In part one of my post, I talked about the importance of breaking from narratives about the outdoors that do not serve the communities we teach. What are some next steps we can take toward helping students feel a sense of belonging in the Canadian outdoors?

We can start by reimagining outdoor learning from a stance of cultural responsiveness.

In her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond provides an anti-oppressive and anti-racist framework for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners. While I will even attempt to summarize her entire work, I want to draw your attention to a few key ideas that will help us make our final learning goal actionable.

Based on Hammond’s framework for culturally responsive teaching, here are 6 approaches we can use as outdoor educators to support student well being.

A graphic of a tree that explains different elements of culturally responsive approaches to outdoor learning, such as leveraging representation, recognizing the difference between individualism and collectivism, positionality, and creating supportive, trauma-informed learning spaces.
Culturally Responsive Approaches to Outdoor Learning, inspired by Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

1. Know and Own your Privilege

To assume a culturally responsive stance, it is important to be aware of your own social position in the outdoors. Explore the following questions:

What is your relationship with the land you inhabit?

What is your proximity to power?

How might you use your understanding of your intersected identities to rethink the way you plan and program for learners?

You can use tools like the Wheel of Power and Privilege to reflect on your social position so you can be better prepared to practice compassion and listen openly to others, especially the students you work with.

2. Leverage Representation to reduce social and emotional stress

Studies over the last 20 years indicate that historically, racialized and marginalized groups are underrepresented in the outdoors. As a kid, I remember reading the popular story of outdoor survival, Hatchet, and then still seeing it taught in schools as a much older educator. Does anyone here know that book? It’s absolutely riveting – but there are lots of other great choices to offer students in today’s increasingly diverse publishing world.

Representation matters, and when students see and hear stories where they can see themselves and their community in an authentic way, the impact is powerful. And I want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of authenticity, because there are many books that will tell the same stories but simply change the colour of the character’s skin, especially in picture books.

The publishing industry, like many other media platforms, have started to diversify its cent. As someone who has rarely ever seen people that look like me show up in books and media, I can personally attest that the shift in representation has been exciting and identity affirming.

3. Recognize the difference between individualism & collectivism and how they show up in different activities.

Let’s move on to the next culturally responsive approach, which is to recognize the difference between individualism and collectivism, and how they show up in different activities.

Individualism is typically associated with Western societies that value traits like independence, competition, and achievement without any outside help. Many cultures outside of Canada are more oriented toward collectivism, which is associated with interdependence and community.

We don’t always realize it, but the games we play and the activities we plan often reflect deep cultural values. Many outdoor activities celebrate and explore individualism, conquest, aggression and competition – which may not be valued by all communities. As a result, some students may experience a lot of discomfort when engaging in such activities.

For a more culturally responsive approach, incorporate outdoor activities that encourage community building, self-reflection, and personal wellness. Providing different options for kids to choose from can go a long way in fostering a connection between your students and the natural world.

4. Broaden your understanding of how different communities interact with the outdoors.

This brings me to the next approach, which is to broaden your understanding of how different communities interact with outdoor spaces.

It is a powerful practice to honour the different ways students and their families already engage with the outdoors as a foundation for learning.

People from different cultures bring different knowledge about the outdoors and the environment. As an educator, it is totally worthwhile to talk with students about what they do with their families outside, what types of clothing they wear in different conditions, and how their communities connect with and interpret nature.

They may camp, play sports, visit the beach, picnic, play music, or gather in large groups. Some communities may cope with environmental challenges differently, especially if they have arrived from a climate that is significantly different from Canada’s.

It is important to understand these differences so we can better respond to student needs and help them to feel more confident in challenging physical environments. Talking about nature in this way also builds cultural competence, and positions students as partners in learning with educators.

5. Make instructions, activities, & information comprehensible and relevant to students and families.

Next, let’s talk about the importance of making instructions, activities, and information comprehensible and relevant to students and families. As a teacher of multilingual learners, I cannot stress enough how important it is to bridge communication gaps between the school and home. In an outdoor learning context, where there is often an element of risk, maintaining clear communication is critical.

In my school board, more than half the learners are multilingual and in the process of acquiring proficiency in English. They often have families that are also learning the dominant languages in Canada. It is becoming increasingly commonplace for students to arrive with limited and interrupted schooling due to environmental events and political crises.

When we are engaging in land based and outdoor activities, it is important to know linguistic variability among students so you can provide appropriate scaffolding to make the learning, information, and instructions comprehensible.

Create a supported environment by pairing or connecting same language speakers during lessons, adjusting the pace of your speaking, or by using physical gestures to help students understand whatever activity you are engaging in.

Communicating with families about outdoor learning in the school in the languages spoken throughout the community may also help families feel more secure and confident when field trips and offsite learning is being offered. They will also know more about the role of outdoor learning in their child’s education.

6. Create supportive, trauma-informed environments that cultivate a desire to explore, play, take risks, and experience awe.

Finally, I want to talk about the last approach: create supportive, trauma-informed environments that cultivate a desire to explore, take risks, and experience awe.

Newcomers to Canada and marginalized communities often experience economic and physical barriers to outdoor spaces and may not come with the same background experiences as their peers. Though outdoor learning challenges that involve risky play are excellent ways for students to build confidence and problem solving skills, it is important to understand that some students may approach the activity much differently based on their lived experience and background knowledge.  Challenge and support students based on their level of safety and comfort.

Take into consideration that some students may have complex relationships with recreation and play. This is something I struggle with personally as a child of immigrants. My parents worked a lot, especially during time of economic uncertainty, and play and relaxation was something I believed needed to be “earned” or “worked for”.

In her book “Permission to Come Home” – which I recommend for any of my East and Southeast Asian colleagues here today – Psychologist Dr. Jenny T. Wang writes about the difficulty many communities have accessing play as a result of learning in childhood that play must be postponed for survival. As educators we can use this awareness to support students in finding their way to play so they can experience its gifts: rest, joy, creativity, and the freedom to explore and experience awe in nature.

Finally, with any activity, know your learner, especially if they have experienced recent or significant trauma that may impact the way they show up in the outdoor learning environment. Leverage nature as a resource for practicing activities that reduce anxiety or provide an outlet for releasing difficult emotions, such as meditation or other sensory activities.


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