Using Mindfulness to Prevent Teacher Burnout
If you are a teacher you know the meaning of burnout. It happens to all of us. For some, stress and anxiety ebb and flow based on the demands of the job at the time. For others, stress becomes a normal part of life. That is what happened to me.
Five years into my teaching career I was confronted with an unexpected health issue. I met with a variety of doctors who all said the same thing: Get your stress under control. Stress was not only impacting my mental health, but was taking a toll on my body as well. One of my doctors suggested that I see an acupuncturist. The acupuncturist always took my heart rate before starting. One day she asked if I had a tough day. I told her that I hadn't, that it was a fairly standard day. She told me she asked because my heart rate was very high. That was eye opening for me. I couldn't even recognize when I was stressed because that's how I felt ALL THE TIME.
I took the advice of my doctors and sought help. I got a stress therapist. The physical health issue was ironed out for the time being, but the stress issue as a whole was not resolved long-term. The efforts that I took to maintain a low-stress lifestyle were not sustainable. I couldn't see a stress therapist forever. I didn't, and still don't, have the tools to manage my stress long term.
A few months ago I connected with the lovely, intelligent, and fiercely passionate, Nikisha Patton Handy through LinkedIn. Her profile struck me because of my own history with stress. She was an educator that was burned out of the industry. She stepped away to take some time to be with her family. She has since discovered mindfulness and has used that discovery to serve other teachers that are having similar experiences. Her story, which she tells here, is powerful because it is so relatable. I wish I had met her 5 years ago. Check out her story below as well as some resources for self-care.
Nikisha Patton Handy began teaching in 2005 as a special education teacher, and continued to work in education until 2016. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Applied Behavior Analysis, a Master's degree in Special Education specializing in Behavioral Interventions, and is currently working to complete a Doctorate degree in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Nikisha has served in the capacity of educator, tutor, department chair, interventionist, and interventionist coordinator during her career. Nikisha has since become the proud business owner of 2 Inspire Peace, which seeks to inspire peace in those that pour into children. 2 Inspire Peace offers stress relief and healing by way of mindful meditation, offering retreats, professional development opportunities, aromatherapy and de-escalation products, and life changing events for educators, mentors, and caregivers.
Every burned out teacher has their story. Mine is one of passion, hope, overachieving, and high expectations. Let me begin by saying that since 2005, I have been a special education teacher. The first hurdle I encountered was the fact that many of the other teachers, administrators, and staff never quite understood what I did as an educator. There is quite a discrepancy between what special education teachers are responsible for in comparison to general educators. When other teachers and administrators see what you are doing, many either feel sympathy or lack understanding and judge what you do as subpar in comparison to other educators because of a lack of knowledge, empathy, and experience.
The last year that I agreed to be a teacher of record, the year began with me sitting in a before-school professional development session as the principal presented the assessment data from the previous year. This particular year included a monetary incentive if percentages of passing the state exam were achieved.
I found myself staring at a screen with bar graphs illustrating the performance of students that took a modified test. There were several misconceptions built into just showing the chart without explanation. The first misconception was that all students that took these tests were in my class. The second misconception was that these students failed the assessment without making significant growth from the prior year to the year on the graph in front of me. The ultimate misconception was that none of us earned the monetary incentive because of my students.
I knew about all of the struggles, the meetings, the number of students that had shown grade levels of growth in one single year, and even the relationships with families that had been restored during the process. But as this screen was displayed for all of the other teachers to glare at, I felt a sense of apathy, and in that moment, I was determined to do more to prove to my peers and myself that I was an excellent teacher.
This is what many of us do as educators: push ourselves more even though many of us aren't given the support, resources, funding, or time needed to work the miracles expected for the students we serve. From there, for me, as my family grew, as I left special education and switched to becoming an interventionist to prevent future false positives in special education, as I worked harder to make an impact, I was slowly losing myself and had no idea that I was burning out. I had created a new normal of toxicity, of complaining, of saying "yes" and agreeing to do more work than was possible for me to complete, of taking work home and losing more significant time and memories with my family.
With everyday that went by, I hit snooze more, woke and got out of the bed later, arrived at work later, and promised myself to do less as I was assigned more. How did I get here? I now realize that what I lacked was something I never knew existed, so I didn't know that I needed it. What was that? Mindfulness. Simply being aware of the present moment, having self-awareness and the ability to regulate my emotions and behaviors, or even recognizing that I was leaving the majority of my life either in fear of my future or suffering from the past.
The only times that I truly felt present were the moments that I spent with my students. Once I left the classroom, I didn't have as much access to students. I was working more closely with teachers and staff in a supposed "elevated position". It was at that time that I began to lose my passion for the educational industry as a whole.
There are many teacher training programs for those that aspire to change the world by pouring into our younger generations, but where are the classes within these programs that teach balance, mindfulness, and the skills to live in a way that promotes resilience in such a demanding industry? The new norm is that teachers graduate from their programs, enter the industry, many without a mentor, and simply get better with time. But what happens to these educators as people, as family members, as friends, who who are just trying to balance their lives with their newfound career?
