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“COME look at this crab” “Oh my goodness, this is the SPOT” “AHHH I see something bobbing in the water, is it a seal?” are all common phrases I hear when I take students to the harbor. This harbor is located at the edge of the Salish Sea and has remnants from the Port Blakely Mill Company. When we finally arrive at the harbor (after a big walk down from the main campus area), I quickly go over boundaries and a few do’s/don’ts and then I offer free explore time. I base the rest of my harbor lesson on what happens during this time.


 LessonPlan1   Students standing on rocks and looking underneath rocks. 
The tide is out and the sky is bright blue.
The graffiti building is in the background.



I am a white, educated woman who was raised by an outdoors-loving couple (who were and are both teachers). Growing up I attended an expensive private school in Maine that included time each fall for outdoor education programming ahead of the start of school and I got to spend my summers in Alaska, exploring mountains and rivers. Altogether, I feel comfortable outdoors and have had access to fancy rain gear and copious trailside snacks. Every time I walk into an outdoor learning space, I need to remind myself of these privileges and the opinions that I hold tight: the outdoors is a great space to learn about what surrounds you and grow internally as a human being as well.

Figuring out how to hold all my identities in one hand while also preparing lesson plans that are accessible and inclusive in the other is challenging and to assist with this balance, adrienne maree brown (intentionally stylized) offers advice on how to be authentic in relationships. She writes: “acknowledge the dynamics, then keep growing. Have an understanding on the front end of the race, class, gender, ability, geographic, and other power dynamics that exist between you” (brown, 2017, p. 89). I try to remind myself of this quote every time I get to teach, and I would encourage other teachers to do the same.


Returning to the harbor, I gather my group back together after they have moved rocks, spotted seals, and asked me when lunch is 10 times (in other words, how they decided to spend their free explore time), I ask “What are you wondering about?” I write their responses onto a mini whiteboard (see below):

LessonPlan2   Small whiteboard that has a list of student wonderings generated after free exploration time at the harbor.  Some of these wonderings include seal and crab behaviors.  


“Now that we have our wonderings list, let’s see if we can dig a little deeper and figure out some answers” I offer to the group. As a group, in our backpacks we have carried down hand lenses, personal journals, a pencil case, beachcomber guides, and other field books. I request that my students rummage around in their backpacks and find these things so our whole group can use them to investigate our wonderings.


I have seen and done lesson planning from mostly informal angles and been the recipient of a lack of sub plans many times. I feel comfortable with going with the flow and facilitating learning experiences based on the tools and materials that I have available. Over the course of taking groups down to the harbor over seven months, I have seen students horizontally crawl over rocks themselves as they search for crabs to cup (hopefully below their knees, as instructed) in their eager hands. I have witnessed the progression of fear turn into a smidge of enjoyment when I model what it is like to pick up a crab (most of them are the size of change and just as easily susceptible to hidden crevices). Lots of joy and excitement emerges in these times, as does nervousness and boredom. My job as an instructor is to make space for all of these emotions while also facilitating field-based science opportunities.

As a reminder: “acknowledge the dynamics, then keep growing. Have an understanding on the front end of the race, class, gender, ability, geographic, and other power dynamics that exist between you” (brown, 2017, p. 89). I understand that I hold a lot of power as an adult educator, especially when the first words out of my mouth upon arrival often include something along the lines of: “please don’t put your feet in the water” and “we will not be physically going into the graffiti building, but I would love to chat with you about it”. I try my best to remember to pair these boundaries/parameters with explanations. “I don’t want you to have wet feet for the rest of the afternoon until we get back to your lodge” and “there is a lot of broken glass inside and I want us to be safe”, respectively.

