Tag Archives: outdoor education

5 reasons to love outdoor education

I’ve spent the last two weeks facilitating two back to back outdoor education programs for an international school from Jakarta. Two weeks straight, 150 middle school kids, and an amazing team of 6 facilitators backed by our logistics superhero.  I was working for Odyssey Institute, a Bali-based company whose mission is, “Contributing to global sustainability through experiential education.”

I’m covered in mosquito bites, sore in places I didn’t even know existed, and so tired that I’m considering installing voice to text software so that I can complete this post in a starfish position. But it was worth it. Working in Outdoor Ed is exhausting, but it’s one of those rare jobs where every once in  a while you look at your co-workers and ask, “We’re getting paid to do this?”

Here are five reasons why:

1. Oh the Places You’ll Go: Like I said – teaching outdoor ed means getting paid to travel to new and exciting places. Over the last year, my job has sent me tubing down a river, camping in a volcanic caldera, balancing atop a high ropes course in the rainforest, and snorkelling a world-class reef.  I also get paid to revive my weary muscles in therapeutic hot springs and sleep in 4 star eco-resorts.

Working in these places is different from being a tourist because passivity is not an option. On this last program, I led an all-day rainforest hike. The facilitators completed the hike once before the kids arrived, but the next 3 times it was up to us to make a lesson out of it. More than just walking through the steamy jungle, we drew metaphors for human communities out of the layers of the rainforest and stopped to create ‘sound maps’ while the kids sat in silence in a riverside clearing. Creating focussed site-specific activities allowed me to connect actively with these new places.

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2. In-tents-ity leads to transformation: Sometimes in the classroom, days and weeks can blend into a monotonous drone. This is never the case in outdoor education. The intensity is high during these short, challenging programs.

When I was researching my MA thesis (source long forgotten), I remember reading something about how in many  ‘peak experience’ youth programs,  full-on schedules stretch teens into a  sort of liminal space (often intentionally through physical exhaustion) which opens them up to lasting emotional transformation.

On one program, there was barely a minute of real down time.  By the time we reached the evening program – a ‘true self’ mask making activity – the kids were exhausted, but they were also in a space where they were able to share deep self-reflections that would never come out in a classroom setting. Many of the kids (and in one case, the teacher chaperones) ended up tearily confessing their self-doubts and regrets – a level of emotional honesty that rarely surfaces in self-conscious adolescents.

Whether the intensity peaks during emotionally charged programs, from pushing physical boundaries, or from extending one’s comfort zone,  I believe that these are the educational moments that are truly transformative.

3. Teachable Moments: It’s dark and rainy, and eighteen grade six kids are walking through the forest in silence without flashlights. It’s a short night hike, and we’ve been stressing the value of integrity. The idea that integrity is about doing the right thing when nobody is watching. One of the girls trips and stumbles, scraping her knee.

In the debrief, we ask, “Who did not stay in integrity throughout the hike?” and a girl sheepishly admits that she turned on her flashlight and broke the silence to help her friend when she fell. This sets off a discussion about what integrity really is, and the difference between following rules and sticking to your values.

Another day, we reach the spot where we planned to have lunch and notice that a huge branch has fallen from one of the emergent trees next to us. One of the teacher chaperones happens to be the science teacher, and he leaps into a conversation about epiphytes, mutualism and parasitism, allowing the kids to examine firsthand the ecosystem thriving on this one branch.

The messiness and unpredictability of experiential outdoor education create endless teachable moments.

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4. Teamwork: Collaborative unit planning and PD days aside, classroom teaching provides few opportunities for teamwork. This can lead to teachers whose classrooms are fortresses of old habits and stale ideas.

Because of health and safety, outdoor educators rarely work alone. In the last two weeks I was paired with two different inspiring educators, and I had opportunities to work alongside the whole team for big group activities. In this team of six, our experiences were amazingly diverse – from a professional rock climber to a university lecturer. I learned so much from my co-facilitators and I will take these new strategies, games, and insights with me.

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5. Get outside and get into it! Outdoor ed is never dull and working in this field has made me more resilient and resourceful. Every day presents new challenges – the kid who is afraid of everything, the thunderstorm that cancels an activity at the last minute, teachers who treat the program like a personal vacation, leaky tents and broken sandals and leeches and sprained ankles…

The facilitator has to overcome all of these unexpected things while keeping everyone safe, managing the schedule and flow, and maintaining high morale. I let a millipede crawl on my face so the kids wouldn’t be afraid of bugs. I faced my own trepidation to smile and cheer as I completed the high ropes course. I invented a ‘Jungle Boogie’ vocal jam to lift everyone’s spirits in the middle of a tough hike. With every program I facilitate, I become stronger, more flexible, and more patient.

IMG_7807I definitely haven’t left the classroom behind for good. Being an outdoor educator has given me valuable skills and insights that I can apply to classroom teaching.

What do you love about outdoor education? If you don’t know…find an opportunity to take your students outside, get messy, and grow.