Many unfortunately burn out within 2 to 5 years of entering into the industry. Therefore, our industry is flooded with new educators, many of which go without mentors, support, or any idea of how to sustain themselves without losing their family, their friends, and sometimes awareness of their own mental health.
I chose my family after 12 years of dedication to education, and that's when I found mindfulness. I had a two-year-old at home and a husband that I felt I had emotionally abandoned and needed to take care of. My journey began with long moments of contemplation of how I had arrived to a place where I was consuming medication to control depression amd and anxiety. I needed a deeper connection with myself to truly find my purpose, not necessarily my next career move. I needed to find peace! I was beginning to see the same signs of unhappiness and anxiety in my daughter. A separation had been created between me and my spouse. I immediately recognized the need to simply reset.
Mindfulness for me began with finding what allowed me to feel at peace. Was it the sun beaming on my face? Was it my time using guided meditations to center, balance, and positively affirm myself? I began playing uplifting music, cleaning and decluttering my space, and journaling my feelings and insights. I found that certain scents such as lavender and lemongrass lifted my spirits, and so I took an interest in essential oils and aromatherapy. Moment by moment and day by day with these practices in place, I began to develop a sense of gratitude for having access to all of the things around me that made me feel uplifted. I found that deep breathing had the power to reverse an oncoming anxiety attack. The same breath could calm me even in my most furious moments.
Mindfulness is different for everyone. What may appeal to one may deter another. Whatever you have to do to stay in the moment and keep your thoughts positive is the definition of mindfulness to me. What we consume and accept as our reality flourishes. It can start with you choosing to grow rather than stay stagnant, choosing to be happy rather than feeling fine, choosing to live your best life everyday instead of taking it a day at a time. Mindfulness is a second by second, minute by minute choice that has totally changed and rearranged my existence in a way that I cannot explain. What mindful practice will you commit to in order to adopt a lifestyle that allows you to balance and stabilize, thereby allowing you to offer patience and compassion for yourself and those around you? #positivevibesonly
Written by Nikisha Patton Handy
Attention needs to be paid to the sources of teacher burnout, there's no question. And no one is arguing that here. Continue to use your voice and advocate for systems that prevent stress and burnout. I wasn't burned out of the industry because I had support from my director and coworkers. That is not uniform across the board, however. Teachers battle lack of support in many districts. Until all of the issues with education magically disappear, keeping mindful is a good practice. It's a good practice in life. Educators aren't the only ones that feel stress, pressure, anxiety, depression, etc. It's likely a reality of living in the 21st-century. Being mindful of your emotions and actions is an important skill for everyone to have, including our students. It's important for us to model social/emotional intelligence, and mindfulness can be a really effective tool for that.
Thanks for reading! Nikisha hosts her own Youtube station where you can find quick and simple tips for stress reduction and meditation exercises. You can also peruse her website, 2 Inspire Peace, for more resources.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
The Importance of Intergenerational Learning Experiences
The young and the old and everyone in between living, playing, and working side-by-side is a tale as old as time. Yet that tale seems to be one of the past. We currently find ourselves in a
society where those interactions across age groups are few and far between.
Once upon a time intergenerational relationships formed organically. A family living in tight corridors was necessary for survival. Children, parents, grandparents and so on worked and lived as a community working toward the same goals. Their lives were interconnected. Today we live in discrete units. We have our own goals. We have our own lives from 9-5. Students split up by age. A greater role is placed on peers than ever before. Modes of communication have drastically evolved from my grandma's generation to my daughter's generation. Heck, communication has changed dramatically in the past 5 years let alone the past 50 years. Information is at our fingertips. Why ask grandma about the Dust Bowl when I can ask Alexa? I can ask her in the bath. I can ask her while I'm driving. I can even ask her at 3 in the morning when grandma has been long asleep.
Alexa has become such a fixture in our household, that not only does my daughter know how to get what she wants from her, but she also thinks Alexa is a real person. Living with us.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't believe that the changes we've seen, especially in the recent past, are necessarily bad things. Especially when it comes to technology. These changes are here to stay and are continuing to evolve as I write this. The best thing I can do as a parent and teacher is embrace it. But I also don't want to see my children or my students (or myself for that matter) miss out on the amazing benefits of intergenerational relationships.
Before going on I want to be clear about the definition of intergenerational. The way I mean it in this context is in connection with learning. Intergenerational learning is when those from varying age groups learn from each other. It's not a matter of being in the same room at the same time with people of all ages, like in a movie theater for example. It's working together with the intention of learning from one another. And yes, older generations CAN learn from younger generations, regardless of what you've heard about millenials, or your fears about Generation Z! Everyone has a role to play.
Benefits of Intergenerational Learning Experiences:
1) Learning from each other.
2) Building a stronger, healthier community of trust, reliance, and collaboration.
3) Discovering commonalities.
4) Provides opportunities to see different points of view.
5) Breaks down misconceptions, judgements, and stereotypes.
6) Those involved gain skills from those that are more experienced. This goes both ways. There are skills that young people have that some older generations struggle with. Tech literacy is one example.
7) Older generations can help children develop a healthy self -concept (self-esteem, confidence, identity, ideals, values and priorities.)
8) Intergenerational relationships can provide personal one-on-one attention to a child if approached as a mentorship experience.
