will scramble to find a place to hide. The game is ubiquitous in outdoor and environmental education. There are many variations of this classic game, but educators that view it as only a game are missing out on its full potential.   

In Camouflage, one person is the predator and everyone else becomes prey.  The prey have approximately 30 seconds to hide while the predator closes their eyes. As the prey must always be able to see the predator,  participants work to camouflage into their surroundings and remain still and quiet.  The predator tries to spot prey, but must stay in one place; the predator can, however, pivot on one foot or crouch down to get a different perspective.  Prey that are sighted are out for the round.  Once the predator has searched for a few minutes, they make a designated call and all remaining prey emerge from their spots.  The winner is the prey player who was able to hide the closest without being found.  

Really though, everyone wins with Camouflage when an instructor plans for learning!   Below are my top 5 ways to use Camouflage to augment your teaching, but there are many more.  Get creative, have fun, and find a place to hide! 

  1. Camouflage is a tool to compare ecosystems. Camouflage in the forest is pretty easy, but have you ever played camouflage at the beach?  It can be much more difficult to hide, and students will have a visceral experience as they try to find a suitable spot.  You might even hear cries of, “This isn’t fair!”  Use this as an entry point to discuss the plant communities of different locations or the habitat needs of different species.  Playing Camouflage in a field can also be illuminating for students as they scatter to the forested edges and build their own understanding of how animals could be affected by human clearing and development of ecosystems.  

  2. Camouflage is an introduction to adaptations.  Students often choose to take off bright jackets, as they realize those in duller colors are having more success.  Others will focus on finding a spot where they can comfortably stay still and quiet, or even move leaves and debris to better cover themselves.  Occasionally, a daring student will try to hide right behind the predator. After playing a few rounds of camouflage, students will be excited to explain the strategies they used. You can build discussions or lessons around  the importance of and mechanisms for adaptations, the difference between physical adaptations and behavioral adaptations, or examples of adaptations around you.    

  3. Camouflage can quickly change student state, increase excitement, and give you time to organize yourself.  Whenever students start to get antsy, yelling “Camouflage!” gives students a chance to run (moving their bodies) and then sit quietly (focusing themselves).  Conversely, if group energy is flagging, a quick game of camouflage gets the blood pumping.  The anticipation of future games of camouflage can keep student excitement high throughout the day.  If you need a minute to regroup your thoughts, you can either do this as the predator while counting down or you can designate someone else as the predator.    

  4. Camouflage is a way to increase mindfulness and presence.  After you’ve played camouflage one or two times, try giving students extra time in their spots before you begin searching. Guide them through a mindfulness exercise to tune into their senses. Be sure to tell them that you will keep your eyes closed during this part. Ask a series of questions and prompts that address the students as a prey species, pausing between each question.  The ‘squirrels’ (or whatever species you choose), need to quiet their breathing and heartbeat after racing to evade the ‘coyote’ predator.  Encourage all of the squirrels to listen quietly in their spots.  Ask them to pay attention to their hiding place - if they, as squirrels, had to stay in this spot for a long time, would the ground be comfortable to stand/sit on? Are they upwind or downwind from the coyote? What do they smell? After the mindfulness activity, give them 10 seconds to get resettled in their spot, and the game is on!  

  5. Camouflage encourages students to be aware of their surroundings.  As we move into new ecosystems, I often overhear students murmuring to each other things like, "It would be hard to camouflage here!"  "Look at all those stinging nettles, don't hide there" or "Look at that dead tree - that would be a perfect place."  You can foster this awareness, and build anticipation, by occasionally asking students where they would hide as you enter a new ecosystem. Encourage students that find something interesting during camouflage to share it with the whole group – even if it means pausing the game. Because we are dispersed, quiet, and paying attention to our surroundings, some of the most awe-inspiring wildlife moments I’ve had with students have been during camouflage. 

While some might think of Camouflage as just a game, it incorporates many of the primary tenets of experiential learning.  Used wisely and creatively, Camouflage is a fantastic and fun learning experience.      