So, in the world of outdoor education, do you really need a lesson plan? Yes. Yes, when working with children it is generally a good idea to have a plan. In the oft-quoted statement of mile wide, inch deep or inch wide, mile deep I would encourage outdoor educators to be the former, have many lesson plans roughly sketched out rather than one or two lesson plans vividly painted with acrylics. During free explore time, I am shifting between enjoying exploring alongside my students and deciding what to do next. For example, the whiteboard wondering activity is one example of something I do after free explore time, other times we dive straight into journaling – thinking about variables and designing investigations – other times we never stop free exploring. How do I decide what to choose? If I see the whole group entranced my crabs, and another group shows up and my students are teaching their peers and vice-versa, then I will very likely accept their bids for authority to keep fixating on crabs. When I hear “I don’t really like looking for crabs that much, is there anything else to do here” from multiple students, then I might facilitate choice time, where part of the group looks for crabs while the other part chats with me about the history of the mill. There really are many options that still include learning and sensemaking.

All around, when I write lesson plans, truthfully, sometimes they are detailed and well-thought out and sometimes they are small ideas that emerge in the moment of teaching and learning. My advice to outdoor educators is to do your best to lean into what your students get excited about and center it in your lessons.



brown, A.M. (2017). Emergent strategy: shaping change, changing worlds. AK Press.




Every time I teach someone who is new to snowboarding, I tell them that as soon as they buckle a foot onto their board and move around on the snow, they’ve done it. They have gained a new part of themself, a new appendage. “You’re snowboarding!” I shout as they nervously glide down the hill. In the last decade, as a snowboard instructor I have been a part of hundreds of people’s first day snowboarding. I have taught little ones who have just learned to walk, folks who are nearing retirement, and everyone in between. Introducing people to a new way to navigate the world is an honor and a privilege. The beautiful thing about snowboarding is that there is no right or wrong way to do it; it is about what is efficient. This is something I explicitly tell each one of my students. Keeping it low-key and celebrating the small accomplishments creates a positive learning environment on and off the snow.  
As a child growing up in Central Vermont, I was outside as often as possible. As soon as a few inches of snow stuck on the tree-flanked hill next to my house, I was off with a sled in hand. It did not take long for me to try standing on my sled as I precariously made my way down the hill. Soon after, I discovered a “snurfer.” Picture a snowboard without bindings but with a grippy surface for your feet and a drawstring handle to hold onto. Snurfing came easy to me, given my sledding experience. I tried getting air off jumps but could never figure out how to keep the board under my feet. When I tried spin tricks, the landing would usually involve a face full of snow. Then, one fateful day, my mom came home with a snowboard and boots.  
“Honey! A co-worker was getting rid of this. Do you want to try it out?”

I did not give it a second thought as I squeezed the boots on, grabbed the board and strapped in at the top of the hill behind my house. The sensation under my feet felt so much smoother and faster than the snurfer! I was hooked after the first run and did not stop riding until it got dark.

I share this story because so many of my students ask me, “So, how did you get into snowboarding?” My humble beginnings demonstrate that learning at a ski resort is not the only way to do it. However, there does come a time when the expanse that a ski resort offers can be beneficial for growth. I tell them it can be intimidating to spend a bunch of money, find parking, and brave the cold. On top of that, you also have this foreign piece of equipment strapped to your feet that is consumed by some of the biggest boots you have ever worn. It’s no wonder most people who are new to the sport try it for a few days and never get back into it. The learning curve, like the hill, can be quite steep.

For a lot of adults, it is also hard to be bad at something again. This is why it is important to get some context from your students. Ask them- what have you done before that’s similar to snowboarding? I taught one young man who had never snowboarded before but had been longboarding for years. In two hours, he was carving down steep terrain but could not come to a stop without falling on his face. I have also taught people who hardly move on the board by the time the lesson is finished. I tell timid riders- Sometimes, you just have to send it! Speed and space are your friends. Like most skills, making mistakes on a snowboard is how you learn its limits as well as yours. After the first lesson, seeing an eager and excited student march up the hill to the lift line after a quick hot chocolate break is always awesome!


I had the distinct privilege of working with these Burlington High Schoolers one winter. Some of these
students could rip on a skateboard, so snowboarding came easily. Others were starting from square
one and brought with them a healthy dose of perseverance.

