Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lessons for Teaching from Outdoor Education

Our school district offers fifth graders a outdoor education experience and we recently had the much anticipated three day and night excursion to Camp Jewell with the fifth graders. (Full disclaimer: I did not stay overnight so my experience was only partially complete.) This trip is a highlight of the educational experience for most of our students so as I spent time there and as have reflected about it, I have wondered about what we could do differently within our own classroom's walls that would tap into some of the skills and strengths that I emerged and developed in an outdoor setting.

I did have several conversations with students and thought about what we could duplicate within school. Here are some of the thoughts:

  • "Writing was easier outside," one student said. As a writer, I agree with him that sometimes it is difficult to think of ideas sitting at a desk or table in a room full of people. For me, writing is a personal experience until I'm ready to share and the great outdoors certainly offers more space.
  • Empathy is a skill that I have emphasized this year in my teaching and I think that this concept got through to kids more authentically at Camp Jewell. When we climbed the mountain, we talked about how different people would interpret the view. What if they were from Colorado and regularly climbed large mountains? What if they were from a city? What if they were from a desert?  How does background experience impact people's interpretations of events. The conversations at the top of Camp Jewell's relatively low peak were much richer and I would love to believe that those conversations could push their thinking in book clubs, read-alouds, and Social Studies--maybe throughout all areas of the curriculum.
  • Throughout the activities, there were opportunities for collaboration and problem solving. Maybe because they were younger, or maybe because they didn't have the pressures of time and achievement, the counselors were better at letting students fail and figure out their own ways to solve problems. I know that I am guilty of helping students before they probably need help.
  • The counselors who ran the program had creative ways to get children's attention whether they were in the dining hall, on a trail, in the middle of a field, or in an outdoor classroom. They used songs, chants, rhythms, and symbols and the children responded. Over the summer, I plan to create a personal repertoire of ways to get children's attentions beyond just a hand in the air.
  • Ga-ga was the free-time activity of choice and if you've never played or seen it, here's a link. I would love to get some ga-ga set-ups for the playground as this is a game that is physical, engaging, inclusive and relatively safe.

One child and I talked about what the focus of math would be if school existed within a Camp Jewell-like atmosphere. With minimal prompting from me, he listed several authentic project-based learning activities. I can't remember all of his ideas, but some were finding an estimated population of salamanders by how many existed in a small place and multiplying that number by the known similar habitats; calculating different rates of going up and down mountains; and creating graphs of the different speeds various objects and people would take to get down the long slide. Why can't we do more of these sorts of activities within our schools? We don't have salamanders but we have blades of grass and leaves on trees and ants on playgrounds.

Who knows what else we could find? What other opportunities exist for real-life applications of math and other subjects that might be so much more engaging for students? What other relevant life lessons can we keep bringing home from a few days in a camp setting with fifth graders? With summer coming, I am going to keep a notebook of learning opportunities that could align with our curriculum and the Common Core, but could also build the sense of purpose, relevance and engagement of this outdoor education experience.

1 comment:

  1. Love the gaga ball! I Had never heard of it.
    It is great that you are contemplating engaging your students with the world around them. As a keen outdoor educator, I would encourage you to investigate Richard Louv and the Children and Nature Network.