Tips for playing Camouflage When you play for the first time with a group, choose a place where it will be fairly easy to find hidings spots among brush, rocks, logs, or other parts of the ecosystem. Pick a spot, at least for your first few rounds, that is an especially safe environment to run and hide in.  Avoid areas with lots of branches and sticks, slippery logs or mud, nearby hazards like water or roads, and plants that can sting, scratch, or irritate.  As you get to know participants better and they become more familiar with the game, you may decide to choose more challenging environments. As the instructor, you do not always have to be the predator.  Participants will enjoy the opportunity to fill this role, and playing alongside them can help build rapport.  You also have an opportunity to introduce different topics by using tricks, such as hiding under backpacks or hiding in plain sight.  This may lead to claims of “cheating,” which will lead to more impassioned discussions of behavioral adaptations.   It is likely that participants will ask frequently to play the game.  A way to minimize this is to explain that as the predator, you are always trying to surprise the prey.  Or you can simply be transparent with students about your need to find the right locations and fit specific learning objectives.





One of the most important aspects of an educator’s work is to help students draw connections between the content taught and the rest of their lives. In effect, it’s answering the age old and often dreaded question of “Why do we have to learn this?” Now, most folks who have been through the American public education system probably already know the knee jerk responses to those questions. “Because it’s on the test.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, and that’s where the all-important debrief comes in. The debrief is a teacher’s time to shine. A time to take a lesson that may have been cerebral, abstract or maybe even downright confusing and wrap it up nicely so students leave feeling like not only was that a decent use of their time, but something they might even be important later in life. Imagine that! Without further adieu, here are 4 easy things to remember for a successful debrief conversation.

1. Why are YOU teaching the lesson?

It might seem obvious, but if you can’t answer this question, how can students be expected to? In essence a big part of a successful debrief conversation is backwards planning. It’s starting with your objectives or enduring understanding, building a lesson plan around those ideas, executing that plan and circling back to the objectives in the closing discussion.  For instance when teaching a lesson about producers, consumers and decomposers decide whether your objectives are about understanding vocabulary terms or understanding the intricate connections of niches in an ecosystem. If your focus is understanding the connections, then the debrief is a perfect time to reflect on that with students and make that a priority of the conversation. This saves you from getting caught up on details that aren’t part of your end goal and helps to focus on what made the lesson successful.

2. It’s ok to be explicit.

As teachers we can often be our own worst enemy when it comes to a successful debrief because we feel like if we did our jobs well the students should just “get it”. We all want to be Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society and we’re scared that by being open with our students we lose the magic. That’s not to say there aren’t times for hard earned connections or pieces of subtle educational gold, moments that plant a seed and blossom into the learning we all hope to cultivate. Those are beautiful and essential parts of student driven practice, but there’s nothing wrong with simply saying “Here’s what I hope you’ll wall take away from this lesson” and laying it out there for them to think about.

3. Be concrete.

Use examples during your debrief that the students brought up during the lesson. Again, if you’re discussing the connections between producers, consumers and decomposers and a student noticed a nurse log, then talk about the nurse log. Don’t make things complicated by trying to tie in a lot of outside examples that may be abstract or convoluted in the eyes of your students. Ideally as a capable educator it should be possible to fit most aspects of students observations and/or conversation during the lesson to your debrief. Doing so will help them identify as capable learners and build a real life experience for them to link this lesson to later in the unit and their lives. It also helps to take some of the pressure off the teacher to come up with examples because the students have done it for you. Remember teachers and students are in this together.

4. Don’t let your debrief wander.

A debrief should be a wrap up, not an entirely different lesson. Too much time spent on final discussion and you run the risk of having what should have been the most important points becoming lost. They get mixed up with all the other information that’s been covered. Use the recency effect to your advantage and finish strong with the main points you want students to take away.

There you have it. Now the next time a student asks “Why do we have to learn this?”, you should be ready and able to help them figure that question out. Remember a powerful debrief can be the most important part of a lesson, and certainly a great opportunity to give the information a lasting impact. 

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