Social-Emotional Explorations in the Outdoors
A School Forest Story
A few weeks ago, our school community experienced several challenging events in a row. It was just one of those weeks where each day felt worse than the last, and stress levels and tensions were high for both students and staff. Then came Thursday. Thursdays are always days for outdoor, place-based learning at High Marq. The field experience that week was one of our annual “Survival Days,” where students work in established teams to practice survival skills at one of our school forests. The sun was shining, the skies were clear, and the students had purposeful work to do together. As an educator, it was gratifying to watch our students persevere in starting campfires with a flint and steel; collaborate to construct elaborate and creative shelters from downed material, and eat lunch together at their shelter sites. While we were out in the woods, our immediate troubles receded into the background, and we were able to focus on being in community together.
Social-emotional learning has taken on a more prominent role in education discourse since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the ideas and practices have always mattered when it comes to helping students realize their human potential. Outdoor learning has also experienced a surge in popularity over the past year, as schools sought ideas for safer in-person instruction. I would argue that outdoor learning is an ideal vehicle for social-emotional learning.
When we provide students with opportunities to explore their outside environment in concert with their inner world, they are able to discover new life skills and hone existing ones in a context with fewer distractions and barriers.
The CASEL 5
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) suggests five broad domains for social-emotional learning — Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making — which are referred to as the CASEL 5. Looking back at the example of our Survival Day experience, students had ample opportunities to practice each of these skills. Working through a survival situation, even a contrived one, calls for Self-Awareness and Self-Management. Functioning effectively as a team, especially over the course of a school year, requires Social Awareness and Relationship Skills. And before we trust students alone in the woods, we definitely want them to demonstrate Responsible Decision-Making. And that’s just one outdoor learning experience out of dozens each school year.
In a recent discussion with my students, several of them expressed that the “heart and soul” of our school resided in nature and the outdoors. I think they’re exactly right. As a teacher, I find that being outside of the classroom allows me to better attend to the moment and concentrate on the task at hand. I’m not so worried about my overstuffed email inbox or lesson planning for next week. Students show different sides of themselves when we’re working outdoors together, too. I observe unexpected acts of kindness every week and see new leaders step up out of nowhere. Literally taking them outside of their traditional school environment allows our youth to practice the social-emotional skills that will benefit them in life long after they’ve forgotten any facts about rocks and trees that I might have taught them.
Making it Happen
Opportunities for students to practice social-emotional learning through outdoor experiences don’t have to be as involved as our school’s field program, which we’ve developed over a decade and involves one of our staff (me) holding a bus drivers license. Outdoor learning can be as simple as taking students into the sunshine outside your school. Grass or other greenery is nice, but not required. Simply giving kids the chance to exist in a less structured space provides plenty of social-emotional learning opportunities. Indeed, short trips outside can help scaffold students toward greater autonomy as they develop their comfort and competence with outdoor learning. Students can become stronger at Self-Management and Responsible Decision-Making through low-stakes activities such as these.
Many schools now have gardens or other on-site outdoor spaces that students may be able to explore. Venturing further from the schoolhouse doors can provide students with more separation with their “classroom selves” and greater opportunities for growth. One possibility is for students to collect phenological observations as the seasons change, and most states have some group of school gardening advocates who can help you with ideas for garden-based experiences (ours is the Wisconsin School Garden Network). Once students and teachers are comfortable with learning outdoors and working together as a team, you can start to plan larger expeditions off-site, perhaps to explore a school forest, county park, or state natural area.
An International Movement
There is ample research supporting the benefits of learning through play, gardening, and exploration of place for K-12 students, which you can read about through organizations like the US Play Coalition, Life Lab, and Promise of Place. The movement to bring students outside has a global reach. You can celebrate Outdoor Classroom Day on May 20 and November 4 this year, and the Green Apple Day of Service provides ideas and opportunities for students to address environmental and wellness needs in their community.
As for my students at High Marq, with flowers and leaves emerging as clear signs of spring, we are looking forward to spending even more time outside in the warmer weather. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be working in our school garden and exploring the street trees in our community. Earth Day also happens to fall on a Thursday this year, and we’re planning for a day of litter cleanup and invasive species removal at a local park. Each of these experiences will provide our students with opportunities to connect, explore, and engage with the environment while practicing their social-emotional skills. Pandemic or not, these practices will never go out of style.
Skylar L. Primm teaches at High Marq Environmental Charter School, a project- and place-based learning school in Montello, Wisconsin. In 2017, he was the recipient of a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his teaching, leadership, and service. He currently serves on the boards of directors for the Human Restoration Project and the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education. He blogs at skylarp.medium.com, usually for the Greater Madison Writing Project. You may contact Skylar at email@example.com.
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