This blog was written by Jackson Darland, a University of Oregon Student. Here he reports on a field research project that he completed for a childhood development course focusing on a Whole Earth Nature School program.
When I was assigned to conduct a field research project this winter I hoped to study an educational program focused on learning in the outdoors, the Whole Earth Nature School was perfect. I joined the Coyote Kids! after school program located at Edgewood Elementary School as an informal, short term volunteer in order to observe through direct participation. I attended on consecutive Thursdays, being that the program is on a once-a-week schedule. Regular volunteers are required to attend a free, four-hour training session that is offered once a season (roughly sixteen weeks); however, because of my unique circumstance, Matt Bradley, co-founder of the Whole Earth Nature School, was happy to make an exception and allow me to jump right in. My initial intention had been to try and be an invisible observer because I did not wish to inconvenience the instructor of the Coyote Kids! program or dramatically change the learning dynamics with my presence, but Mr. Bradley changed my approach when he replied to one of my emails saying,
“We love to share about what we do. However, nature isn’t a spectator sport. If you were to attend the programs I think you would get a much better sense of what is happening by getting in and participating at some level. I would leave the specifics up to the program instructors, but if you come to our program, be prepared to get wet and dirty.”
Following Mr. Bradley’s instructions, I biked to Edgewood in Carhartt pants and a rain jacket, waiting to meet Char, the instructor, and six Coyote Kids! students by a clump of large boulders located near the elementary school at 2:45.
All in third grade, there were five boys and one girl, which is a much smaller group than the typical size of twelve students. Char expressed great enthusiasm for the small group as she checked their names off of her attendance list. Later, I realized that this was because the Whole Earth Nature School’s educational method is very individualized and adaptive. A smaller group allows the instructor to give more attention to each student, but this attention did not manifest itself in increased instructor-student interaction. Instead, Char was able to encourage lots of focused conversation and cooperation between the students themselves. In addition, the small group made it easier for her to strategically incorporate each child’s interests and strengths into the day’s activities.
After giving the students a chance to use the bathroom and fill up their water bottles inside the elementary school, we walked a couple hundred meters away up to the edge of the forested hill where we would spend the rest of the day. We played a short name game to get to know each other a little, as it was the first day of the sixteen week program. Before entering the woods, Char wanted to review some of the safety issues. She asked the group of kids, “Can you tell Jackson about the hazards that are in the forest?”
One of the boys burst forth with his answer, “English ivy and poison oak!”
Another boy looked at me and added, “Snowberries. They’re poisonous if you eat them, but great for washing hands.” I was amazed at the ease with which the students were able to recall past information. Throughout the day, I learned a great deal from the children, as they shared their knowledge about nature: plant identification and uses, local scat identification, bird call recognition, etc. Their enthusiasm for learning and sharing was infectious.
Char let one of the students lead our group into the forest on one of the many trails. Eventually, we would all stop in a small clearing near the top of the wooded hill to complete our first “dirt time” assignment, which I will explain later on, but for the first hour of our time in the forest, we walked without an explicit goal. Right as we entered the woods, Char stopped the children and pointed to some leafless shrubbery. She asked if any of them knew what it was, and one of the students said he thought it was Poison Oak. Char went on to ask why he thought it was poison oak, to which there was little reply (Poison Oak is more easily identified by its leaves). At this point, she beckoned the children to come near and observe some distinctive features. Continuing a short way up the trail, we paused and sat on several logs to eat a quick snack. As we were sitting, two of the students were very talkative, moving around and playing with small sticks. One of the two noticed a fungus growing on the large, evergreen tree near us. Very excited to have found the fungus, he asked Char what it was called. This time, she did not know, but instead, she asked him what kind of tree it was growing on. He and the other students guessed many names, but to no avail. Char indicated the bark and asked the students to describe their observations. The young girl in our group said it looked like a puzzle, with lots of small pieces nicely fitting together. The other students agreed, contributing a few of their own comments. Char, satisfied with their efforts, told them that she thought the tree was a Ponderosa Pine. When one of the children asked about a different tree further along the trail, Char initiated a similar, group-reinforced learning exercise, and the kids discovered it to be a Douglas-fir.
Skipping ahead to “dirt time,” this was the part of the day when the children were loosely guided through their first journaling assignment. Normally, the students are supposed to complete “dirt time” assignments as homework; however, on the first class day they worked together on it so that they could receive some instruction from Char before having to try it on their own in the coming weeks. As we sat together in a clearing, Char pulled out six “dirt time” journals, complete with matching pencils, as well as a field guide to birds of the northwest, flipping to the page about the Stellar’s Jay. Although all of the students were energetic and talkative during most of the day (their high energy suited the active learning in the forest), they were all able to calm down and focus on “dirt time.” After listening to Char’s reading of the field guide, the children expressed curiosity about the Blue Jay, another bird that they are familiar with. A short discussion comparing the two birds followed. Then the students began sketching the Stellar’s Jay in their journals to help them remember distinctive features. Under their sketches, Char prompted the six children make a few notes about the Stellar’s Jay:
-habitat is coniferous forests/oak woods
-only crested bird in PNW
-eats insects, fruit, nuts
Effective peer group reinforcement was evident as the children complimented each other’s sketches.
Once everyone had put away their journals in their backpacks, Char rallied for the group’s attention in order to begin the final activity of the day. Char pretended to be a deer, and we had to silently stalk her, pretending to be cougars. She crept down a trail leading back to Edgewood Elementary School, and every time she thought she could hear us following her, she turned around. Everyone had to stand perfectly still until Char resumed walking. If she noticed movement, she would call out the name of the culprit and send him or her back to the starting point. The game ended when one of the children was able to sneak up and touch Char without making any sound loud enough to cause her to turn around. At this point, one of the children took on Char’s role as the deer and continued walking out of the forest. The game was meant to be fun for the kids, but it also taught them to think like native animals and to have great self control and patience. This is the beauty of outdoor learning; it is full of fun, but also a rich way for kids to learn valuable lessons.
