Experiential Education Blog

Fast Ball from Chris Cavert’s Portable Teambuilding Activities

Portable Teambuilding Activities by Chris Cavert is full of experiential games and initiative problems with a wide range of challenge levels. Some can be played for 10 minutes; others need 30 minutes or more. These activities can be used with middle and high school students, college students, and adult groups of all ages and backgrounds. All the activities can be resources to add to powerful and positive pro-social development programs. What makes this book extra special are the personal notes from Chris—sharing what he knows and has learned over the years; experiential nuggets.



Activity Objective: Players are challenged to move a safe tossable object to each person as quickly as possible.

Facilitated Objective: cooperation, communication, brainstorming, problem solving, goal setting, failing forward (trial & error), and phantom rules (false beliefs)

Needs & Numbers: One timing device and one safe tossable object is needed for a group of 8 to 24 players. If game spots (like rope rings or poly spots) are available, have one for each player. However, spots are not required.

Time: 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the level of paradigm shift thinking)



Circle up your group of players for directions (Note: A circle formation is not required for the activity, but don’t reveal this fact). Explain that everyone will stand on his or her spot. If physical game spots are not being used, simply tell everyone that “where you are standing when you catch the tossable object is your spot”—and say no more. (Note: This “spot” concept is an important factor for this activity.)

Once participants are standing on/in their spots, toss the object to someone in the group. Inform the group that this will be a timed activity. The time starts when the first toss is made and stops when everyone is standing in the spot of the player each participant tossed the object to (e.g., if you toss to Peter, you need to end up standing in the spot Peter was standing on when he caught the object).

This activity has turned out to be an interesting discovery. At first the solution seems to be quite straightforward. However, its simplicity “is an outward semblance that misrepresents” (disguises) the true nature of the activity.

The Rules (these should be simply stated):

  1. Every player must toss AND catch the object at least once.
  2. After tossing the object you must occupy the spot of the person you tossed it to.
  3. No two people can occupy the same spot.
  4. (Optional) Tosses can be made to anyone other than the players standing to either side of you.



I have not observed any physical safety issues during this activity as the solution does not require fast movements. However, I have seen some groups get rather frustrated. Be sure to monitor the communication so that you can step in if emotional safety is being compromised.



Some groups may have a few questions before they get started. Most can be answered by referring back to the directions. The answer to questions like, “Do we have to stay in a circle formation?” depend on the situation. I answer based on the amount of time I have for the activity—less restrictions to an activity tend to extend its time to completion.

When I throw the object in to start the game, it is sometimes a random choice; other times, I choose someone who might benefit from a leadership experience. However, this does not guarantee this person assumes the leadership role.

Spoiler Alert! (If you want to try this one first, do not read on.) You might be asking, “What’s the big deal? Seems like a pretty easy task.” Here’s the rub—if players choose to move to the spot of the players to which they have tossed immediately, the activity will not end; it becomes a perpetual loop. Think about it. No spot can be occupied by more than one player, so movement would have to be continuous. Now, look at rule three. It says, “After tossing…” but it does not specify precisely when. So, to complete the activity, following the rules (as far as I have determined to this point), all tosses should be made first AND THEN everyone moves to his or her designated spot and time stops! Hmm, interesting. Have a go. See what you think.



  • What was your initial reaction to the activity after it was presented? Did this reaction change over time? Why?
  • How were you limited during this activity? Who gave you those limits? (Note: Limits other than the rules for the activity could be explored as “phantom rules.” Who sets these rules?)
  • Think back to any of the planning sessions you had, what did they sound like? Look like? How were ideas shared during the planning session(s)? How could the planning session(s) have been more effective?
  • What were some of the challenges you encountered during the activity? What were some of the surprises you encountered? Describe what happened within the group when the challenges and surprises were encountered.
  • Did anyone foresee the solution to this challenge? If so, why was this foresight not shared (or heard)? And if it was heard, why was it not considered?
  • Did anyone feel “tricked” at any time during the activity? Explain how you believe you were tricked? Where do you think this feeling comes from? How might this feeling help you? How might this feeling hinder you?
  • Are we able to foresee the outcomes of all that we plan? (Of course not.) What are some behaviors you would like to consider keeping when unforeseeable instances occur? And, what behaviors would you like to avoid during such instances?



Hand everyone a spot. After the directions are given, have the group decide what configuration they want to make. A circle is still a possibility but not a requirement. I have seen two lines facing each other, which avoids possible complications of rule two as tosses are made across to the other line. A scattered formation is also interesting—no one is directly to the right or left if set up with this in mind.