When I begin a lesson with my students, we first get used to how our boots feel. I ask my students to start in an athletic stance. An athletic stance can mean different things to different people, so this is another one that is fun to watch. I often ask my students if they have ever done martial arts, as those skills can be quite transferable when thinking about balance. Then, we start by rocking back and forth like a rocking chair, using our feet to represent the bottom of the chair- all while keeping that athletic stance. I ask my students: “What does it feel like to lean onto your heels versus your toes?” Most people notice their boots feel softer in the front by their shins and experience more of a stiff feeling against their calves. These feelings, when internalized, can support muscle memory for students early on. My students have gained some of the most fundamental skills they will need to ride down the mountain without even strapping on the snowboard. Then, it is time to strap in!

One of the biggest inhibitors of success on a snowboard is believing that you, as the rider, are not in control of your board. I emphasize to my students that one of the quickest and most efficient ways to control your board is with your feet. That is what is strapped to the board. Of course, there are many other ways to control the board, and it’s fun for students to figure out the nuances of the sport. A rider’s knees, hips, shoulders, and even head can all manipulate what the board does, but only if the feet are part of the process. When in doubt, think from the ground up.

When the going gets rough, new riders tend to position their bodies far away from the board. Being far away from the threat is a natural response if there’s danger. When the rider feels genuinely connected to the snowboard it becomes clear that to manipulate the board in a way of your choosing (and not gravity’s), you need to maintain that centered and athletic stance. Of course, there is a sweet spot that takes time to figure out. Standing too tall on the board or similarly getting so low that you are sitting on the snow may not be “wrong,” but it may make controlling the board more difficult. Similarly, as difficult as it may be, you must lean into it by lowering your center of gravity to start a turn. I urge students to consider that their two feet have independent and complimentary ways of moving despite being attached to the same snowboard. In other words, the front foot can engage the board to turn, and the back foot can follow that movement.

It can be difficult for new riders to emphasize their front foot, but if you think about it, it is the foot going down the hill first. This can be an especially tough adjustment for surfers who tend to ride with more weight on their back foot. For many, it becomes a shift in a habit they have already formed rather than creating a new one. This too, can be a difficult mental and physical hurdle to overcome. It is important to recall the sensations your feet feel as they engage different areas of the boot.

Once my students get the basics of snowboarding, I think about what more I can offer to continue their learning. Whatever it may be, if I am teaching my students a new skill, it is important to keep the terrain familiar. Similarly, if I am introducing my students to new terrain, we will practice familiar skills. I consider this an important framework for pacing my lessons as an educator. Despite being an employee of a ski resort, I tell my students to find a snow-covered golf course or park to practice their skills, especially if the resort vibe is too stressful. If they ever need a new challenge, I tell them to try learning to ride with their back foot as their new front foot (riding “switch”). It is not an entirely new skill but a new way of thinking about snowboarding. Finally, it is important to incorporate the practice of interleaving when learning to snowboard. In other words, focus on one skill briefly and then switch to a different complimentary skill. Then, revisit that skill that you started with after a break. It’s more fun this way, too.

So much of what I do as a snowboard instructor carries over to other realms of my facilitation skills. Efficient ways to learn that promote further growth apply to being a student of any subject. When considering a new lesson to engage in with students, I consider what they are already familiar with. If we take our class to a new learning environment, can students use familiar skills? Which learning environments will be most conducive to my student’s learning? A classroom? A larger space like a snow-covered golf course?

Teaching snowboarding incites a sense of touch that I bring into other sensory experiences for students. What does rolling the spruce needle between your fingers feel like? The inherent elements of challenge and joy involved in freestyle sports encourage me to incorporate these same elements in other realms of my teaching and facilitation. Where can my students and I “send it?” and learn along the way?

Being a snowboard instructor has shown me that if I can teach something, I can better understand how to do it myself. If I can walk through the steps with a student on how to do a 180 or ride switch, I have a much better understanding of how to do that on my own board. In this regard, as I think about what I want to teach in the future, it must be something that I can internalize, and it must be something that I enjoy. Otherwise, I will not be invested in my work or in my students in a way they deserve.