9) Gives children someone other than a parent (fear of parental disappointment) or peer (fear of judgement) to confide in.
10) Elders with intergenerational friendships report better mental wellness.
Ways of Making Intergenerational Learning Experiences Part of the Curriculum:
1) Consider developing a mentorship program. Bring mentors from various generations to spend time with your students. They can play games, read to each other, chat, build something, etc. But the interactions should be one-on-one and should occur regularly.
2) Start a technology literacy volunteer committee. This would work well for older students. Pull together a group of kids that would like to offer tech lessons to those in the community that need it.
3) Start a club that community members of all ages can join. Ex: book club, knitting club, chess club, etc.
4) Incorporate intergenerational learning experiences into your current curriculum. Don't change anything, just add community volunteers to work with your students in the classroom.
5) Along those same lines, assign a project specifically designed to provide intergenerational learning experiences. I created a PBL project on generations that asks students to interview several individuals from different generations.
Check it out here: Project-Based Learning: Generations.
6) Organize shadowing experiences. Older students can arrange shadowing experiences with community members from different generations outside of the classroom. Urge them to make this activity a regular occurrence, not a one time thing.
7) Pen pals - if mobility is a challenge, consider a pen pal program with any number of mixed- generation facilities. An assisted living facility is one option. These relationships don't have to be between children and the elderly, however. My high school students used to go to an elementary school once a week to read to first graders. That is also an intergenerational learning experience that benefits both parties.
8) Form an Intergenerational community service crew to give time to improving the community. The purpose of this would be to bring various skills and ideas from different generations to the table. It's also a great way to learn from each other while working toward common goals.
These are just a few ideas. There are many possibilities. Play around with what might work for the age group you work with, your schedule, the number of students you have, your level of flexibility, mobility and more. What works for you and your students may not work well for others. But don't let these obstacles stop you from providing intergenerational learning experiences to your students, or if you're a parent, to your children. There is so much to gain from intergenerational relationships. Don't waste an opportunity!
Check out Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for more experiential learning resources. You can also follow me on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education.
I have only been out of the classroom for a little over a year. Not long ago I started this blog and was quickly blown away by how much I seem to have missed in only one year out of the education scene. I questioned if I had been completely aloof for a decade, or if educational trends have just emerged that rapidly. I'd like to go with the latter, as my entire educational career has been in a progressive learning environment. It was literally my job to keep up with what was working for students a what wasn't, and to adjust my practice in response.
I have spent the last four months completely immersed in education. I have read dozens of books and hundreds of articles on education. I have participated in professional development courses and conferences. I have been completely in over my head, drowning to be blunt, in social media as it relates to education. Pinterest is littered with the trendiest of trends when it comes to learning, and everything else for that matter. The list of top educational trends of 2018 listed below was created strictly out of observation and experience. I have not run any fancy analytics programs or produced any actual data. So do with that what you will. You can take is as a grain of salt, or you can see for yourself.
Many of these trends aren't new. We implemented several of the trends listed here with full force where I taught (others I have never heard of until recently). They have made such a strong presence in the educational scene within the last couple of years because we know they work for 21st century students. So many of these emerging trends are based on the rapidly evolving world we find ourselves in. What used to make sense or what we used to do just doesn’t make sense anymore. With the world changing as quickly as it is, we are forced to really consider these ideas. Social media and other forms of technology have completely altered the way we communicate and learn. Notice patterns as you read the list. A few themes that I have identified include: student-centered learning; hands-on learning; inquiry-based learning; connecting content with the real-world; student choice and voice; technology and innovation. The overarching theme is a student-centered model necessary to develop the skills needed in the 21st century. Therefore, I don't see these trends going anywhere.
Up until now there has been a lot of buzz and a lot of talk about these concepts. Turn these trends into practice in your classroom if you haven't already. If you've just been playing around with these ideas with your students here and there, try to start implementing it as if it's the norm, because these trends are likely here to stay. There is a reason they are trending. Go with that!
Top 20 Educational Trends of 2018
1) Social-Emotional Learning -
"Social emotional skills" is a buzz phrase in education now because those are the skills students need in the workforce today more than content. Content information they can find in seconds anytime, anywhere.
2) STEM/STEAM -
Stem and steam are hot right now. No pun intended! Both strengthen many 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and more.
3) Maker Education -
Maker education is a new one for me. I have used "maker" principles with my students without realizing that what I was doing had a name. Students identify a problem and then make something as a solution to the problem. There are a lot of free webinars on edweb.net on maker education. I highly encourage checking those out.
4) Differentiated Learning -
Differentiated learning is providing variety to fit student's individual needs. A lot of teachers are using strategies like "choice time" and "task cards" to provide a differentiated learning environment. Direct-instruction or passive learning can still dominate a differentiated learning environment, however. As an experiential learning educator that is not preferred in my opinion. Check out "personalized learning" below to see another option for meeting student's unique needs.
5) Flexible Seating -
Flexible seating is having a variety of seating options in any given learning environment. It might mean couches or bean bag chairs in a reading corner. A high-top table with stools for projects or activities that require sudden movement, a large community table for cooperative learning activities, etc.
