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When I first started working at my preschool in Seattle, I was transitioning from four years of outdoor environmental education (OEE) with middle school students. Although I had informal experience with toddlers, this was my first time working in a school setting. I had my tricks from the OEE field but needed to adapt and learn new methods for my younger students.

One of the first shifts I noticed was in the way my coworker spoke to the children: “I see you washing your hands.” “I see you trying to put on your pants.” “I see you using the green crayon.”

How simple! To validate a child’s existence by simply stating what you see, without judgment or opinion. I adopted this practice, using my words to state observations instead of offering praise or judgment. This simple act of acknowledgment can have a profound effect on children.

As I continued, I observed patterns in behavior. No one likes being told to do something they don’t want to do unless it involves a game or imagination play. So, clean-up time became a competition to see who could be the fastest “Earth Protector” picking up trash and toys. When thechildren’s behavior got a bit too energetic for the space, I redirected their actions into a game, such as throwing toys into a basket. Often, behavior is just communication—a need for physical movement, attention, or an outlet for emotions the kids can’t yet articulate.

I learned that young children can only handle a limited number of instructions at once. The formula given to us was “Do this then this” and “Do this, this, and then this.” I started breaking instructions into smaller, manageable chunks, saying, “When we listen, we have our voices off and touch our ears,” using scaffolding to build their skills incrementally.

In my OEE training with BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning, and Expertise Sharing), I learned the importance of asking the right kind of questions. I noticed my kids loved telling stories, whether true or not. Asking “How do you know that?” helped me understand their sources and avoid shutting them down with phrases like “That’s not true” or “That’s wrong.” This approach respects their experiences and builds their confidence.


And as I became a seasoned preschool teacher I often had to remind myself; these kids already knew what color the sky was, already knew what worms do, already knew that blackberry bushes had thorns. So instead of “Let me tell you about frogs,” I asked, “What do you know about frogs?” This shift kept my teaching more interactive and child-centered.

This approach led me to take my classroom outside. Luckily, our preschool was within a mile of a large public park. We began our day with a discussion: “What do you know about Bigfoot? Oh, I see Nate’s hand is up. Let’s listen to Nate with our voices off and our hands on our ears.”

Nate proceeded to tell us how Bigfoot lived in the forest because he read a book. And Luke chimed in that he went camping with his mom and dad and they heard a Bigfoot call and went to a store that sold Bigfoot binoculars.

PS2“Wow thanks for sharing. Today we are going to look for Bigfoot! When you hear me say ‘Bigfoot freeze!’ that means you need to stop where you are, freeze, and put on your binoculars and look at me. We’re going to see if we can find food that Bigfoot might like to eat, and maybe we can be Earth Protectors along the way and pick up any trash that Bigfoot might eat...”

I was interrupted by Ellen at that point because she really needed to tell us that if Bigfoot ate trash he would get sick, just like her dog did and they had to take him to the vet and he threw up in their car.

So with our intentions set (where can we find Bigfoot?), base knowledge established (Bigfoot has a call, lives in the forest, doesn’t eat trash but probably blackberries), and safety expectations shared (freezes were useful for crossing roads or if the kids got to far ahead of me), we started on our walk towards the park.

We took the same route most times and it became routine for me to ask “S T O P means?” while I pointed at the STOP sign. Or I would say “who sees the number 4?” or “who sees the letter N for Nate?” or even “I spy something red” and would accompany those instructions with scavenger hunt pictures I took with my phone camera from the previous walk.

PS3We would count cars, count fire hydrants, talk about solar panels to charge our robot bodies up when walking up the hill, notice rocks of different shapes, or what time the mailman walked by. Did these kids realize they were learning basic reading and scientific skills? Perhaps not, but the learning was embedded in our activities.

PS4When we got to the park the kids were off on their own adventure of being tiny in a grassy meadow, feeling like they were “lost explorers” when I was on the other side of the hedge, and generally just running freely and finding treasures.

“Bigfoot freeze!” I yell. Instantly the running stops and tiny hand binoculars are pointed at me.

“Did we find Bigfoot?” I ask.

Everyone yells no, and it’s Nate that tells me it’s because we’re in a field and it is not a forest. A trio of girls also tell me that they are Earth Protectors and we need to go and pick up the napkins and plastic on the ground because the birds might eat it. Barry tells me he found a rock with eyes on it and Luke wants to use the seven sticks he found to build a fort.

