Promising Practices, Sustainability, Teaching

A Walking Curriculum

Outdoor inquiry and imagination

Want to take student learning outside the school walls? Focused walks can be used in any context to develop students’ Sense of Place and to enrich their understanding of curricular topics.

“Two Grade 4 students suddenly stop. Crouching down, unzipped coats hastily pushed behind them, they look closely at the base of a tree in the schoolyard. “Here,” one points eagerly. “This would be a great hiding place for an ant.”

“Yeah,” says the other, “but what about a mouse or a rat? That’s too small! There’s more hiding places over here – come on!” They both take off running. Mr. Reynold’s students have been told to find evidence of the great game of “hide and seek” going on all around them. The students learned that “hiders” may be prey and “seekers” predators. They look carefully, eyes opened to the largely invisible “game” that is played out everywhere in nature.

Yesterday, these same students paired up with their Kindergarten buddies to consider the life in the schoolyard. Wandering out in pairs, they searched for evidence of growth and, afterwards, shared the “breaking news” of what was “growing on.” (See “Two Sample Walks.”)

The Walking Curriculum

The Walking Curriculum1 is a teaching resource for K-12 educators who want to take student learning outside school walls. The 60 easy-to-use walk-focused activities are designed to engage students’ emotions and imaginations with their local natural and cultural communities, to broaden their awareness of the particular places where they go to school, and to evoke their sense of wonder in learning. Walking Curriculum activities can be used in any context to develop students’ sense of Place and to enrich their understanding of curricular topics.

The Walking Curriculum is designed for the educator who is passionate about supporting student learning and dedicated to growing in their practice, but who may not have considered moving outside the school walls to do so. All educators can afford their students the opportunity to connect with the wildness in the world – whether in urban, suburban, or rural settings.

Teachers often have few imagination-focused resources that can develop students’ sense of ecological understanding and at the same time can contribute to their understanding of the mandated curriculum. The Walking Curriculum resource is designed to fill that gap. The proposed walking activities address a wide variety of themes, perspectives, and motivations. For example, students may be asked to find different things (such as shapes, spaces or lines, evidence of growth or change, “the best” hiding places), to change perspectives (imagine being a beetle, a detective, or a visitor from outer space), to encounter the world differently (emphasizing one sense over another or moving through space differently), to seek evidence of human-nature relationships, to identify patterns, or to locate natural or human systems in action. In all cases, the activities are designed to connect Place-based learning activities with cross-curricular goals and to serve as examples to inspire other Place-inspired teaching ideas.

It’s an overcast day when Ms. Rai’s Grade 9 students move their Social Studies learning outdoors. The students are seeking examples of different land uses—in particular how the community caters to cars. Their observations fuel an interesting discussion in class about cultural priorities and values. Their teacher plans for their next walking-based activity to look at walkability in their neighbourhoods. They will be considering how useable, safe, comfortable and appealing different footpaths are for pedestrians and will ultimately suggest improvements. Some of the same students spend time later that day walking with breath – they are taking a mindfulness walk and considering how their bodies move, how the rhythm of their moving bodies and their own in- and exhalations offer them a focus for their attention. They are learning about mental wellness and practicing through outdoor walking.

Schoolyards are often underused resources for learning the curriculum and for developing students’ connections with nature and community. The message within the Walking Curriculum is simple: All educators (not just those who identify as “outdoor educators”) can help students re-imagine their relationship with the natural world wherever they go to school.

Engaging with nature ignites the imagination and fuels human curiosity.2 There is an openness and a complexity in nature that engages our sense of wonder, and a sensuousness that engages the body in learning. I believe outdoor, imagination-focused learning is one way to ensure that our students leave school more curious than when they arrived. This may address a troubling trend of disengagement and boredom for many students as they proceed through school.

Educators’ observations

Educators using the Walking Curriculum say they appreciate how the approach creates a new space for their teaching – they are experimenting, collaborating and discussing these ideas in ways that can support their professional growth. Educators find the Walking Curriculum to be a powerful bridge connecting traditional, “placeless” ways of teaching with an Indigenous worldview that acknowledges human beings learn from the relationships they experience within their human, other-than-human, and more-than-human communities. They are noticing the positive impact that the walks have on students’ mental well-being and their ability to regulate their emotions. And they report that their students’ observational skills are improving and their curiosity increasing – the walks take longer as students more deeply engage and as students are asking more questions, more often. The Walking Curriculum encourages interdisciplinary learning, as educators connect the ideas/learning generated through the walking-based activities to other curricular topics.

Every walk in the Walking Curriculum can bring some aspect of the natural world and related curricular knowledge into focus. With increasing clarity students begin to see the wonder in the “ordinary” world around them.

Re-imagining where students learn

Walking has been called the “magic pill” for wellness as it can positively impact so many aspects of our physical and mental health. Engaging with nature more routinely is also important for saving the planet. Research shows that undergoing meaningful experiences in nature as children can foster the development of a conservation ethic. This is, of course, one of the ultimate goals of Green Schools: students who care about the Earth.

The Walking Curriculum challenges teachers to re-imagine how they teach and it encourages teachers to personally re-connect to Place and community. The Walking Curriculum encourages teachers to “get outside” (physically outside and, figuratively, “outside” by rethinking how they engage their students). Engaging learners in their local natural and cultural contexts may – in part – be as simple as taking imaginatively engaging, inquiry-focused walks.

Two Sample Walks

1. The Hiding Place Walk: What good hiding places can you find? First think about a hiding place for yourself. Next, identify the best hiding places for a raccoon, a mouse, or a spider. Dramatic Tension: A giant life and death drama of “hide and go seek” is going on right now, all around us. Identify things that you think always try to hide. Why? It may be that the “hiders” are “prey” to other animals – they are likely to get eaten! Identify “prey” and “predators” – hiders and seekers.

2. The Growth Walk: What is growing on your walk? How do you know? What are the different ways in which growth appears to you? Role Play: What’s “growing on” in your schoolyard? Like a reporter, give a “breaking news” report about an example of things growing that you observed on your walk.

Photo: Amelia Dare

First published in Education Canada, June 2020

1 G. Judson, A Walking Curriculum: Evoking wonder and developing sense of place (K-12) (KDP, 2018). Also available in French and Spanish. Learn more on imaginED www.educationthatinspires.ca

2 To learn more about imagination’s role in ecological understanding, read G. Judson, Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical strategies for teaching (Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press, 2015); and G. Judson, A New Approach to Ecological Education: Engaging students’ imaginations in their world (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Gillian Judson

Lecturer/Executive Director, Simon Fraser University/Centre for Imagination in Research, Culture and Education

Gillian Judson, PhD, is Executive Director of the Centre For Imagination in Research, Culture and Education (www.circesfu.ca) at Simon Fraser University. Her research and teaching are primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning, with a particular focus on imaginative, Place-based teaching practices.

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