Fastball can also be a good group goal-setting activity. There have been instances where I impose a goal of a very low time as a way to (hopefully) get the participants to make a shift in thinking.

Strength-Based Teaching: The Power of a Positive Mindset

This week’s post is another set of excerpts from Jennifer Stanchfield’s new book: Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner: Experiential, Brain-Based Activities and Strategies to Engage, Motivate, Build Community, and Create Lasting Lessons. This article combines a discussion of the power of a strength-bases approach and an activity to illustrate it’s application to teaching or training.


Strength-Based Teaching: The Power of a Positive Mindset

Trust people as if they were what they ought to be and you can help them to become what they are capable of being. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Researchers are continuing to find that the most effective social interventions and teaching strategies are those that focus on strengths and assets over deficits. For decades, positive psychologists have recommended that educators work to build the positive attributes that help people thrive rather than focusing on the negative behaviors. Many business and education leaders have been looking in this direction in recent years (i.e., Gallup’s “Strengthsfinder” [Rath & Buckingham, 2007] program and Strengths-Based Leadership, Daniel Pink’s [2009] Drive on intrinsic motivation, and Carol Dweck’s [2006] Mindset: The Psychology of Success).

Proponents of strength-based approaches have popularized the term “grit”—a positive trait based on perseverance, powerful motivation, and passion for long-term goals (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). This kind of perseverance is associated with long-term success in life. Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have conducted studies on the impact of self-control and grit on academic and professional success and how educators can cultivate these traits.

The strengths-based view toward youth development and education is now being recognized on the federal level. In the U.S., federal human service agencies and policy-makers are now replacing deficit focused prevention and social intervention programs that focused on negative behaviors with strengths-based approaches designed to build assets and resources in youth. The “Positive Youth Development” approach is based on longitudinal studies by organizations such as the SEARCH Institute and the National Research Council on the specific physical, cognitive, social, and emotional factors that promote positive development and help youth avoid risks and thrive to become successful, productive members of society.

This research promotes the same connecting ideas we explore throughout this book, including experiential education, social-emotional learning, brain-based learning, and differentiation. It points to factors such as the need for a safe and supportive environment, clear boundaries and expectations, a sense of purpose, competency and mastery, positive relationships with adults and peers, social skills, positive identity, and caring for and service to others.

I believe a strengths-based approach involves a state of mind on the part of the educator to believe the best about their students or participants and an attitude that everyone can succeed, they just might take a different path to getting there than planned. It is a positive approach focused on opportunities, goals, and strategies. The foundational principles of this book are based on a positive, learner-centered belief in the power of groups and individuals to engage in meaningful learning when they are supported and guided in a positive way. Chapter four explores the power of our attitude as educators. For further research around the power of a positive attitude and strengths-based approach to teaching see resources.



Postcard Strength Activity

Purpose/Focus: celebrating/appreciating others, strengths and positive qualities of others, mindset, descriptive language, metaphor/imagery, reflection, community building, communication, citizenship, self-expression, peer interactions, group norms, writing prompt


Materials: postcards, images or objects

In chapters five and nine, we explore how using postcards and metaphoric objects and images can spark introductory conversations and initiate meaningful reflection on learning experiences. This Postcard Strength activity uses this technique as a morale and rapport-building experience that strengthens the whole team. Use this activity with smaller groups that know each other and with participants who are comfortable with group process and sharing with the whole group.

Facilitation Suggestions

  • Ask group members to pick a card that represents a personal strength, a positive quality they bring to the team, or a strength or unique perspective they use in their professional practice (teacher, engineer, nurse, daycare provider, etc.).
  • Then have participants take turns holding up their postcards, and ask their colleagues or fellow students to guess why they chose it.
  • After receiving feedback, ask participants to share how close the group was to guessing why they chose the card. This gives individuals an opportunity to express thoughts about their personal strengths and contributions—another important skill to practice.
  • I often invite participants to write a note about these strengths on the postcard as a reminder and take it with them as a memento. When appropriate, I have also asked them to self-address the postcard, and I send to them at a future date. See chapter nine for more ideas around using postcard reminders.

Outcomes/Reflections: Celebration the personal strengths and contributions of colleagues and/or fellow students is something that doesn’t happen enough in the workplace or at school. In my experience, people have regularly share thoughtful compliments and insights that go beyond the reasons the individual chose the card.

Resources/References: This idea was first suggested to me by a participant in my workshop at the Chewonki foundation. You can find postcards at yard sales and flea markets. Experiential Tools offers “Pick-A-Postcard” postcard sets for educators at www.experientialtools.com.


Differentiated Instruction: Don’t Dismiss It!