PS5“Wow I see that you all explored a lot of things in the field. Let’s go use our Earth Protector powers to clean up because it’s almost time to go. Before we leave let’s look for the rock with eyes, and how about when we get back we can make forts outside during nap time?”

Everyone said yes.


These are paradigm shifts that I feel like any educator that wants to focus on establishing relationships and support student centered learning can adopt. I see all aged students are able to benefit from these shifts.

From “Good job” to “I see you doing this.”
From “Stop!” to “Snowflake* freeze.”
From “Stop doing that” to “You can do that here.”
From “You and your partner will...” to “When I say go...”
From “Listen” to “Listen with your voices off.”
From “What is the answer?” to “What do you know?”
From “That’s not correct” to “How do you know that?”
From viewing behavior as a character trait to seeing it as communication.
From classroom-bound learning to learning everywhere.

I encourage you to reflect on your own practices. How have you changed, and why? What paradigm shifts can you see in your own educational journey?


Over the last ten months I have continued to learn what it means to be a life-long learner and passionate environmental educator. I associate this high level of personal and professional growth to my Master’s program in the field of Environmental Education (EE) and its ability to help me further develop my own critical-thinking skills. What I have learned alongside my students, peers, and teachers is that informed decision making does not happen by imposing prescribed views or courses of action onto learners, but rather effective EE provides every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to evaluate information and points of view for themselves, hence be critical thinkers. Though there are many contexts in which EE can occur, the following are a few qualities of effective EE that help nourish critical thinking skills.


  1. EE develops critical thinking skills by inspiring an attitude of inquiry. Children are naturally inquisitive. Many teaching practices however don’t harness the power of this natural curiosity in the classroom. EE programming on the other hand challenges this way of interacting with our own learning. EE offers tangible opportunities for students- young or old to slow down and observe the world and its many different systems the way kids do, uninhibited with zeal and wonder. Allowing time for spontaneous teachable moments such as finding a dead animal on the trail, eliciting students’ ideas in a free flow continuous conversation or having students work on mind map where they write down as many ideas they have about a topic or question are examples of how inquiry is fostered in EE. 

  2. EE develops critical thinking through recognizing that learners build upon prior knowledge and experience to construct their own knowledge. To help students build upon prior knowledge, students can be provided with various questioning strategies. Having students build upon their observations and turn them into questions can be one way for students to expand on their knowledge base. Adding to this, students can be taught how to identify which types of questions they are asking such as open, closed, factual, philosophical and so forth. As educators, we can ask probing questions of our students to get them to think deeper about a topic or a response. By not giving students the answers and making them do the heavy lifting of the thinking their critical thinking skills develop. Many EE lessons require students to make detailed observations, question information from multiple perspectives, draw conclusions based on evidence and question when an argument or claim isn’t’ well supported. All of these skills which are components needed of strong critical thinking.  


  3. EE develops critical thinking skills by encouraging the use of cooperative and collaborative learning. EE programs often integrate a mixture of large group, small group, and individual learning, opportunities. This high level of collaboration amongst peers and multi-aged learners enhances critical thinking skills by increasing students’ exposure to multiple perspectives and ideas.  Cooperative learning challenges an individual to be flexible and open minded when considering alternatives and divergent world views. Collaborative learning also provides opportunities for an individual to honestly face one’s own biases, prejudices, stereotypes. This helps create fair-thinkers that are equipped to responsibly and rationally respond to a wide variety of challenges and situations present in our ever-changing global society.

    EE is a lifelong process
  4. EE develops critical thinking through reflective practice and inspiring a lifelong love for learning. Reflective practice is, in its simplest form, thinking about or reflecting on what you do. It is closely linked to the concept of learning from experience, in that you think about what you did, and what happened, and decide from that what you would do differently next time. In order to reflect on ones’ own practice or an experience, you must have the skills to constructively and rationally interpret and analyze a given situation. EE provides opportunities to develop these skills through written, oral, kinesthetic activities that can happen in group or individual settings. As a practitioner of EE, my reflection process has increased my ability to think critically about which lessons I am teaching and why I am teaching them. EE provides a space to develop a growth mindset where a culture of error is normalized. Meaning, there is room to make mistakes and try again and continue to ask more questions. This is critical for the development as an effective educator, a community member and environmental steward.

