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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