This week’s post is another set of excerpts from Jennifer Stanchfield’s new book: Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner: Experiential, Brain-Based Activities and Strategies to Engage, Motivate, Build Community, and Create Lasting Lessons. This article combines a pedagogical concept with an activity to illustrate application to teaching or training.
Differentiated Instruction: Don’t Dismiss It

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. —Abraham Maslow, founder of humanistic psychology

John Dewey and Jean Piaget were both early proponents of what we now call differentiation or differentiated instruction. They believed in a learner-centered approach and thought it was important to consider the unique differences of each learner who comes to the classroom—taking into account his or her own personality, strengths, abilities, challenges, and past experiences—recognizing that, because they are individuals, they will experience lessons differently. Dewey (1897, 1900) and Piaget (1926) believed good educators take this into account and design lessons in a way that allows for, and even embraces, these differences. In his theory of experience, Dewey emphasized that an experience that might be beneficial for one student could be detrimental to another. He advocated that the role of the educator was to be aware of this individuality and use this information to guide learners through lessons in a way that was appropriate for them and in a way that allowed them to take ownership and responsibility for their learning.

Differentiation has, unfortunately, received bad press or been dismissed by some in the education field because it has been misinterpreted as requiring the teacher to create individual lesson plans for each student day in and day out. Carol Ann Tomlinson (2013), a leading modern-day proponent of differentiation, defines it as a commonsense, student-centered, empathetic approach in which the teacher believes, if they know who their students are, they can see the world through their point of view. This allows the teacher to provide leadership and clarity around the goals of lessons. In differentiation, teachers believe that all students can be successful as long as they are willing to work and as long as the teacher is willing to work. Tomlinson points out the connection with brain-based research, emphasizing the importance of a safe and supportive environment along with positive emotional associations to learning. She stresses the importance of having these components in place before focusing on content. Like Judy Willis (2010b), she supports the importance of ongoing feedback and check-ins around learning progress for both students and teachers—what many call ongoing formative assessment. Tomlinson emphasizes the importance of both the educator and student understanding shared goals for learning.

Jennifer Stanchfield Differentiated Instruction
Clearly the principles of differentiation overlap with experiential education philosophy and brain-based learning. All three promote the ideas that learners need to feel connected to and supported by their peers and teachers, that choice and a sense of ownership in learning is essential, and that reflection is key to learning.

The Basic Practice of Differentiation
• Know the individuals in front of you.
• Believe in your students and form caring relationships with them.
• Clarify and create goals with student input—help learners understand what is needed for a successful outcome.
• Plan curriculum that connects with something relevant in the learner’s world.
• Engage actively (physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually).
• Integrate reflection throughout.
• Regularly check in and assess learning, adjusting your plan as needed.
• Teach up with a lesson plan for the most advanced and then adapt lessons to help everyone get there.
• Scaffold lessons (see page 52).
• Vary your route, use multiple modalities to reach learners.
• See yourself as a guide or collaborator in learning and your group as a learning team.
One of the strongest arguments for differentiated instruction is based on what the neuroscience field is telling us about multiple pathways to learning (see page 7)—using different modalities to impart lessons, review material, and check for understanding. This book provides numerous activities and strategies to help educators and group facilitators differentiate or universalize learning experiences in order to meet the diverse needs of learners.

Jennifer Stanchfield Differentiation

Charades Race
Purpose/Focus: active engagement, playful learning, academic review, formative assessment, differentiation, movement, multiple pathways to learning, vocabulary, reflection, social-emotional learning, 21st century skills, communication, collaboration, community building, creative thinking, executive functions, turn taking, self-regulation, focus, fair play, energizer, innovation

Materials: Index cards or paper and pen for facilitator, a clipboard can be helpful. Provide space for teams to spread out around the room.

Facilitation Suggestions
• Put together a list of at least as many concepts or words as there are members on each team.
• Divide participants into groups of 5 or 6, using the Which One? activity on page 65.
• Some team members might have to act twice, and some might choose not to act and send another in their place (this built-in choice helps make the game work, though most people choose to act).
• Give groups time to strategize. For example, they can share charades signs for better communication.
• Have the first actors get their word from the facilitator. When teammates guess the first word, the next actor goes to get the next word.
• The first team to get through the whole list wins.
• In order to keep track of which word each team is currently trying to guess, make sure to have the new actors tell you the word their team guessed last.
• It can be fun to have teams show how they guessed/acted out some of the more difficult concepts. Most groups spontaneously start asking and sharing with the other teams about how they communicated more abstract ideas. This can lead to meaningful reflective discussions around the content, communication, and creativity.