It doesn’t get much more intimate than strapping a plank onto your feet and leaning into the hill of discomfort. Wherever you go, the snowboard goes with you. It will not fall out from under you, or dribble away. It is truly an extension of the self. And when the rider sees the board in this way, snowboarding becomes much more than a sport or a hobby. The snowboard becomes an extension of the self.


Think about a meal that you love to eat...where did that food come from? I bet that for the most part you can almost always trace back what you ate to soil. This concept is not one that is emphasized enough in our society, and we often miss the parts of our meal that aren’t directly on our plate. Throughout the past two years, I have taught for residential programming at environmental education centers that have looked to meet this need through emphasizing the food that is wasted during mealtimes. I’d argue that this is something that many environmental educational centers as well as other related residential camps, such as 4-H, have in place too. For example, this could look like having all leftover food from plates collected and weighed for the group to estimate the total amount of food waste at dinner. As you can imagine this system has many problems and has been associated with concerns around eating disorders, food insecurity, shame, and guilt to scratch the surface. This problem caught my attention and has sent me down quite the rabbit hole to find solutions. Ultimately, what I have come to learn is that this system is not one that can be fixed but rather we need to think of how to share these ideas about food systems with others in a completely new way. Which is how compost challenge was born! Here at my current place of education, IslandWood, I have searched to meet this need by building an evening program for the School Overnight Program. However, I strongly feel that this lesson can and should be adapted at other places to meet similar needs arising for others. At the very least, I hope this gets others thinking about how we can rebuild ideas when current systems are no longer serving their intended purpose. Enjoy!

Lesson Plan: Compost Challenge

Lesson Summary: Students will learn about the food system cycle at “insert local place” and apply it to foods that they eat in their community.

  • Students will know why we compost at “insert local place”.
  • Students will feel empowered to make choices about food scraps.
  • Students will know where food scraps go.

Time: 1 hour and 10 minutes


  • Food System Cycle Card Sets
  • Paper
  • Coloring/writing utensils
  • Book or video prepared for discussion.

Group Size: 10-60 participants

Introduction: 5-10 minutes

  • Large group conversation about “What is a Food System?”.
    • Utilize multiple ways of sensemaking and sharing (i.e., pair/share & raised hands)
  • Encourage students to think about their prior knowledge (i.e., what is a system? what do we mean by food?)

Procedure: 40 minutes

  1. First, start off with a large group discussion about what the activity entails.
    1. Briefly model the activity for the participants. 
    2. Large group discussion: Today we will be embarking on an adventure to more deeply understand where our food comes and where food scraps might go to afterwards. Together we are going to do this by figuring out the order of the food system cycle with these cards. First, you will collaborate in a small group to figure out the order of the food system. Then we will come back together and hear what ideas arose from each group. When your small group is done you can all sit on the ground and that will tell me that you are all done.
    3. Have the group roll ball the instructions to ensure understanding.
  2. Split the large group into 2-3 smaller groups (group size will change based off starting group size).
    1. Give food system cycle cards to each group and instruct them to begin collaborating on the order of the cards. Ensure to emphasize that they are working together as a team. (10 min.)
    2. Cards should be place based and have definitions on the back to give students ideas to work off. Additionally, I encourage others to build cards that are accessible to multi-language learners.
  3. Come back together as a large group and fill out a master version of the food system cycle with input from each of the smaller groups. (10 min.)
    1. Prioritize challenging participants to critically think about their reasoning.
    2. Sentence stems: Say more..., How did you get to... Why do you think...?
    3. What is missing from the food system cycle? (i.e., items that cannot be composted)
  4. Next, participants will pair up, or group up (depending on numbers), and think about a food that is important to them and create their own food system cycle on a piece of paper. (15 min.)
    1. This will allow for participants to apply what they have learned into their own context which will enrich their understanding of each of the learning objectives.

Discussion (10 minutes):

  1. Create space for participants to share what food system they created on their paper.
  2. Wrap up the discussion with either the suggested books or video below.
    • Save the Scraps by Bethany Stahl
    • What sprouting in my trash: A book about composting by Esther Porter
  3. Composting for Kids with Peppa Pig Video

The bottom of my field teaching backpack usually contains a section of rope, a habit that carries over from backcountry trips. Rope is an incredibly versatile tool that can be used for many things, including teaching in the field.