6) College and Career Readiness -
Having a 4.0 GPA just doesn't cut it anymore as far as college and career readiness is concerned. There are competencies students must have to survive and thrive in the 21st century workforce. Just because a student got straight A's doesn't mean they are ready for what comes after graduation.
7) Blended Learning -
From my understanding, blended learning is a combination of classic schooling with online learning. I'm realizing, however, that it's not that simple. I think people that practice true blended learning have a precise understanding of a much more complex picture than just a mix of tech and teacher. I think there is a little personalized learning thrown in there as well, among other principles that are still a bit of an enigma to me. I'd like to learn more about blended learning. If there is anyone reading this that has significant experience with blended learning, please private message me. It would be wonderful to have you guest post about it on this blog.
8) 21st Century Skills -
This one is highly interconnected to the others. The other trends listed here provide learning opportunities to develop the essential skills needed in the 21st century.
9) Project-Based Learning -
My pride and joy. My entire career has been dedicated to project-based learning. Check out some other blog posts I've done on PBL.
10) Genius Hour/Passion Projects -
I hear these two words constantly. They possess the same elements as project-based learning, but are brief, temporary assignments in passing, as supplements to curriculum. Authentic project-based learning is more substantial or tends to be the curriculum itself. For those that assign passion projects in class and have genius hours, is that statement true? I have heard about teachers creating entire courses on passion projects. To me that's the same as project-based learning. Feel free to correct me if that's offbase.
11) Brain-Based Learning -
The point of brain-based learning is to teach or provide a learning environment that takes the brain and how it works into consideration.
12) Trauma Informed Practices -
This is really interesting to me, but I don't know very much about it unfortunately. I worked with high-risk students for almost ten years. Every one of them had experienced one trauma or another. If you're interested in this, ACES is a great place to start. Other than that, I have little to offer. Because of that, I will be having a school counselor guest post about this in the near future. Stay-tuned!
13) Alternative Grading Systems -
This concept is simple. Some schools are starting to move away from strict A-F grading systems. Many combine letter grades with portfolios. Others have eliminated grades all together and complete narratives for each student instead. The purpose is to reduce academic related stressors.
14) Personalized Learning -
As compared with "differentiated instruction" listed above, personalized learning doesn't stop at arranging your classroom or modifying lessons to fit various needs and skill levels. Differentiated learning is great if it's your only option. Personalized learning on the other hand addresses student needs and skill levels in addition to backgrounds, homelife, learning styles, intelligences, and most importantly in my opinion, interests. Students direct their own learning in a personalized learning environment. Lessons aren't modified by the teacher. Students are designing their own educational journey with teachers there to facilitate. I'll do a blog post on this concept in the future.
15) Problem-Based Learning -
PrBL is a cool tool that I wish I was much better at. Rather than students receiving a lecture with numbers and stats on a real-world issue, students learn about said real-world issue by making their own observations, asking questions, exploring the issue, brainstorming solutions and acting on those solutions.
16) Gamification -
I'm going to be completely honest. I know nothing about this. But it's a serious buzzword floating around out there. It does make sense to incorporate gaming into schools. I say that only because technology is here and it's here to stay. These games are only getting better and better. My reservation about it is the hold it has on students - the addictive nature of it. I'm sure there is someone out there to defend both angles. I don't know. What do you think?
17) Lifelong Learning -
Lifelong learning encompasses all of the trends listed here in one. It is having the tools to learn long after "schooling" is over.
18) Growth Mindset -
There is a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. A growth mindset acknowledges that skills can come through hard work and determination, vs. fixed mindset which is the opposite. Promoting and encouraging a growth mindset with students is a major trend right now.
19) Self-Assessments -
This is when students take an active role in a learning outcome. Students grow by periodically self-assessing. They learn how to fail, pick themselves back up, go back to the drawing board, modify and try again. To take it a step further, students can even create their own assessments. I have my students create their own project rubrics. That rubric template is available in my TpT store. Check it out here - Student-Generated Project Rubric.
20) Authentic Presentations -
Finally, my favorite part! I am a huge advocate for project-based learning, and an authentic presentation is an important component to PBL. An authentic presentation is one where students share their work and their acquired knowledge with an authentic audience, one that is relevant and public. There are so many advantages to doing authentic presentations. I wrote a blog article on this concept a while ago. Feel free to check it out for more information - How to Incorporate Authentic Presentations into your Curriculum.
None of these trends are used independently from the others. They are all interconnected. Just because you're focusing on lifelong learning doesn't mean you should put social-emotional learning or college and career readiness on the backburner, for example. They all share common themes. They all consider the needs of 21st century learners.
For resources on many of these trends, as most of them fall under "experiential learning", feel free to check out my TpT store. As of right now project-based learning dominates the store. But with project-based learning comes authentic presentations, lifelong learning, gamification if you wish, self-assessments, personalized learning, and more from the list of trends above. This is the last day of a winter sale on my high school PBL bundle and "how to" guide. Check out Experiential Learning Depot to get to this resource and others. I'm working on some maker and stem resources and will have those posted soon.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TpT, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education.
Happy New Year, Everyone!