  5. hands onEE develops critical thinking by employing a hands-on, minds-on approach, which includes physical involvement (where applicable), problem-solving, decision-making, reasoning, and creative thinking.  Additionally, quality EE accommodates different learning styles, and the developmental needs of the whole person (social, emotional, physical, mental, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual). All of these attributes help an individual relate to a concept on a personal and memorable level. The more memorable an experience is, the more likely someone is to continue to think critically about that experience and compare and contrast future experiences.

The qualities of inquiry, questioning, problem solving, collaboration and reflection that EE curriculum employs to help students develop critical thinking skills can can also be applied in a wide variety of contexts by any educator. Below are a few practical tips educators can use to develop critical thinking skills with their students:

  • Elicit students’ ideas
  • Help students turn their observations into questions
  • Create a culture where students back up their claims in with evidence and rationale.
  • Don’t unwrap the present for them- meaning let them guess and figure out what will happen in a given situation.
  • Encourage the students do the hard thinking.
  • Avoid rounding up answers and guiding students responses to a specific outcome.
  • Embrace a culture of error that encourages students to take risks and offer new ideas
  • Have lessons that use a variety of teaching and learning styles
  • Incorporate reflection practices into your teaching 

While there is substantial research on the importance and success of learning through teaching, oftentimes this opportunity is not afforded to students. It can be nerve-racking for teachers to relinquish their role of authority and power; however, I have found this intentional role reversal to be a powerful teaching tool that optimizes student learning. This article will outline three techniques that have proven successful in flipping the student-teacher paradigm: student driven and led discussions, student ownership over what they learn, and students teaching one another.

First, create the habit and expectation of students calling on each other, rather than being called on by the teacher. While it is easy for the teacher to act as group facilitator in discussions, I have found that stepping back and letting students call on one another re-focuses everyone’s attention on the students and not on the teacher. This shift in attention encourages students to listen to each other, and creates a community of learning that promotes sharing and valuing multiple perspectives. By guiding lessons themselves, students gain skills in leading and shaping discussions as well as in making space for everyone’s voice to be heard. This technique helps students to cultivate a mindset that says, “We need not rely solely on our teacher, for we are the drivers of our own education.” This perspective is one that students will utilize as lifelong learners in and out of the classroom.

Second, give students the opportunity to create the schedule for a day, or even the whole week. What better way to respond to student interests than by having them decide what they learn? For example, during a peer observation, I watched an instructor outline four possible options for the final day of a four-day residential outdoor program. Before the instructor handed over the decision-making process to the group of students, she first made sure to state her main goal for the day: to think about what they had learned and how they could incorporate it into their lives at home. This goal could be accomplished in many places and take many forms. Each option included a place that they had yet to visit, as well as distinctly different ways to achieve the instructor’s overall objective for the day. Students were excited to have a say in their final day, and ultimately came to a consensus on their own by combining two of the options. Giving students choices empowers them to take ownership and authority over their own learning, which helps to build intrinsic motivation, an attribute that they will carry with them into the future.

Third, facilitate the activity known as “Each One Teach One.” Learning through re-telling invites students to put complicated concepts in their own words, to identify key points, and to organize information into a coherent structure. For example, for Ethno-botany Each One Teach One, students are spaced out along a path, and the instructor teaches each student one on one about a certain plant, and then that student teaches every subsequent student about their plant. Ultimately, if there are ten students in the group, each student presents their plant nine times, and learns about 10 different plants. This activity is an efficient way to have students practice presenting information over and over, and ensures that everyone participates. Additionally, for students who are a bit shyer when it comes to presenting, this activity gives them the opportunity to shine by interacting one on one. Instructors have the option to hand out a card with information about the plant to each student in order to have something to reference when presenting. I have found it most powerful to save the cards to hand out after the Each One Teach One activity in order to give students the opportunity to be creative in their descriptions and empowered to use their own words.

Each One Teach One is a versatile lesson in that can be applied to any subject. In addition to ethno-botany, I have had great success using this technique in the garden to introduce students to vegetables and herbs. The activity not only allows students to explain how to grow, harvest, and identify the plant, but also lets them showcase their cultural and personal backgrounds by sharing how they would cook with it and what dishes they have eaten it in. For English Language Learners, this activity is especially useful in giving students the opportunity to practice using descriptive words and to build up their vocabulary. Having to explain something to somebody else helps students to master any given subject by motivating students to be able to describe their ideas well enough in order for others to understand them, an essential life skill.

Students become empowered learners by leading their own discussions, having ownership over what they get to learn, and teaching each other. By blurring the line between student and teacher, these activities help to create communities that value a myriad of voices all learning from and teaching one another.