Charades Race works well for characters in a book, events, or theoretical concepts.
Enhance learning and ownership by giving participants the opportunity to lead the game. Ask if there are participants in the group who feel like they have enough knowledge of the concepts to come up with a review list for the game. This works best played in a second round when they understand the game. Teachers are often surprised by who volunteers and find out through the game who has mastery of the content.

Resources/References: This activity was inspired by a charades relay game, FEACH, I learned from my colleague Karl Rohnke who credits his co-author of Quicksilver Steve Butler for inventing the “Fast Foods, Electrical Appliances, and Comic Book Heroes” pantomime game.

For complete bibliography/references see Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner Wood N Barnes Publishing Company.

Create Multiple Pathways to Learning – Another Excerpt from the Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner

This week we are continuing our series of excerpts from our latest book by Jennifer Stanchfield Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner: Experiential, Brain-Based Activities and Strategies to Engage, Motivate, Build Community and Create Lasting Lessons

In this post we pick up on last week’s exploration of brain-based learning to explore “multiple pathways to learning”. This research emphasizes how important it is to engage learners in a subject using a variety of modalities. When multiple senses are used in delivering, practicing, and reinforcing a lesson attention is increased and more neural networks are activated in different regions of the brain. This enhances the brain’s ability to store and retrieve information. As Marvin Minsky said “You don’t truly understand anything until you learn it more than one way.”

Create Multiple Pathways to Learning

The more senses that are used to learn and practice information, the more neural networks are activated and the more ways the brain is able to store and retrieve information. Neuroscientists emphasize that long-term memory storage requires spaced repetitions of input (Kandel, 2006 cited in Willis, 2013). Multiple strategies for learning and practicing information such as moving and talking, active reflection, art, and writing not only increase learners’ interest and attention but also create multiple pathways to learning. Sam Wang states, “Memories are reinforced and even transferred to other brain regions than the place where they are stored for the first time. This movability of memory means that memory can change with time—and be strengthened with repetition. Like I tell my students: cells that fire together, wire together” (personal communication, April 19th, 2014).

The more ways something is learned and practiced, the easier it is to recall and access that information. This book offers a number of experiential strategies for engaging learners in ways that use multiple senses to learn, practice, and reflect upon information to increase multiple pathways to learning.

Here is an example of one of my favorite activities that uses multiple senses to explore a topic or reflect on information learned:
Graffiti Wall
Purpose/Focus: active engagement, hook, emotional connection to content, “first five” or “do now,” transition, conversation starter, community building, empathy, discussion/writing prompt, reflection, collaboration, differentiation, multiple pathways to learning, creativity/imagination, group norms
Material: butcher or flip-chart paper, masking tape, markers, crayons, etc.

Kasey Errico shared with me that she and her colleagues use this activity to encourage creative thinking prior to staff meetings. I find this effective with teacher groups, students, and leadership programs for reflection, to initiate conversations about a subject, or to review material.

Facilitation Suggestions:
• Tape lengths of paper on the walls or a table top.
• As participants enter the room, hand them magic markers or crayons to represent a can of spray paint and ask them to imagine that they are graffiti artists who have been invited to express their thoughts on the topic at hand using words and symbols.
• As with graffiti, others may add to and/or comment on these musings.
• The activity can be done silently to increase focus.
• For longer courses or workshops, participants can add graffiti throughout their time together (see chapter nine).

I like the blend of self-reflection and group collaboration found with this activity. Often people will more readily express their thoughts through artwork than verbal means. It is non-intimidating to those who don’t consider themselves “artists” because they can blend words and images. Group members can choose their level of participation and learn as much from contributing as they do from observing other’s posts. The graffiti becomes an “artifact” of the group’s thoughts and experiences and can generate meaningful dialogue and reflection. Doing this silently (a challenge with middle-schoolers), increased the reflective aspect and focus during the activity. See chapter nine for specific examples of using this and other creative expression activities for reflection.

What is Brain-Based Learning? Excerpt from our Newest Book Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner

Jennifer Stanchfield’s new book Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner connects the dots between experiential education, brain-based research, differentiation, social-emotional learning, 21st century career readiness, and a strength-based attitude toward teaching and group facilitation. Jen brings these enduring ideas and the research that supports them together, offering practical and meaningful ways to engage learners and create lasting lessons.

The heart of this book is to bring joy to learning and teaching; educators will find ways to build respect and compassion for learners and increase a sense of empowerment, belonging and fulfillment in learning. Over the next few weeks, we will be offering a few excerpts from the book. These posts explore these enduring educational principles and the science that supports them as well as practical activities and strategies to apply these ideas in your teaching or group facilitation.

