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Into the Wild Unknown: Cultivating Trusting Relationships Through Outdoor Learning Experiences

By E. Britt Moore

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It was high noon on a muggy summer day, and just like any other Florida summer day, the heat and humidity were relentless. Early afternoon rain showers typically brought relief from the sweltering heat, but on this day there was not a rain cloud in sight. Our slog through waist-deep swamp water had been like hiking through a sauna. The trek had begun to take an exacting toll on all of us. Jason, our team leader, started to slow the pace and we soon came to a stop. We all seized upon the chance to enjoy a much needed break and I reveled in this opportunity to take in my surroundings.

Glancing out over the vast expanse of wetland made me realize just how far from civilization we were. The wetland was primordial; had it not been for a cell tower in the distance you could easily be fooled into thinking that you stepped thousands of years into the past. I was seeing the land as it must have looked when the first indigenous peoples arrived. That moment of awe and wonderment, however, was short-lived. Although the murky water made it impossible to see down to my boots, the noon sun did offer a glimpse into the upper water column; and as I stared into the tinted water I soon noticed the undulating body of a giant leech swimming slowly past me. I turned my attention to a nearby cypress knee; and in doing so caught glimpse of the unmistakable bulky form and triangular head of a water moccasin. As I began to take even closer notice of my surroundings the reason that Jason had come to a stop became glaringly apparent, and it was at that moment that I knew vampiric worms and venomous vipers were the least of my worries. 

There was a sinking feeling in my chest when I first spotted the unmistakable outlines of alligator heads in the open depression that lay ahead. My full attention was now focused squarely on the large, flat heads that began to disappear into the murky water. Panic began to take hold as thoughts of an unseen alligator pulling me under raced through my mind. Jason motioned for us to follow him up to the edge of the depression so we could make our way around the deep waters. This actually brought us even closer to the gators than we were before. He calmly explained that the alligators were diving because they were afraid of us; apparently the upright human form is imposing to a creature that spends its life prone. He went on to explain that as long as we steered clear of the alligator nests we had nothing to fear. The route up to and around the depression was our best chance at avoid the gator nests. With a little bit of trust, and a lot of trepidation, I pushed ahead.

Our sacred duty as educators hinges on one essential thing: trust. The cornerstone of every nurturing classroom is trust; this is doubly true for outdoor classrooms. Expeditions into the outdoors are a journey into the unknown for many of our students. While typical outdoor classroom expeditions may not always be as exotic as my hike into Florida’s sub-tropical wetlands, they are nonetheless environments in which our students may not always be fully comfortable. And, for an ever increasing population of urbanized students, any venture into wild areas brings with it a substantial fear of the unknown. 

As educators, particularly those of us responsible for young children, we exalt the myriad values and lessons that outdoor learning brings. However, we may not always recognize that many of our students are afraid of the outdoors. Creatures that are innocuous to us, such as earthworms and dragonflies, may be sources of fear and anxiety to our students. Careful, guided exposure quells these fears and opens our students to a lifetime of self-discovery and self-guided learning. These transformative experiences, however, cannot happen unless children can fully trust in the information that we give them about the outdoors, and completely trust us as leaders and role models that have their best interests at heart, refuse to ever expose them to a harmful situation, and are compassionate in response to the initial wariness that they may have of the outdoors.

As the aphorism goes, trust is hard to gain and easy to lose. Trust goes a long way toward helping our students achieve things that they previously thought impossible. The reason I was able to go into that swamp, with all of its potential dangers, was because I implicitly trusted the person that led me there. I had known Jason for several years, since the days when he was both my teacher and coach. He had earned my trust through his words, actions and steadfast commitment to the complete well-being of those in his charge. As a teacher his actions were always tough when it came to his students slacking off; however, he was always fair, compassionate and consistent. The same could be said of his actions as a coach. He never played favorites with his students or athletes, and when he gave his word it stood for something. In short, I trusted him as a mentor because his actions showed time and again that he was a trustworthy person.

I invite early childhood educators who teach outdoors to adopt the mentoring practices thatJason used:

Establish Trust—This is foremost among mentoring practices. Establishing yourself as a trustworthy person takes dedication, commitment and time. Practices that we teach our children such as honesty, showing respect towards others, being kind and empathic, acknowledging and taking responsibility for our own mistakes—all of these are practices for which we must set the example. These practices help foster a sense of trust and show our students that we abide by the same expectations that we demand of them; a trustworthy person practices what they preach! Being firm, fair and consistent when disciplining our students is also an essential part of establishing trust; this shows our students that we care about their growth, that we appreciate their intrinsic worth, and that we value them all equally and without prejudice. 

Do Not Make Assumptions—Facts that are common knowledge for us may not be obvious to our students. For example, Jason, who grew up in rural Iowa, had a different knowledge set than I did growing up on the south side of Chicago. Facts that were obvious to Jason when he was a student—such as which way is North, what poison ivy looks like, which type of shoes to wear on a hike—were not part of my common knowledge growing up in the city. Jason took the time to explain concepts to his students, many of which were from backgrounds that were very different than his own. Jason’s attention to detail and determination to not assume a priori knowledge on the part of his students helped lay a solid foundation for successful outdoor learning ventures.   

De-mystify the Outdoors—As mentioned previously, our students may have pre-conceived notions about the outdoors, some of which are based on negative and non-factual beliefs. Practices such as sharing oral, written, and/or video accounts of real-life positive outdoor interactions can help dispel some of the myths and fear surrounding the outdoors. 

Embrace Adventure—Enthusiasm is contagious! Share your excitement about the outdoors. Your excitement need not only be limited to the familiar organisms such as giant oak trees or large, charismatic mammals. Taking the time to celebrate and explore small natural wonders such as mosses, lichen and fungi can go a long way in helping students foster a deeper understanding of nature and broaden their sense of adventure to include the parts of the natural world that are not so readily obvious.  

Encourage Students to Share Their Nature Experiences—Sharing positive nature experiences with others can be empowering for many of our students. Encourage practices that allow students to reflect further on their outdoor learning experiences. These practices can include keeping nature diaries, creating art and poetry inspired by outdoor experiences, or speaking about nature experiences in public forums such as after school events or county fairs.

Jason taught me that leeches were harmless; they are actually used by doctors the world over to treat circulatory ailments. They made my skin crawl, but I did not need to fear them. Jason trained me in recognition and behavior of poisonous snakes: the water moccasin is dangerous when cornered, but it is not to be feared when given the proper amount of space. The same is true of alligators. The trust that I placed in the words, abilities and commitment of my teacher and mentor made it possible for me to deal with my anxiety about the “wild unknown.” I never thought that a city person like me could ever go out into the wild and brave the dangers of the swamp, but because I had a mentor who saw potential in me, a mentor that always had my best interests at heart, I was able to push myself farther than I ever thought was possible. 

That terrifying moment waist deep in swamp water was the beginning of my professional life. Not only did I return to the swamp every subsequent summer for the remainder of my college years, I went on to pursue a path as a scientist who studies nature on a daily basis. Now I am the one charged with taking students out into the wilderness, with the hopes that they too will be inspired to engage in outdoor learning experiences that they would not otherwise have considered possible, and in doing so become better professionals, better citizens, and better people.


Author Bio: 

E. Britt Moore is a former high school science teacher and agricultural extension and outreach specialist. Moore is a Ph.D. student at Iowa State University where he studies soils and sustainable agriculture and conducts research on water use efficiency, ecosystem services and climate change adaptation. Moore also works to promote soil science and agriculture to urban youth.