My “teaching” rope has yet to teach any knots. I could, of course, use it to teach students a figure-eight, square knot, half-hitch, clove-hitch, fisherman’s and so on. I’ve taught knots in other settings and doing so can be a great way to break the ice, occupy time with something productive and provide a challenge that involves both the hands and the brain.


Most frequently the rope gets used to teach students about teamwork. One good entry-level team-building exercise involves tying the rope ends together to make a circle and have each student take the rope in their hands. The task is to work together to make a square, a rectangle, a hexagon. Have every other kid turn around and face the opposite direction to make it harder. Or skip the shapes altogether and have the students all lean backwards at the same time so the rope becomes taut and holds them up. This is sometimes referred to as a “yurt circle” and works best with an even number of students.

If the rope is marked in increments it can be used as a giant measuring stick. Stretched out straight it can serve as a transect line, or it can section off a specific area for close study like a quadrat. Want to know how tall something is?  Figure out how long the rope is, then hold onto one end tightly while throwing the other end upwards: you can get at least an approximate idea. I’ve also used it as a human continuum, with students lining up along the rope according to how they feel about something. One end of the rope could be “my favorite food is broccoli”, the opposite end “I consider broccoli evidence of evil in the world”.


I’ve used the rope as part of a ceremony to bookend teaching, inviting students to join me inside the rope circle at the beginning of the week and asking them to step outside the circle at the end of the week. The rope signifies group membership and reinforces a shared sense of language and shared customs. Crossing the rope becomes a symbolic rite of passage.

Orchestrating various lessons is easier with a piece of rope. Making knots in a piece of rope can be used as a mnemonic device for breaking down complex tasks: narrate the individual steps, tying an alpine butterfly as you go, then have the students walk through the steps themselves, tugging on each butterfly loop as they recall the step. You can even leave the rope out and the knots visible as a reminder for students.

Rope can be used in all manner of games, to designate a starting line, delineate a safe area or simply provide a boundary.

Need students to circle up and listen to instructions? Make a circle on the ground with rope and have students line their toes up with the rope.  It’s like wrangling students with the teaching lasso!

Whatever you end up using it for, a piece of rope in your backpack can be an invaluable teaching tool.


A student arrives to their overnight environmental program, a smile beaming from ear to ear with excitement and a camera ready at their hand to take photos- of everything. That student might end up taking a lot of photos during lessons and cameras and that can be distracting for the entire group. For this reason many places have taken the model of ‘leave your technology at home’

Cameras are something that the majority of people have now. Because of this social media sights like Instagram are popping up and encourage people to take pictures of their life and what they are doing, all the time. Some organizations have taken full advantage of these media sights and have photo contests nationwide to get people outside, like the Find Your Park campaign by the National Parks. Environmental educators’ audience have expanded because of social media. But, we have also been ignoring the fact that we’re inspiring people to go outside themselves to get that next epic photo. As an educator, I feel that we need to educate people so they can go out and get that photo in a proper and responsible way.

Due to the lack of education, people are hurting themselves and the place environmental educators are trying so hard to protect. A great time to teach people, especially children, about this responsibility is during an overnight environmental programs, like IslandWood School Overnight Program.

Here at IslandWood, lessons can be done with IPods and cameras with the students to have them take photos while they are in more of a nature setting. Going over a few things will set them up for them later on as they explore with their cameras at hand.

Some possible things to talk about when doing a lesson about responsibility when taking photographs:

1) Do Your Research- Know some background pieces about the subject. Where and when should you go? Is it mating season for this particular species? Is this ecosystem more delicate in some seasons?

2) Cause No Stress- Lack of disturbance must be a priority.

a. Know the proper distances to keep. According to the National Park, a person should stay 25 yards (about the size of two school buses) away from large mammals like elk, moose, etc and 100 yards (the length of a football field) away from large predatory mammals like wolves and bears.

b. Be mindful of not following a certain subject. They might have young they don’t want to lead you to or they might become accustomed to seeing a person and become unafraid.