IEILcover_webExcerpt One:

It is an exciting time to be an educator; especially one who believes in experiential approaches to teaching and asserts that an educator’s role is to take into account the whole person, preparing him or her for an active and productive role in society. A century ago, educational philosophers and scientists such as John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Lev Vygotsky, and Jean Piaget put forward the idea that learning should be more than just imparting knowledge.

These philosophers promoted what I think of as a commonsense approach, emphasizing that successful teaching and learning require meaningful experiences and interaction with others in an environment that intentionally encourages collaboration, problem solving, inquiry, and reflection. They believed effective teaching influences the whole person— emotionally, physically, socially, and intellectually—and that educators should engage learners in relevant experiences that relate and connect to real life, preparing them to be active members in a democratic society. These ideas put forward nearly a century ago are now being supported by scientific studies of the brain and how people learn, retain, and apply information.

What is Brain-Based Learning?
How can information from the field of neuroscience impact my teaching?

There is no scientific study more vital to man than the study of his own brain. Our entire view of the universe depends on it. —Francis H. C. Crick (from Scientific American, September, 1979)

The brain-based approach to teaching aims to help educators find the best research on teaching, learning, and the brain and apply that knowledge in their day-to-day practices to improve learning experiences and outcomes. In the past, there has been minimal focus on brain development, structure, and function as part of education training. Interaction between educators and neuroscientists has been rare.
Brain-Based approaches to teaching and group facilitation can be defined as the intentional use of strategies that are based on recent research on the brain and learning.
Educational Neuroscience is known by many as the field of mind, brain, and education. This field pulls together scientific research from neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, education theory, education technology and other fields to promote evidence informed teaching approaches. Proponents of this field believe that research on the brain and learning can be applied to education in a practical and meaningful way (Goswami, 2004).

During the past 20 years, especially the last ten, brain researchers have been able to study the living brain in ways they never have before, using MRI, brain mapping, and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans among other new technologies. They can view what happens in the brain when information enters and is categorized into short and long-term memory. Judy Willis (2013), a neurologist, teacher, and one of the leaders in this emerging field of educational neuroscience states: “Scans can literally show learning taking place.”
Research has dramatically changed what we know about the brain’s chemistry, structure, and function. Proponents of brain-based teaching and the emerging field of educational neuroscience believe it is imperative for educators to have an understanding of brain structure and function in order to improve their practice and help people understand how they learn best. There has been concern on the part of neuroscientists that information from brain research can be oversimplified or misrepresented in the educational field (Sousa, 2010). The growing educational neuroscience field aims to open the lines of communication between brain researchers and educators, bringing the best of quality research to front line educators (Learning & the Brain Society). This emerging field combines brain-research, educational psychology research, and other pedagogical research that suggests best practices for educators.

In Boston, at the 2013 Learning & the Brain Conference, experiential methods were referred to as a best practice in many workshops and keynote sessions. Though there is still much that is unknown about the brain, what has been learned supports and informs experiential education philosophy and methods. These findings from neuroscience are not just confirmatory, but explanatory because they can help educators make better choices about how to structure and facilitate learning experiences.

As an experiential educator, the methods I use to be more intentional and deliberate in designing my lessons are based on research on neuroplasticity, multiple pathways to learning, attention and retention, the impact of movement and emotions on learning, and the relationship between executive functioning and social-emotional learning. These findings from neuroscience give support to and align with the long-held philosophical tenets of experiential education and explain the importance of practices such as differentiation and social-emotional learning.

In chapter one, we explore the basics of these topics and their relevance to educators. This lays the foundation for the practical approaches used to enhance learning throughout this book. Table 1.1 on pages 16-17 is a summary of how experiential education principles connect with the brain-based tenets explored in this chapter.










Look for upcoming posts in this series offering experiential, brain-based activities to increase engagement, enliven academic training curriculum, and differentiate instruction. For more information about Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner: Experiential, Brain-Based Activities and Strategis to Engage, Motivate, Build Community and Create Lasting Lessons click here.

Developing an After School Nature Club – Excerpt From Connecting Children To Nature

The following is an excerpt from Connecting Children to Nature: Ideas and Activities for Parents and Educators, edited by Michael Bentley, Michael Mueller, and Bruce Martin, “Chapter Eleven: After School Nature Clubs” by Ryan Brock and David Crowther.
Connecting Children to Nature Image

Components of Nature Club

Nature Club was organized to help upper-elementary students develop a stronger environmental identity. Clayton (2003) proposed an environmental identity is one part of the way in which people form their self-concept: a sense of connection to some part of the nonhuman environment, based on history, emotional attachment, and/or similarity, that affects the ways in which we perceive and act toward the world (pp. 45-46).

