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Before smartphones became commonplace in our society, very few people would devote additional space in their bags and backpacks to carry around cameras because they added too much extra weight and bulk. Early mobile phones with cameras helped solve the weight and bulk issue but the picture quality was so bad that the photos were essentially unusable outside of the phone. But now that smartphones have become more and more ubiquitous in our society, most people have a high-quality camera with them at all times. Smartphones have also reinforced users’ interest in taking photos with the ability to share photos instantly with family and friends through various social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Many people now rely on these apps to provide a digital memory book of their favorite experiences.

So while there are many benefits to requiring to students to unplug from their electronic devices while they are at residential environmental education centers, depriving students the opportunity to take pictures of what is often one of the most transformative educational experiences in their lives seems rather unkind. But as mentioned above, most students only access to a camera is through smartphones and it can be virtually impossible to limit students to only use the camera while at these residential environmental education centers. Disposable cameras provide another choice for students to take pictures without other distracting features but they are not without their challenges. These cameras restrict the number of photos students can take to around thirty, offer no options besides a viewfinder to compose photos beforehand or delete unwanted photos, and finding a store that still develops film is becoming harder and harder. Providing a group of students with a single communal digital camera often limits each student’s ability to take pictures and distributing pictures to the appropriate children after the fact is very difficult if not impossible.

But despite all of these challenges, photography can still be a valuable art medium to teach as it provides so many benefits to students beyond helping to preserve memories. Taking photos encourages students to experiment with viewing at nature from different perspectives and often ones that they would never experience without a camera. These new perspectives foster the creation of art students might never have conceived in their own heads as well as provide students frustrated by other art mediums a more satisfying outlet for artistic expression. These art pieces in turn sometimes cause students to create greater connections with the subjects they photographed which can lead to a greater sense of stewardship for their environment. So while many residential environmental education centers might dismiss technology as too costly or in opposition to their goal to allow students to unplug, I hope that this article gives greater insight into how photography can be an engaging way promote the creation of original art, explore nature in new ways, and capture memories that will hopefully last a lifetime.


For those interested in leading photography lessons with students, here are a few lesson ideas:

  • Patterns in Nature
    • Students use view nature from different perspectives creating art through those found patterns. Discussion of how those patterns are made can follow. Photos are best shared as a gallery walk (photos mounted on the wall while everyone walks and views at own pace).
  • Photography Perspective Story
    • Students choose an object in nature and take a set of photos that tell a story from the object’s point of view. Photos can be shared as a gallery walk, collage, and many other ways but the story should be shared. Can lead to discussion about looking at the world from someone else’s perspective.
  • Photography Ecosystem Assessment
    • Students take a set of photos that represent their perspective of an ecosystem. Students make a collage of their pictures to recreate the ecosystem. The ecosystem collage is shared along with why they chose the different elements that they photographed. A discussion about similarities and differences between the collages can follow.

Singing is a joyful experience and can be used as a teaching tool out in the field. Songs can help introduce, supplement, or debrief a lesson. Here are some ways to use songs in the field.

As an Introduction: Use song as a hook for a lesson. Making melodies for lessons helps the students think about the words they are singing as a repeat after me.

Review of a lesson:  Using a familiar melody with a ‚Äúrepeat after me‚Äù allows them to review the material in a fun new way.

As a motivator for Stretching: Scientists have proven that stretching improves the ability to learn. The increase in blood flow helps the brain and stimulates learning. However, some students are unwilling to do morning stretches before a hike but when singing a “do as I do” song it allows their body to move and wake up. With song they forget they are stretching and enjoy the moment. Also after a meal singing an entertainment song is a nice way to get the “digestive juices flowing.”

For increasing energy: When the group is low energy and there is still more time for field group a song can be a “pick me up”. A dance party or just a camp song can liven the group.

To maintain focus: When doing an observation lesson front load the students with instructions of doing the observation for as long as the song is playing and when the song stops discussion of the object will start. While the song is playing the students know only to observe the item selected and they know there is a certain length of time they will be focusing.

Supplementing a lesson: There is a point in a longer lesson that the students might need a brain break and a song can add to the lesson while allowing a kinesthetic learning element.

Debriefing: After a day at the harbor I like to sing a song about the beach, but before that I have the students say what they saw at the beach. This provides evidence of what they remember seeing and what animals live in a marine ecosystem. The students can realize that they are in fact marine biologists. This can be done with any lesson or theme.

Team bonding: Trail walking and singing a favorite song keeps the group together and engaged. This will allow the fast walkers to slow down and the stragglers to keep up so they can sing with the team.  A team that sings together will stay together. 

Examples of Songs:

Night Hike:
During night hike singing the melody of row your boat with rods and cones. For example: "Rods, rods, rods and cones sitting in my eye. One sees color and the other movement so night won't pass me by."

Harbor Song:
Sponge Bob square pants jogging down the beach. He looks over there and what does he see? He sees a crab doing crabby things - pinchy pinchy pinch. He sees the sea gulls flying in the sky - (sound of droppings). He sees the jelly fish in the water- squishy squishy sqish.