10 Free Gifts to Give Your Students This Holiday Season
Children of the 21st century need so much more from educators than content delivery. We as teachers (and parents) grew up in an entirely different world than our students. Information is available to them anytime, anywhere. Memorizing facts, we know, isn't relevant to this generation, it won't be relevant to the next generation, nor the one after that.
What students need now are the "free gifts" on the list above, among other things. There are many more student-needs than what I listed on my gorgeous graphic up top, I just couldn't fit anymore on the page!
Educators are (or should be) well aware of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Basic needs must first be met for learners to reach a level of "self-actualization." Many children do not even have consistent access to their most basic needs: food, water, warmth and rest. School may be the only place they get those things. Safety, friendship and the tools to build a healthy self-concept are additional student needs. Most children struggle with these ideas, especially tweens and teens. They need us to help them navigate through this unique time in history.
What we can give our students this holiday season is support, kindness and love. We can listen when they need us to listen. We can provide our students with learning opportunities that help them develop the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. We can offer experiences that foster the discovery of skills, talents, interests and desires.
I left my job a year ago to stay home with my own children, and since then have done some serious reflecting on my career. The last few years at my job I felt bogged down by constant student behavior issues, the pressure of adhering to standards, truancy, and my own stuff going on at home. I lost patience with my students and lost-sight of their most inherent needs.
We all know teachers don't teach for the money! We teach because we love our students. You are likely already giving your students most, if not all, of the gifts on the list. If you're not, it's okay! Give yourself a break. We as teachers are up against a lot. But try to do some serious, honest self-reflection this winter break. Make changes in your classroom if you need to. Create the conditions they need to thrive. Assign projects that promote student voice and choice. Provide a plethora of input to aid students in discovering their interests and talents. Focus on your students, who they are as individuals, and what they really need from you.
Check out some of Experiential Learning Depot's projects that might be just what your classroom needs. They are all student-centered, so provide that choice, voice, autonomy and hands-on experience mentioned on the list.
Activities for Building a Strong Advisory Community
Project-Based Learning Tool Kit
Community Action Projects
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
There's no question about it, children learn by watching and imitating. These pictures are cases in point. This child of mine is a mini-me. I see her observing me. She examines my actions, takes mental note, mimics my every move, analyzes the outcome, and adjusts her behavior accordingly. All the while her brain is rewiring and building new connections as she's learning from me. I can see all of this go down simply by the expression on her face as she's watching me and mirroring my behaviors.
It’s a reminder for me as a parent and educator to model behaviors, values, and priorities that I hope to see in my own children and my students. It's a seemingly simple concept. Don't hurt others, don't disrespect others, work hard. But I catch myself often doing things that I wouldn't want my own children doing. I have to stop myself, reflect, and make changes. For example, I want my children to be good listeners. If I want that, I need to listen to them. I believe I do that....when I'm physically AND mentally present. My cellphone compromises my ability to be mentally present. My children take note. They are learning that it's OK to have their faces buried in their phones while others are speaking to them. That's not OK with me.
So I have to take a step back, reflect on my actions, ask myself if I want to see these behaviors in the children in my life, and make changes if not. Educators and parents, we need to be cognizant of our actions, because these kids are watching us!!
Follow me on Pinterest (Experiential Learning Depot) and check out my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, for more educational resources.
Take Learning Outdoors
I have always been an avid outdoors-woman. I was raised with parents that valued and encouraged outdoor play and experiences. My second home growing up was a family cabin up north. When home from school for the summer my mother basically told me and my siblings to go outside and not to come back inside until dinner. All of our family vacations were outdoors. We had pretty strict video game and television rules. Even when we were in a position to break those rules, we would more often than not choose to be outside. An appreciation for the outdoors was so instilled in me as a child that I went on to get my degree in wildlife ecology and spent the first part of my adult career working with endangered species. Then I became a bio teacher, and now am a stay-at-home-mom raising two young children to love and appreciate nature as well. My children are the light of my life, and of course I want whats best for them. Their mental and physical well-being is my top priority, and I know spending time outdoors is the ticket.
The last few weeks I have been feeling on edge. Groggy. Foggy brained. And because I'm a stay-at-home-mom, my children and husband take the brunt of it. No one likes when I'm in "a mood". When I'm feeling that way, I know it's from one of three things: stress, not enough physical activity, or not enough time spent outside. In this particular case, it was all three. So! We hopped in the car and drove to the North Shore to camp at Gooseberry Falls State Park. Well, we didn't just "hop" anywhere. If you know me, you know that I am not a spontaneous person. I require diligent planning, and this trip was no different. It was great timing though! I really needed it, and so did my family. It was just what we needed to reflect, relax and refresh. Was it just a vacation that I needed? I don't believe so. I took a vacation with my family to an indoor water park over the winter, and as fun as it was, it was certainly in no way relaxing or reviving. There is something to be said about being in the great outdoors. I feel it, and research says so!