The club had to create a sense of belonging for the students and needed to last long enough to foster this environmental identity development. Therefore, we decided that Nature Clubs should have a 9-week time frame. The clubs combined both in-school and out-of-school learning characteristics, where nine formal sessions take place in a classroom after school once a week. Three Saturday experiences are offered along with this for students and their families to develop more intimate contact with natural settings. The classroom sessions are anything but static and allow participants hands-on, interactive time with elements from the natural world. Social mechanisms are also incorporated to encourage students to learn from each other’s experiences and knowledge.

The 9 weeks are broken down into three broad concepts for exploration: mammals, birds, and habitat or physical environment. We teach 9 mini-lessons, 3 for each broad concept, with an emphasis on inquiry and the construction of knowledge through environmental interactions. The lessons are not grouped and alternate between the three concepts already mentioned so that students can see how they interact with each other. Activities include animal calls, nature photography, hiking, wildlife and plant identification, animal tracking, building birdhouses, monitoring and collecting data, role-play, map reading, rock and mineral identification, and more (See book for details).

I mostly attribute the club’s success to the inclusion of nature notebooks and our routine of taking time during the last 10 to 15 minutes of each session for students to reflect and write about a teacher-poised concept related to nature. They are asked to first think about the concept and how they relate to it. Then they write for 10 minutes in their nature notebook. The last few minutes are used to share their thoughts with the rest of the class (on a volunteer basis), allowing for mixed opinions and ideas on the topic. This reflective writing activity is vital to helping students take current and past experiences, along with newly formed ideas and beliefs, and merge them together as memories (Smith & Williams, 1999). The notebooks are collected each week by the instructor, and comments are written inside. Sometimes students need a little motivation to stay on task with this activity. We found that a “Nature Award” can do the trick. These awards include little raffle tickets for nature prizes and work exceptionally well as motivation for students who work diligently on reflecting. In fact, after doing this for two sessions, all of the students in one group had at least one raffle ticket taped to their Nature Journal Notebook. It is amazing how excited kids get over pieces of magnetite, old deer antlers, track identification sheets, donated camouflage hats with random logos, camouflage book covers, and other items that they regard as recognition for their achievements.

Keeping Up the Momentum

Finally, consider how you might keep the energy and excitement of your program or club going from year to year:
• Find a bulletin board in your school or classroom to post photos of children participating in nature-based activities.
• Ask the school principal to include your program on the line-up for assemblies or prep rallies. Have club members take responsibility for presenting different aspects of the Nature Club.
• Visit other teachers’ classrooms to promote the Club. Involve shy students, have them demonstrate the animal calls, belching out loud sounds that intrigue other students.
• Use an animal call as your attention-getting device on the playground. But be prepared to answer the “What was that?” question from 400 curious students!
• Have students write articles for local publications like the newspaper. Sportsmen groups, especially those who helped you with your program, love to include students’ write-ups in their newsletters.
• Popularize camouflage. Camouflage is Nature Club’s trademark, stemming from the idea that we can see more wildlife if it can’t see us. Camouflage cloth makes great bulletin board background. Classroom blinds can be accented with camouflage. Have a “Camouflage Day” once a month, with students wearing camouflage, even if it is pink! Imagine how much fun it is to get everyone in your school in camouflage.

There are many organizations and governmental programs with policy efforts for protecting nature. On-the-ground efforts however boil down to dedicated individual educators and family members who share some of the responsibility and time for helping children connect with the natural world around them. The dedicated volunteers who engage with youth can make a big difference in moving them beyond media-centered lives, and they are rewarded with an enormous sense of satisfaction. The more basic, emotional connectedness of nature is unforgettable.

We conclude with a quote from a Nature Club student that reflects the need for nature bonding and environmental studies:
Nature Club’s been really fun. Just what you bring in is really cool and it is fun to learn about that stuff because you never really get to see anything like that. Like anytime really. —Turner

Engaging Teens in School Gardens: An Excerpt From Our New Book Connecting Children to Nature

The following is an excerpt from Connecting Children to Nature: Ideas and Activities for Parents and Educators, edited by Michael Bentley, Michael Mueller, and Bruce Martin, “Chapter Sixteen: Engaging Teens in Learning Outdoor” by George Ambrose.