3) Leave No Trace- Stay on trails, using a quiet voice, camp on durable surfaces, and carry in- carry out. You want to limit your presence as much as possible.

Some questions to ponder before going out:

What is my end goal for this picture? Is it just for me or am I trying to inspire other people to come here? What will happen if a lot of people do come here? Can the environment and wildlife handle it?

As an environmental educator, I want people to interact with nature with cameras in a responsible manner so people and nature stay happy and safe.

When I first brought along the little grinning monkey with long Velcro limbs, I didn't have a lot of confidence in my ability to convince a group of 10-12 year olds that it would be a fun and an important part of our team.  Aren't students that age getting pretty concerned with being cool and not being little kids that play with toys?  After using my now very familiar and very dusty monkey friend over the course of the past several months, I'm totally convinced of its efficacy as a catalyst of positive social emotional development.  Even 6th graders didn't scoff at it.  From observing other instructors and making some of my own additions, I've utilized the following techniques to transform an inanimate object into a tool of positive social emotional growth and to foster a culture of appreciation.

1. Let the suspense build: On the first day, I attach the monkey to my backpack but don't mention anything about it.  There's usually at least one student who asks about it right away.  By the end of the day, several others are wanting to know what's up with the monkey.  Why's it here? Can they touch it?  Does it have a name?

2.Build up to the introduction: On the second day, I usually pull out the monkey and make a big deal of introducing it and let everyone know it will be an important part of our team.  By this point, most of the students have their eyes locked in and can barely stand not playing with it.

3. Naming as a team building exercise: I then hand the monkey over to the students and ask them to go away from adults and come back when they have a name (Bob seems to be a pretty popular one, with creativity award going to Chanjella).  When they come back, the first thing I do is check in with everyone and have them rate 1-5 if they felt like they were heard and respected in the naming process.  If there are a lot of folks rating the process low, we brainstorm how to make the process more inclusive, and then I give them another chance to decide on a final name.

4. How the monkey travels through the group:I then ask everyone to think if there is anyone who they can appreciate for being helpful/brave/generous during the naming process.  Once several students have received appreciations, I hand the monkey to the student who received the first appreciation.  I then explain that every hour or so (when we're circled up and not in the middle of a lesson), the person who has the monkey will pass it to another group member with an appreciation.  Everyone will hold the monkey during our time as a group.  It’s Important to mention that appreciations should be specific, and not only directed at friends that you already know well. When a student first receives the monkey, I remind them that they should be paying attention to other group members so that they can notice when someone deserves an appreciation.  I also give them a few minute warning before a circle/monkey pass so that they can gather their words, and so that no one student has the monkey for too long.

The outcome has been overwhelmingly positive.  In some groups where the interactions are pretty negative, the passing of the stuffed animal really keeps the group morale afloat.  I had one group of students that typically interacted with irritation and there was one little boy in particular that rarely said anything positive to other students.  When someone appreciated him for helping with lunch I saw the first smile of the week.  Although his attitude didn’t completely change, I did notice him interacting with several students in a positive way after receiving that praise. The infusion of structured positive interaction has real potential to support the health of a community.

Other possible adaptations/ideas:

  • have some (or all) of the passing be outside of circling up, more of a private appreciation between two students
  • pass it around at the end of each day for group appreciations
  • come up with a song for the passing/appreciation

When working in the back or front-country wilderness you may find yourself convincing your students or clients about the ease and comfort of disposing of their

human waste in a natural setting. You may have fumbled through a tutorial once or twice about “digging a hole and aiming”, or tried to explain the benefits of using a composting toilet with a seemingly-endless black hole and unfamiliar air currents.

The reality is, once a novice has one positive experience of using an alternative or natural toilet, the task becomes less embarrassing and stressful.

What are the options?

