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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”!

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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.

Educators often ask students to sit with eyes watching, ears listening, voice quiet, and body still to indicate focus and attention. However, sitting still can be not only difficult, but also detrimental to their ability to concentrate. I have found that fidgeting, if allowed, can help students calm their bodies and focus their minds.

However, though fidgets can help some students concentrate, they can also be disruptive. Students’ desire to fidget can be distracting for both instructors and students, especially when teaching in a stimulus-rich outdoor environment. It is therefore useful to predict these challenges and turn them to your advantage. Teaching students appropriate fidgets can improve student concentration, encourage and validate their desire to engage with the natural world, and normalize preventive discipline. Here are five tips for effectively managing fidgets into your teaching practice.

1. Validate your students’ need to fidget. Start by defining the term. I define a fidget as a small movement of the hands or feet, sometimes involving objects, that aids one’s ability to concentrate. You can ask your students whether they sometimes need to move a little to stay focused. Validate this need, and explain that you will provide them with some tools to help them fidget well.

2. Provide an infrastructure for them to fidget and succeed. I do this by providing 3 Fidget Rules:

  1. Your fidget must be silent.
  2. Your fidget must not distract you or anyone else from the lesson.
  3. Your fidget can’t kill anything that is alive.

You may add stipulations or modify these rules, and these can vary depending on the activity. For example, during discussions I require that my students’ hands or feet may fidget, but their eyes must track the speaker. Give examples of appropriate fidgets.

Hold your students accountable to these rules, and inform them that if their fidget doesn’t follow the rules, you will ask them to change it. The important thing to remember, though, is that fidgets are tools to help students; if a student is choosing a fidget that is not appropriate, focus on changing the fidget to one that aligns with your guidelines rather than removing it.

At the end of your lesson, encourage your students to leave no trace, unless you have a good reason to leave the evidence of their fidgets for others to see.

3. Incorporate fidgets into your group management technique.

Fidgets are a great method of preventive discipline. If a student begins to misbehave or use an inappropriate fidget, instead of a reprimand, the student hears, “please change your fidget.” This validates the student’s need to move, but gently reminds him or her to keep it within your guidelines and to focus on your instruction. This can be a powerful positive learning aid, especially for students accustomed to “getting in trouble” for fidgeting.

I also find it useful to come up with a silent hand signal to alert students to change their fidget. This enables instructors to address inappropriate fidgets without interrupting the flow of their lesson. These can be just about anything, as long as it is something that a student will notice. You could have your students invent the signal, which allows them to take ownership of the concept.

4. Recognize when students fidget well.

As with any challenge, acknowledge your students’ success. When appropriate, applaud your students’ responsible use of fidgets. It can be fun to use fidgets as a debrief tool, or as an avenue for developing relationships with your students. Ask your students what their favorite fidget is, and why. Do their fidgets change when they are outdoors? Do they use fidgets in

their classrooms; if so, how? If not, what kind of fidget could they use to help them focus but not distract others?

5. Use assessment tools to ensure students are learning.

Use these tips for fidgeting in conjunction with formative and summative assessment tools to ensure that your students are learning. If the group isn’t meeting learning goals, there are many changes you can make; some of these changes may involve your fidget guidelines. As with any instructional tool, there are pros and cons to using fidgets as part of your instruction, and the concept can be modified to any number of teaching styles and learning objectives.

A fidget can be a powerful learning tool when used effectively. You may be surprised at the creativity that manifests itself through students’ fidgets. I have been astonished to find nature art creations, meticulously balanced rocks, structures made of twigs and cones, and other treasures left temporarily in a student’s spot after a lesson. Incorporating fidgets into your instruction can provide you with the opportunity to engage your students with the natural world in a meaningful way, focus on your instruction, avoid disruption, and ease your disciplinary challenges.

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