Engaging Teens in School Gardens
Our local community has an Economic Development Council (EDC) that, among other projects, started a local Farmers’ Market on Saturdays during the growing season. As it turned out, however, none of the farmers who ended up selling produce at the market were local—they drove in from New Jersey. The EDC approached our high school environmental club to see if there might be interest in a school garden with produce being sold at the Farmers’ Market.

When the proposal was presented to our environmental club, students responded enthusiastically. Pursuing it further, we learned that the expectation was that the garden would be on the school grounds, located only 5 blocks from the Farmers’ Market. What the EDC had not considered—and what we soon found out—was how complicated it is to get anything new started in a public school, especially when it involves the use of school grounds and a water source!

The students, however, were not to be deterred. In order to get the project underway our club had to get all the “stakeholders” to buy-in, including the principal, the custodian, the outside grounds-keeper, and even the football coach. And, of course, we had to have school board approval. This is where making connections with relevant organizations and experts really helped. Community resources are invaluable! We were fortunate to receive logistical support from the state horticultural society’s community gardens program, benefitting from their years of involvement in urban gardens.
Thus the garden project became a major venture for our environmental club. In the planning phase, the garden location was narrowed to three sites, but only one was near a water source. That location was on the edge of the football practice field, adjacent to the fence surrounding the tennis courts. Once we decided on the site, students presented their proposal to the School Board Property Committee and finally our garden project received approval.

The site itself was covered with turf grass that was regularly treated with both herbicides and pesticides. We asked students in an advanced science class to analyze the toxicity of the chemicals that had been applied. After getting those results and studying our options, the students decided to build raised beds above ground level. The students constructed 8 raised beds in the spring and filled them with untreated topsoil.

Our club was fortunate to have the help of a college student intern, provided by the EDC. Her background included experience in farming, and she and a number of her friends helped build the raised beds. While the beds were built in May, we waited until June (when school was over) before planting. We soon found out that waiting so long to plant was a mistake. Sufficient harvest for the market was not available until mid-July. We should have planted earlier. A lesson learned.
As the garden project proceeded, club members debated putting a fence around the garden for keeping out ground hogs, squirrels and rabbits. They finally decided on a six-foot wood post wire fence with a gate. As a concession, we keep the gate unlocked. There had been no vandalism or theft, as some students feared. A surprise to us all has been that several school neighbors (and teachers) have asked if they could have their own garden plots. At this writing students are making plans to add these additional spaces.

Another issue for the students to solve regarding the school garden was access to water. Initially the students connected hose links to make a 300-foot (90 meter) hose, but after 2 weeks, that setup malfunctioned. The unusually dry summer in our area made matters worse. The garden badly needed a reliable source of water. Fortunately, a neighbor whose house is adjacent to the school stepped forward and offered to supply our garden from his outside faucet using a hose through the fence. We later returned his welcome contribution with bags of fresh produce and an end-of-season letter for a tax credit.

When the club finally did get its produce to market, the school garden project proved to be a big success. Students in the club designed T-shirts emblazoned with our garden motto “Five Blocks Fresh.” Signs on the garden, the adjacent street, and at the Farmer’s Market spread the word. The students’ produce sold out every week we were there. The “profits” got funneled back to the club so the students could upgrade our equipment and buy seeds and supplies for the next season.

This year the project is refreshed with new tools and beds revitalized with compost mulch. And the students were ready to plant in May! Again, success grew our program and brought a number of new students (with a variety of motivations) into the club, along with community volunteers and further donations for tools and plants.

Another part of this success story relates to our subsequent college intern. She is one of our graduated club members from a previous year. In her first year of college she parlayed her high school environmental club experiences into a paid position as her college’s “Student Garden Coordinator” and then used that job to become our summer intern. This was such a positive experience that she is now rethinking her major. I believe that experiences teens have in extracurricular activities like this school garden project are powerful determiners of what they study academically, and even in making career choices and establishing lifelong interests and pursuits.

Over many years working with youth in our school’s environmental club, I have seen the participating teens become more aware of and knowledgeable about the world around them. Deep understandings of natural cycles, interdependencies, and “systems thinking” lead them to see the relevancy of math and science in their lives. I’ve seen many examples of young people reconnecting with what Rachel Carson calls their “sense of wonder”—about everything from the macroinvertebrates in a stream to the entire planetary ecosystem. It is the sense that the “world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.”

Statue Tag from Chris Cavert

Chris Cavert’s new book Portable Teambuilding Activities (working title) will be available in 2014. The following activity is one of over 60 offerings from this book. Follow us on Twitter (@WNBBooks) for the release date and notices of more Experiential Education postings.


Activity Objective: Avoid being the “IT” during the game while the IT wants to transfer his or her “IT” to someone else.