It hardly seemed like two hours had passed, but at 4:35, the day was almost over. We meandered back over to the boulders where we had begun, and Char let the kids run around wildly for a minute to burn off some energy and refocus. Finally, Char read us a story from a picture book about a bird, sticking to the theme. During this time, parents came to pick up their children. Char had each parent sign out his or her child using the attendance sheet until all of them were gone by around 4:45.
The following week, I returned to the Coyote Kids! program to find that Char had been temporarily replaced, due to illness, by another instructor (a co-founder of the Whole Earth Nature School) named Rees. This was an opportunity for me to see which educational methods and values would be consistent, and which methods and values would vary, depending on the instructor. The day was structured almost identically, but the activities we filled it with were different from the previous week’s.
Not needing to review hazards of the forest and learn each other’s names, Rees started us off with the wolf-honoring song that was passed to him by Gilbert Walking Bull of the Lakota tribe. He explained that the song is about moving sacredly, and he asked several of the students if they knew anything about the word, sacred. He then asked me what I knew of the word, giving me a chance to contribute. The children were more rambunctious than usual, having a difficult time staying with the intellectual conversation, so Rees called them closer together and pulled out piece of paper with the lyrics to his song. He began to sing loudly, and then he asked the rest of us to repeat after him. Learning to sing a song in the Lakota language was difficult, but the children eventually joined in, as we repeated the verses four times through.
Rees pointed to a hill with several houses and many trees and asked the students how they thought a wolf would walk down from the top. One of them offered that the wolf would stay near the trees and the shadows. Rees agreed, adding that a wolf would stay near the edges. Again, rallying the rambunctious group, Rees beckoned them over to the familiar wooded hill. He then asked them to try and walk like a wolf, in a sacred manner, as if massaging the back of mother earth. Following his demonstration, the children gave it a go. Now they were ready to begin the main activity of the day.
Earlier, Rees had walked through the forest, leaving stick drags and boot marks here and there to create a trail, while also checking to make sure that the forest would be safe (checking for loose and broken branches in the trees from the ice storm several weeks before). Our goal, as a group, was to retrace his steps and find a large ‘X’ that he left somewhere in the woods. This was not an easy task, and the students needed lots of hints at the beginning of the tracking exercise, but as they went on, their ability to identify Rees’s particular tracks, as well as their ability to cooperate, improved significantly. As we were tracking, Rees strategically used each situation to create learning opportunities, such as when the children strayed off the trail and came upon a budding plant that interested them. Rees helped them to try and identify the plant, although he never gave them a direct answer. He also paid attention to the children’s behavior toward each other, looking for opportunities to teach social skills. For instance, when one a boy excitedly pointed out one of Rees’s tracks, another boy replied by saying that he’d already seen it, in such a way that was obviously discouraging to his peer. Rees addressed the situation calmly by reminding him that we were all working together, and that we needed to be positive and uplifting toward one another. The children continued on peacefully until they found the ‘X’.
Lastly, instead of doing a “dirt time” assignment, Rees told a story about one of his favorite “sit spot” experiences (a “sit spot” is an exercise where one finds a place to sit quietly and observe in nature—a sort of meditation). His story was meant to teach the students about how exhilarating a “sit spot” could be, as they were supposed to try the activity on their own as homework. When Rees’s story was finished, we all stood up and walked back to Edgewood, where parents had begun to arrive.
Having participated in two Coyote Kids! sessions, I can identify five main components of the program. The first has to do with safety and well being. This was evident during both days. The instructors reviewed potential hazards, walked through the forest before leading children into it, and attended to the children’s social and emotional health, such as when Rees intervened between the two boys during the tracking activity. The second component has to do with the deceptively loose curriculum, as instructors plan 70% of the day’s activities while only expecting to complete around 50% of them. The third component is related to the second, having to do with the improvisational teaching method. It was clear that the instructors were reading each situation, letting the children lead, and strategically adapting their interests to teach the target skills (such as tracking, bird language, mammal studies, and sensory awareness) in an opportune way. The fourth has to do with active learning, which takes up the majority of the day. The natural, outdoor environment fits the natural and adaptive educational approach, as well as the children’s natural desire to move and play and fully use their senses. The fifth component has to do with the still and quiet portion of the program, when the children are seated, listening to the instructor teach (tell stories) or writing in their journals. This is when the children have a chance to reflect upon what they have learned during the day—a time when they can let their new knowledge settle in.
The Coyote Kids! children are building a close relationship to their environment, as they learn through their interaction with it. More than anything, I think that the instructors try and let nature do the teaching. I felt that Char and Rees were really just guiding the children to learn from each other and from their environment, rather than directly filling the children with their own knowledge. There was an emphasis on process over final destination. I saw this in the ease with which the instructors could adapt their approach, as they were not stressed about doing things a certain way and reaching certain ends. If an opportunity presented itself in the form of the children’s interests or in the form of some unforeseen aspect of the constantly changing outdoor classroom, the instructors did not fight against it. Rather, these opportunities were embraced and effectively used to teach students valuable outdoor and life skills. My experience as an informal volunteer and observer was eye-opening to the possibilities of outdoor education. I was encouraged to see so much enthusiasm on the part of the instructors and the students involved, and I hope that I will find an opportunity to volunteer for the Whole Earth Nature School in the future.