"Before they enter school, young children experience and explore the world mainly through nonverbal language: by feeling, pulling, pushing, throwing, swinging. No one has to teach children to jump for joy, to roll down a grassy hill, or to pound their bodies on the floor during a tantrum. Children react to the world in physical ways. By the time they get to elementary school, they still feel comfortable in that nonverbal language: creative movement. To ignore this natural  resource is a waste, a barrier to the process of education."

-Susan Griss, Elementary Education Dance Integration Specialist

Creative movement is a vastly underutilized instructional tool in the traditional classroom, but perhaps even more so in the outdoor classroom. Creative movement allows students to experience the concepts they are learning and challenges them to express their ideas in new ways. It provides opportunities for students to engage different parts of their brains during the school day and provides much needed reprieve from traditional sit-and-learn activities.

Supporting your objectives with dance

As with any other lesson you teach, planning to integrate creative movement should begin with a clear learning objective for your students. Once you have defined what you hope the students will learn or be able to do as a result of the lesson, you can determine the most appropriate way to utilize creative movement to support your objectives. You can use dance to assess student learning, introduce new content, reinforce content, address different learning styles, and to reflect on and synthesize multiple concepts and ideas already explored.  While planning your lesson, be sure that you are using creative movement effectively- that is, the dance component of your lesson should enrich the lesson and enhance your students' learning. You should be able to explain to your students (and yourself) why you have chosen to use creative movement in this particular lesson  and why the dance component is integral to the students' learning and communication of their own ideas. 

Consider the setting

Some people may think that a dance lesson belongs in an indoor room filled with mirrors, barres, and hardwood flooring; however, the outdoors can be an inspiring and lower-stress environment, particularly for students who are just beginning to explore dance and creative movement.  You do need to carefully consider which locations in your outdoor classroom will be most conducive to learning through dance but keep in mind that by using your imagination with your students, almost any space in nature can be transformed into a stage for performance. Choose a space that will not strictly limit how and where students can move and explicitly state the safety expectations for practicing creative movement in the outdoors.

Consider the time

While planning your dance lesson, it will benefit you and your students to carefully consider the time of day the lesson will take place. What will you be doing before the lesson? What do you have planned for after the lesson? Will the students be hungry and distracted? Or will they be overstuffed and sluggish just after lunch? Think about how you can best utilize the timing of your lesson to ensure maximum engagement from your students while also reaping the benefits of creating energized brains and bodies for the lessons that follow. Be intentional about the time you will allow students to work on their piece and state clear expectations accordingly.

Implementing the lesson

Simply telling your students to "make a dance about decomposers" is insufficient and will likely be met with many confused looks and exasperated sighs. Instead, begin by introducing some of the basic concepts and skills that are integral to dance (see http://alaskacreativedance.com/danceconcepts.htm for terms and definitions) and have the students warm-up by practicing making movements using a variety of elements and concepts. When it is the students' turn to compose their own piece, remind them of the concepts they should consider and provide them with a "toolbox" of dance elements for quick reference (i.e. write some of the elements and concepts practiced on a whiteboard or piece of butcher paper). If they get stuck, you can then challenge them by saying "I've noticed a lot of high-level movements with smooth energy in your piece. I wonder if you can include any low-level movements with a different kind of energy. Which of your ideas would work well with that combination?" Just as you would during other instructional strategies, push your students and modify the level of difficulty to provide an appropriate level of challenge not only within the content being explored, but with the creative movement experience as well.

Ideas to get you started

  • Students demonstrate what they have learned about a particular plant by creating a "Plant Dance." (lesson by Jenna Catsos)
  • Students write a 5-line cinquain poem (1st line: subject of poem, 2nd line: two adjectives describing the subject, 3rd line: three verbs related to the subject, 4th line: phrase or sentence about the subject, 5th line: synonym, example, or restatement of the subject) and work with a group to create movements that represent each of the words in the poem. For example, students compose poems and dances about a natural process such as erosion or an ecosystem component such as herbivores. (Adapted from Lou Fish-Sadin)
  • Students explore how movement is used to communicate in nature (i.e. honeybee waggle dance, avian courtship dances, defensive body movements in invertebrates).
  • Students use creative movement to demonstrate their understanding of the connection between form and function in morphology or the relationship between species' adaptations and their environments/niches. For example, ask the students: "Show me a body that is adapted for benthic feeding."
  • The teacher/instructor choreographs a dance or series of movements that can be used to help students learn, understand, and remember a process or cycle. This can be especially effective if you have the students collaborate with you to design the dance. For example, create a dance about the salmon life cycle or the process of photosynthesis. You can even add on to the dance as the students' understanding deepens and progresses.

Be wary of oversimplifying some concepts to make them fit well to the dance medium- remember that the purpose of integrating creative movement is to enrich the students' learning and therefore it should not contribute to or reinforce any alternative conceptions they may have.