Study after study have shown the benefits of spending time outdoors, especially for young people. Harvard Medical School published a report in 2010 stating that spending time outdoors may be the prescription for better health. Stanford reported in 2015 that taking regular nature walks may lower risk of depression. Amazon is loaded with books dedicated to the simple idea that the human brain is wired to be outside: "Go Outside and Come Back Better" by Ron Lizzi, "The Nature Fix" by Florence Williams, "Balanced and Barefoot" by Angela J. Hanscom, "Vitamin N" by Richard Louv, and "Last Child in the Woods", also by Richard Louv. The list goes on and on. National Geographic published an awesome article titled "We are Wired to be Outside". It gets at the same point I've already made, that nature can be therapeutic. Cultures around the world have various practices and traditions that utilize this thinking. Check out the article for examples, such as the Japanese practice of "forest bathing". If you aren't yet convinced of the benefits of spending time outdoors, read a couple of the books or articles mentioned. Or think back at some of the books you yourself have read. Think of the classic story of the tormented adult, living in a world of stress and chaos, working a job they disdain, looking for a way out, a way to reinvent themselves, start over. You know the ones - "Wild", "Heroes of the Frontier", "Flat Broke with Two Goats", "Into the Wild". All great books with characters that find their way by getting outside! The innate human connection to nature is so profound for some that they will go to extremes to get that "high" as "Into Thin Air" and "Blind Descent" illustrate. My children's favorite books are those that take place outdoors or involve animals. Children have an intrinsic connection with, curiosity of and appreciation for nature. If you haven't noticed, I love books! But that's not what this is about. Keep reading...
The point is that nature is awesome, and it's odd that we live in a time that books need to be written about the health benefits of being outdoors. Why do we need convincing? We currently find ourselves in an environment of screens at our fingertips. Our children and students studying habitats using online simulations. Now more than ever we need to foster in our children an appreciation for the outdoors and provide opportunities for our children and students to spend time outside. That cannot just be on parents. Educators need to do more to get students outside. I am not saying that screens should be completely thrown out of the picture. As I sit here writing this blog, I clearly have some appreciation for technology. But screens should not replace outdoor time, physical activity, or opportunities to create, imagine and explore. Excessive screen time can severely compromise a child's ability to develop a healthy self-concept (specifically girls according to Leonard Sax in "Girls on the Edge".) I observed this on a daily basis with my female students when I was teaching. Social media sucked the life out of them. Excessive screen time can also be damaging to young people, more boys than girls, when real environments and experiences are getting replaced by imaginary ones, also according to Leonard Sax in "Boys Adrift". Boys are replacing real experiences with simulated ones, predominantly with video-games. Screens are not the only obstacle to children enjoying nature. Fear is another obstacle. Media has stirred up irrational fear by highlighting stories about abduction (which is rare by the way). One of my favorite Podcasts, Invisibilia, focuses one episode on fear. They talk with a man named Roger Hart who wanted to study children in their most natural setting. The outdoors. In the 1970's, he studied 86 children in a small town in Vermont, between ages 3-12 for 2 1/2 years. Without getting too wordy, the moral of the story is that he found that the parents of this population were "unmotivated by fear". Abduction was not a concern in the 70's. The children basically ran the town. They didn't have physical boundaries they couldn't go beyond, vs. at my home where I have trouble allowing my children to leave my eye site let alone my house, yard or block. So, yes, fast forward to today, and parents like me are the norm. Roger did some digging and found there are NO MORE abductions today than there were 50 years ago. So why the fear? Media. And what's the problem with that? Parents and teachers aren't allowing their children as much time outside. They are crippled by fear, irrationally believing that screens are safer than being outside. Ok, maybe that's not completely irrational. They probably are. How could one get physically hurt or kidnapped for that matter if they are indoors playing video games? It does hurt them in other ways, however, and I don't need to tell you that. Kids need to take healthy risks to grow and learn. There is such thing as "healthy risk", says Heather Shumaker, who wrote "It's Ok to go Up the Slide". "Nurture Shock" by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and "Free Range Kids" by Lenore Skenazy are books with similar views and practical approaches to finding a balance. As a parent and educator, I know how hard this can be. But read my words, and those of the hundreds of books on this topic. Let them go outside! Make them go outside!
As I flip through photos of my recent family camping trip to Gooseberry Falls, I can pinpoint moments that couldn't have happened under any other circumstance. My children put their hands in the dirt, dipped their toes in the ice cold water of Lake Superior, bonded with their father whom they get little time with, inhaled fresh air, looked at the stars completely free from city lights. They took naps through the sounds of waves lapping on the shoreline. My four year old walked close to four miles and my darling 2 year old climbed on everything. I watched as this experience helped by youngest build confidence. They read books, real hard cover books, under the stars. My children only had each other and the world around them, so there was little time or need to bicker. They bonded over new and exciting experiences. They played cards by the fire. They learned how to build a fire! They found and made their own walking sticks. They learned how to read a map. They looked for big foot, observing their surroundings, getting in tune with their senses, and looking for "clues". They built on their family relationships, learned important life skills, tested their limits, used their senses and imaginations. In just two days my children were able to do all of this, learn all of this, with no plan. No textbooks, no lesson plans, PowerPoint lectures, no note-taking, no testing. Just them. Just us. Just the great outdoors.