  • Nature pee (and pack it in-pack it out)
    When at a remote campsite or in high-traffic day hike areas, you may find yourself needing to embrace a nature pee. Teaching kids from a young age about proper stance and appropriate locations to “use the woods” will reduce soiling oneself and embarrassment on everyone’s behalf. Furthermore, to be a true steward in high-use areas without other facilities, packing out one’s solid waste in zip-top bags is common practice.

  • Outhouses and Portable Toilets
    External toilets are a part of our national heritage: these toilet systems have been around since the 1940s! They also use 90% less water than traditional flushing toilets. Many state and national parks use portable restrooms or restrooms that are drained throughout the season; while they can be odorous and occasionally soiled, the most effective way to be a steward is to ensure the lid is closed after each use and to have hand sanitizer available once you have left the units.

  • Composting Toilets
    These eco-friendly bathroom alternative use no water and they compost our human waste into a new product: soil! The composting toilet system works through aerobic decomposition of the solid waste and evaporation of the liquid waste resulting in solid garden mulch. Explaining to younger users how the composting toilets work and why they are great for the earth can help to alleviate fears and mistrust of unfamiliar systems!

Why does it matter?

Education Director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, Ben Lawhon, states that human waste and what we do with it can be one of the most significant impacts that faces lands used by the public for recreation. It impacts disease transmission and health, water quality, aesthetics, and social realms --and it's something that a lot of people just have a hard time dealing with.” As environmental educators and explorers we strive to minimize the impact on our planet and our communities; our waste is certainly included in that impact. Using these three steps, doing your business in nature can become peaceful and stress-free:

  1. Familiarity: Determine the most efficient and sanitary waste system available to you and become familiar with it early on in your adventure. Introducing your friends or team members to composting toilets and how they function will help to alleviate stress; starting a backpacking trip with a hypothetical display of removing excessive clothing, digging a hole and squatting will ease those with concerns about future bowel movements and what to do when they occur in the backcountry.

  2. Promote Sanitation: Determine what materials you will be using (toilet paper, smooth rocks, leaves, etc) and how you will dispose of them. Pack it in, pack it out in sealable plastic bags and/or compostable toilet paper materials. Change into clean clothes as often as possible.

  3. Ask Questions! If you are unsure about the appropriate protocol for your outing, ask a friend or a local guide. Ecosystems are often fragile and susceptible to bacteria from human waste. Ask before you “go”!

Further Resources:





It is a scene that is repeated over and over. A student finds a stick on the side of the trail and soon enough, they are walking towards you as if they have just begun a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. As an environmental educator, with safety as a priority for my students, I feel myself getting ready to say “Please put the stick down”. However, unless the child is using the stick as a wand, sword, light sabre or other object that needs to waved in the air, I find myself taking a different route now, one that embraces the use of sticks in the field. I have ultimately come to the conclusion that using sticks in our environmental education setting can truly have significant benefits.

Sticks for Learning about Engineering

Incorporating a structured activity using sticks can be an educational and fun experience. Using sticks as a medium, it can be focused on the concepts of design and creation. Students can work in small teams to find a location to build a bridge, shelter, or something else, depending on the prompt. The level of difficulty can be adjusted, even going as far as creating a walkable and sturdy bridge over a puddle. After building and testing out their projects, each group can present their creation, explaining the design, process and complexities of their structure. The process of building will be an experiential learning experience about what works and what doesn’t, as well as offer a small scale glimpse into major concepts that are a part of building anything.

Sticks for Learning about Teamwork

Not only are students learning about different engineering concepts, they are also working as a team in the process. Decision making comes into play as soon as the teams are formed. What location will we pick? Who is charge of what parts? What design should we attempt? What size materials should we use? Team members get the opportunity to work together for a concrete task, all while practicing very important communication and decision making skills. At the very end, students can share about their experience building together and discuss what went well or could be improved.

Sticks for Demonstrating Trust

Whether or not it is a building project, it is important for my students to know that I trust them to responsibly handle large sticks. This element of trust is a huge foundational piece for me, one that is extremely important to weave and communicate throughout any teaching experience. As mentioned before, one situation that comes up often when working with 5th graders is the desire to have a walking stick. I don’t ever bring up the idea of walking sticks unprompted, but as soon as a student inevitably picks up a stick I use it as an opportunity to explain my specific protocol that answers the following questions.