For the Seventh Generation

The seedlings have been planted, the mulch has been spread, and I have one more day in the Byronshire before jetting back to Sydney.  Last Friday marked the end of the first ever Permaculture Challenge, a program that I had the privilege of facilitating alongside a team of inspiring adults and sixteen amazing Byron Bay teens.

These 15-17 year old students showed up three weeks ago with their iphones and their cliques, sneaking out for cigarettes and tuning out (and in some cases, completely passing out) on beanbag chairs. But throughout the last three weeks, I have watched them plug back into the Earth and in doing so, connect with one another and with themselves.

They were not afraid to get their hands dirty building gardens, getting friendly with  beneficial insects and feeling the crumbly black soil that only months ago was ‘humanure.’ They grappled with  incomprehensible hugeness of the universe and the intricate subtlety of the microorganisms that power our soil-food web. They fought and apologized, cried and hugged, played music and sang, cooked and ate meals together, and evolved into a strong family.  I have learned so much from these kids that I’m finding it hard to say goodbye – I want to stick around and help them organize their social action campaigns,  visit their gardens and share the yield that they produce.

Byron Bay Permaculture Team (Photo by Sangye Christianson)

For me, being involved in this program has been life changing in a way that I had not expected. I signed up on a whim after reading about the program in a Permaculture Research Institute e-newsletter, and had no idea what to expect.

My interest in permaculture goes back to 2005, when I spent the summer WWOOFing at Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize. but it has taken a back seat to other educational pursuits over the last few years. I’m still not sure where I’m going with these ideas, but I am starting to think deeply about how to work permaculture principles into mainstream educational settings, as well as considering starting a Canadian Permaculture Challenge when I get home. I’ve signed up for a Permaculture Design Course at Milkwood Farm in February, and am grateful that getting involved in these initiatives is starting to give some purpose to  my sojourn in Australia. After all, Australia is where Permaculture was born, and it is thriving in both urban and rural settings.

At the Permaculture Challenge graduation, I surprised the students with my personal tribute to all the hard work they put in to the Permaculture Challenge. It’s becoming a bit of a tradition to write a spoken word poem at the end of an educational experience as a sort of parting gift for my students, as well as a way of  giving closure and processing my thoughts.

Here are two versions of my piece – one shot live at the grad ceremony, where I performed in front of a packed 200+ person audience at Mullumbimby Civic Hall. The other was filmed by my wonderful friend Kamala at her organic farm in the hills near Wilson’s Creek. Lyrics are below.

For the Seventh Generation 

When I was your age they told me,
“Baby girl, it’s a dirty world out there”
So I learned to disinfect
To sanitize and protect
To buy food that’s wrapped in plastic
Now I’m stressed out and stretched out like an elastic band
With antibacterial hands
And five year plans
Lending my dreams to morally bankrupt banks
And borrowing ideas from thoughtless think tanks
And fretting about pollution
 
But now I realize that the problem is the solution
Humanity is not out to tame nature
We are nature
And nature is wild
It’s volcanoes and glaciers and the first breath of a newborn child
 
 So I set out to penetrate this planet’s state
And find out what reverberates
To speak the truth
To speak to youth
To put on some gardening gloves and boots
And give nourishment to roots
To fertilize the tender shoots
That grow and grow from all the seeds you sew
And if you don’t know, now you know
And if you don’t know, that means there’s room to grow
 
Cause I’ve seen a bunch of hellions
With mouths the size of pelicans
Learn to quit their yellin’ and listen….
To the silence….
That’s vibrating with billions of microbial operatives in sublime symbiosis
Guaranteed to do away with postmodern neurosis
 
This quiet eloquence embellishes a truth that’s huge and relevant
It’s grabbing the white elephant
And composting its crap and, hell, maybe even sellin’ it
 
The power is in you – in fact, it’s in your poo
This is some heavy doo doo voodoo
Think about it when you’re on the loo
Imagine every number two
Becoming a permaculture dream come true
 
Like Jack’s magic beans you’ll be climbing to new heights
Permablitzing new sites
Thinking about a healthy planet as a human right
And maybe sleeping a bit more soundly at night
 
Let the earthworms be a part of your community
Speak up in Canberra and make them see
That the harm that’s been done….
Is done.
And we have all the time under the sun
To repair not despair
Tie back your hair
And sit
And stare
 
Observe and interact
If you treat her with respect, Mama Earth’s got your back
Grow some veggies
Use the edges
Put the power back
Into the hands of the many
And these hands will yield plenty
And don’t worry if you’re nowhere near twenty
 
Because this is the future of living education
Without further complications limitations or genetic modifications
Start thinking long-term germination not band-aid fixation
Because it’s not about us,
It’s about The Seventh Generation

Now that’s my kind of classroom…

For the past week, I’ve been in Byron Bay, volunteering as an “Amigo” for the Youth Permaculture Challenge. The amount of learning taking place here is amazing. It’s heuristic, hands on, constructivist, embedded in the local community, and globally aware.

There have been so many inspiring moments over the last week that I don’t know what to blog about first! So here are a few photos of some of the students’ learning moments –  ranging from cooperative engagement in an activity to quiet reflective journalling.

There are so many ways to learn when your classroom has no walls.

 

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