When I was teaching, much of my curriculum focused around being outside of the building. As a small, project-based, community school, we were fortunate to have the encouragement and resources to take field trips, sometimes even large school trips. I've taken students camping at local State Parks, we've camped among the wolves at the Wildlife Science Center, I've taken students backpacking along Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore. I've traveled with students to the Black Hills, Colorado, Hawaii (twice), Costa Rica, Florida, California, Madeline Island, and others. All with an outdoor focus, which makes sense, as I am a biology teacher. The biology emphasis however wasn't really the point. I wasn't interested in my students walking away from these trips with a clear definition of a "biome". The purpose was exposure to new environments, developing an appreciation for nature, self-reflection, relationship building and more. I took students to Hawaii in 2012, and to this day they are bonded for life. They didn't know each other when we left home, and were best friends by the time we returned. Teachers (and parents), if you can, take your students on outdoor trips, camping if possible, or on day trips to a local park. If those opportunities are few and far between (or impossible for some), at a minimum take them onto school grounds for lessons. And for goodness sake, educators, DO NOT TAKE AWAY OUTDOOR RECESS from elementary students. Our children's health and wellness depend on it!
At this point you're probably thinking that this post is to provide book suggestions about the benefits of being outside! It is not, although I hope you find some of the books mentioned interesting and consider reading them. All great reads. The actual purpose of this post is to give educators ideas on how to inspire appreciation for the outdoors, and work outdoor time into your already existing curriculum. Check it out!
Books that Inspire
Ok, I'm not quite past books yet. I think you know by now that I believe books make the world go round! They can fix everything. They can teach any concept. They can solve global issues. And this is no different. Want to get your children and/or students outside? Read books with them that give them the urge to explore, or simply the desire to chill in some fresh air for a few minutes. Check out these lists of great reads that inspire a love of (or at least a respect for) the outdoors. The lists vary by age and purpose.
Exposure to the Outdoors Through Student-Travel Opportunities
Ok, I know for some this is tricky, but hear me out. I taught at an inner-city school for a long time. For a variety of reasons a lot of our students didn't get outside. Not just outside of the state or country, but outside of their neighborhoods, outside of their comfort zones. It was mostly for lack of opportunity. Part of the school's mission was to provide those opportunities, that exposure to students. "Global Opportunities to Change Lives" was our motto. And they did. These experiences did and do change lives. But those opportunities have to be there. If possible, plan an outdoor school trip. Propose a travel program to your school director or school board. Highlight the benefits of outdoor time AWAY from class, away from "noise", long enough to bond with classmates, reflect on life and gain perspective. As a project-based learning school, I had most of my students plan the trips (with my guidance of course.) If that is too much too soon, plan it yourself. I use this how-to guide sheet (free) to plan trips. It is also what I assign to my students if they want to plan a trip for a project. I created this when one of my students started taking interest in school travel. Consider assigning this project to your students even if student travel is only theoretical. Just giving students a chance to explore the possibilities will inspire them. They may even go on the trip someday on their own! Here is an example of a completed trip plan project and presentation to California that one of my student completed years ago and presented to the school board. We did end up taking this trip. I also have a "Plan a Trip Around the World" PBL lesson available as well. It's similar, with 5 destinations instead of one, and is designed using PBL principles. Finally, I kept a blog of student travel experiences with my students. Check it out for outdoor student travel ideas.
Overcoming Obstacles to Outdoor Learning
If you are an environmental science or phy ed. teacher, you're probably already an expert at getting your kids outside. That is the assumption anyway. My student teaching experience was with an IB biology class, and not once did the students go outside. Not with my cooperating teacher and not with me. There were "too many obstacles", it took "too much planning", there was "too much red tape", there were "too many standards to cover, not enough time to play around outdoors", "outdoor time is a luxury". These are all obstacles that even a wildlife ecology teacher might face. Every obstacle to taking students outdoors are legitimate. But might there be ways around them? Almost all obstacles come down to subject integration and classroom management. Find tips from an excerpt from "Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard Enhanced Learning in Action" by Herbert W. Broda.
Activities to do with your Students Outdoors
At every opportunity, take your students outside. If you have a lesson that could just be moved out onto the grass, do it, even if it means modifying your plans a little. Best case scenario is that your lesson incorporates natural surroundings. This is easy for project-based learners and life science teachers. For math teachers, maybe not quite as easy. Or is it? Check out some of these fun integrated outdoor learning activities.
Top Young Adult Books to Read Outside:
Ok, so these lists of young adult novels isn't of books about being outside, but we've already covered that. These books are about teenagers, about real issues they face like bullying, sexual identity, mental illness, social media, grief, death and love. Children, young adults not excluded, do better with anything relevant to their lives or interesting to them. If you were going to read anyway, take it outside, and use one or all of the books on this list as a persuasive tool.
Best Young Adult Books of 2015 - I know it's almost four years later, but I love this list. The characters and issues they face are so relevant to teenagers today.
Best Young Adult Books of 2018 - Some fantastic books came out this year geared toward young adult readers. I love this list because the characters are diverse in their backgrounds (race, socioeconomic class, culture, gender.) I have found on a lot of "lists" that most of the main characters in young adult novels these days are female. What's that about? I know girls typically read more than boys, but now I get why. At least in part why. There aren't enough books out there that strike the chords of modern-day teenage boys. Anyway, that topic is for another day.
10 Outdoor Literacy Activities - these 10 ideas came from the book "15 Minutes Outside" by Rebecca P. Cohen. These activities are geared toward younger children.