  • When and where will we be able to use walking sticks? This should be very clear. I often pick a trail that is removed from the main campus and doesn’t involve tricky terrain.
  • What does it look like to use a walking stick responsibly? Don’t underestimate the power of modeling this behavior. Pick a student and have them show everyone.
  • How tall can your walking stick be? Below shoulder height is usually easy to manage.
  • Where can we get a walking stick without harming our surroundings and each other? Make sure that getting a stick does not involve stepping into harmful plants or breaking branches.
  • Most importantly, why are you allowing walking sticks when the common expectation is to leave them on the ground? Without this, you may as well not let your students have sticks. I explain that I trust them and know they will show me this too.

There is not denying the magnetic force between sticks and students. The connection is quite real, and I think it is an opportunity to use sticks for good. I have never had any issues with students using sticks, whether as part of a more structured building activity or casually on the trails. When expectations are set high, and it is clear to the students that you trust them, they will rise up. I like to believe that all students will rise up if given the chance. Having this foundation of trust is when learning outdoors truly happens.

Students have a general affinity towards sticks and the potential to use it for learning responsibly, while still having fun, exists. Let’s embrace it.

Teaching in outdoor and informal education settings poses a number of unique challenges for those who choose this exciting and rewarding career. For example, instructors are faced with the monumental task of creating and maintaining a positive learning environment for students that they have just met. Additionally, informal educators must provide students with excellent learning opportunities in unfamiliar, exciting, and often totally distracting places. Finally, informal educators have a limited amount of time with their students to teach new concepts, address alternative conceptions, and stretch student thinking. Whether an educator has only an hour or an entire week with their students, most would agree that time is precious and should be spent learning and exploring.

How do we, as educators, maximize the limited time we have with our students? How do we ensure that we make the most of our instructional time? One strategy to help students transition smoothly from their classroom to a new environment is to set clear behavioral expectations early on and to hold students accountable. Well-defined expectations serve as a reminder to students that they are in a learning environment and that their behavior should align with the behavior expected of them in a classroom setting.

Through a series of trial-and-error teaching experiments, I have created a combination of 3 expectations that have proven to be exceptionally useful in concisely articulating my expectations for my students. It just so happens that they each start with the letter “P”, which works to my advantage, as it allows me to assign a snappy nickname to this grouping of behavioral norms: The Three Ps. The Three Ps are Participation, Positivity, and People Respecting Other People Speaking (otherwise known as P.R.O.P.S).

When used in conjunction, these three expectations address the majority of common behavioral challenges that I face as an outdoor educator. They are fairly straightforward, require little explanation, and, due to their simplicity, are easy to casually bring up when gentle redirection is needed.

I have found it most effective to introduce these expectations shortly after meeting my students and make sure to include my reasoning for each behavioral standard. The immediate presentation of expectations sets the tone for the remainder of an instructor’s time with their students. Once the norms are established and understood, the instructor can reference and enforce them quickly and efficiently. Additionally, a clear explanation of the “why” in addition to the “what” can help students understand that expectations aren’t the same as rules. Instead, they are guidelines intended to promote a successful learning experience for all members of the group.

Just as each and every student has a unique learning style, each instructor has his or her own distinct teaching style. I urge educators to play around with different sets of expectations and see what works for them. When brainstorming expectations for a group, consider how the skills they are practicing can be transferred to their home communities. Participation, positivity, and P.R.O.P.S are behaviors that can (and should) be used in any setting, educational or not. If there are exceptions to your expectations, consider leaving them out. It is confusing when expectations vary based on the setting or context. Expectations are most effective when they are constant.

In sum, here is a recap of how to establish and successfully use expectations in an educational setting:

  • Create expectations that are transferrable and universal.
  • Introduce expectations early on.
  • Explain the “why” of each expectation, not just the “what”.
  • Enforce expectations and provide reminders when needed.