What's great about writing is that you could do it just about anywhere as long as you have a pen and some paper. With phones, Chromebooks, Kindles, and iPads, on the rise, we can even bring along our mobile devices. Taking your writers outdoors is a great way to inspire writing topics, remove disturbances and distractions, and give them the space and peace that they need to focus. I'm always hearing about writers that move to their writing retreat for the season to finish their book, and it's usually to a cabin in the woods or villa in Tuscany, right? Nature! Check out some of these outdoor writing activities created by awesome teachers.
Examples of Outdoor Activities to get your Students Writing - these activities are good because they could be applied to all ages.
9 Ways to Take English Class Outside - Ok, I'm noticing a pattern. I like "lists". I'm obsessed with Pinterest, so there you go. This resource is intended for secondary language arts students. I like it because it does incorporate technology, which again I think has a lot of benefits, especially when the population you're working with can't live without it. And why should they? That is the direction we are headed, so let's embrace it.
Using the Outdoors to Teach Social Studies:
This resources provided by ERIC will bring you to a PDF loaded with social studies lesson plans (grades 3-10) that get kids out of the building. It's pretty creative and makes me want to teach social studies. When you get to the website, look for the "Download Full Text" link in the top, right hand corner. Click on that to get to the PDF.
Check out these additional outdoor activities from National Geographic's Education Blog - "10 Ways to Take Your Classroom Outside"
Math Activities to do Outside:
There are a lot of resources out there for implementing math activities outdoors. Most of them are for elementary aged students, a few for more advanced math concepts.
Exploring Math in Nature - lot's of ideas for practicing measuring skills.
Math in the Garden - a book with hands-on math activities to do in the garden. I like this resource because it is multi-disciplinary and get's kids' hands dirty! Downside is that it's not a free resource.
Fascinating Facts of Mathematics - this resource doesn't give details on implementing math activities outdoors, but rather explains real life applications, in this case, of trigonometry. A lot of trig concepts can be studied outdoors, like finding the height of a mountain for example.
Outdoor Math Activities for Kids - this one is geared toward pre-k and kindergarten children. Great for stay-at-home-parents. Don't forget about free-play though!
I could go on and on with outdoor math resources. There are so many learning opportunities in nature for measurement, counting, symmetry, and more. I used to do a thing with finding examples of Fibonacci's numbers in nature. The kids loved it. It is just a matter of being resourceful. A simple Google search does the trick. There are so many great free, resources out there from teachers just like yourselves.
Take Your Science Lessons Outdoors:
This one seems obvious. Why wouldn't you have your bio class outside? It's not always that clear and easy. Ecology, sure. There are a lot of awesome ideas for having an ecology lesson outside. You could simply give students a pen and a notebook and ask them to observe their surroundings, ask questions, and design an experiment. Here are some other fun outdoor bio lessons to choose from:
Free Upper Level Ecology Scavenger Hunt and Mini-Project - this gets students outside observing nature while practicing ecology terminology. The kicker is that the final product is a photo gallery, which requires that students not only go into the outdoors, but really awaken their senses in the process.
Free Upper Level PBL Project on Endangered Species - I created this project and used it with my students when I was teaching. PBL naturally gets students outside of the classroom because in theory they should be working with community experts. The idea behind this project is that students get out and actively participate in their learning rather than sitting idly by, passively taking in facts that they will surely forget after the test is over. This project will inspire a life-long love for nature and the desire to protect it.
Other science subjects like chemistry and physics can also, and should also, be done outside whenever possible. Check out some of these fun outdoor activities. What's nice about chemistry and physics is that they are just fun by nature. Right? Anyone?
Outdoor Physics Experiments - some of these look so fun, I want to do them myself.
31 Days of Outdoor Stem - I LOVE THIS WEBSITE! I love STEM, and I love Little Bins for Little Hands. It is a free STEM resource. I have used several of their STEM activity ideas with my own young children and they LOVED it. This particular resource provides outdoor STEM activity ideas for a variety of science areas (geology, biotechnology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and obviously engineering.
Teaching Secondary Science Outside the Classroom - fun ideas for the outdoors, and includes a variety of science concepts.
Alright, maybe that's enough? I should say before i wrap it up, because I know you're all thinking it. How do I get my students outdoors in the winter? I know this conundrum better than anyone. I live in Minnesota where it seems to be below zero four months of the year and we get blizzards in April. Here's what I'll say. Even bringing students outside for 10 minutes per day is better than nothing. You might also consider again starting a student travel program at your school. Finally, if at all possible, incorporate the weather into your lesson. I'm sure there are some pretty awesome science experiments that could be done in the snow or using the snow. Do a lesson on friction or velocity using sledding as a teaching tool. Using a chemical testing kid, test soil before and after rain. Test snow or rain for acid using a pH kit. Calculate relative density for for snow, ice and water. Paint in the rain! Write in the outdoors on a snowy day! Even tough weather days inspire curiosity and creativity.
With that said, we are down to very few nice days! Get outside now, enjoy the fall colors, get your students inspired BEFORE the weather takes a dramatic turn. Good luck!
Parents and educators, what do you do to get your kids outdoors?
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.