Facilitated Objective: Explore behaviors related to playfulness, following directions, active engagement/participation, strategizing, risk, challenge with choice, and integrity.

NEEDS & NUMBERS: The only real optional equipment you could use for this one would be boundary markers to indicate the corners of your playing area if you think your group needs these parameters. This one plays well with 12 to 25 participants.

TIME: 10 to 15 minutes

PROCEDURE: The Beta testing of Statue Tag has brought about some interesting discoveries – so, it might not have reached it’s final stages (does any activity ever do?). If you come up with additional considerations for this one, please let me know.

  • Set up a spacious boundary area (using physical markers or simply point out the area) and make sure everyone knows where said boundaries are (after you finish reading this you’ll have a better idea about the space you’ll need).
  • Have your group circle up.
  • You are going to do one of those “blind picks” to determine who will be IT first (if you have more than 15 people playing, I suggest you pick two ITs). Ask everyone to close her or his eyes. Say something like this: “If you are willing to be IT for this tag-type activity – without knowing anything about the game just yet – raise your hand in the air until I tell you all to put them down. I will walk around the outside of the circle and squeeze the left shoulder of the person(s) who will start off being IT. You will be the secret IT to start our game, so don’t tell anyone.”
  • Now, (you the facilitator) walk around the outside of the circle and squeeze a person’s (or persons’) shoulder to indicate they are IT – make sure they feel it. After choosing the IT(s) ask all the players to put down their hands and open their eyes so you can explain the rest of the directions (in this variation, as noted above, the IT(s) have no idea what they are getting themselves into).
  • Here’s how it (and IT) works. Seeing as this is a tag game you are going to ask the players to stay within the boundary area to make it fair.
  • The IT(s) of course does not want to be IT so she or he intends to pass off the IT to someone else by safely tagging another player above the waist.
  • To be SAFE from the IT, non-IT players must stand completely still while making a fun statue-like pose. When players strike such a pose (in order to avoid being tagged) they must also have their eyes closed while they are standing still. If a player opens her or his eyes, she or he must take at least three steps, in any direction, away from where she or he is standing before they are allowed to go into a frozen statue again (in order to be safe from the tag). Taking more than three steps is perfectly legal; taking less steps is not.
  • Now, the player that is IT has strategic options during this game. IT can be a statue just like everyone else. However, IT is allowed to peek while frozen in place hoping to tag an unsuspecting passer-by. Again, tags are “nice” tags above the waist (on an appropriate part of the body – some groups need to know this!). ITs can also simply walk around within the boundary area, eyes open of course, pretending to be “just any other player” and tag someone in passing. In any case, the ITs will need to use cunning and stealth to pass off the IT. Once an IT is NOT IT, she or he follows the not-IT rules of play.

If there are two ITs in the game there is an extra cognitive task for the ITs. If an IT gets tagged by the other IT, the tagged IT is now “double IT.” This means that this double IT must tag two other players before she or he is no longer IT. Yes, this might get a bit confusing, so “the right group at the right time” fits here. If you end up with lots of ITs, ITs just more fun! I’ve also seen games end up with no ITs – something else to talk about. Could a player just be a statue the entire game (statue-by-choice here)? Of course; however, I don’t tell them this ahead of time. I like to see how the game plays out. Again, its something great to talk about in the end.
Make sure to emphasize the point that if a non-IT player’s eyes open she or he must take at least three steps before a safe statue can be made again. Now, the IT could just circle around one player waiting for opened eyes, but, in the spirit of play, this might not be the “playfulest” choice (then again…). You might also ask the group to play through this activity in silence – so as to prevent people calling out the name of the IT when discovered (or you could just ask them not to call out IT’s name). As the facilitator – considering your group – you can decide how you want to frame it.
This has been, for me, a very interesting activity to watch. It seems to go well in rounds of about three to five minutes. There have been times when I have presented a short one-minute game and then ask if anyone needs clarification on the directions. Once we’re clear, we play a longer round.

Since I present Statue Tag as more of a strategic enterprise, I have not (to this date) witnesses any physical safety issues with this one. Also, I have yet to encounter any emotional safety issues beyond some anxiety participants have experienced when they are in the “eyes-closed” portion of the activity – “I got so nervous I almost peed my pants!” (true statement). There is some perceived risk that shows up with closing one’s eyes, but I always watch the crowd and stop the activity if needed.

Initially why were people willing to be IT without knowing what they would be doing?
What “risks” did you encounter in the game?
Did you feel safe during the game? Why? Why not?
Did you ever peek (when not IT), and decide not to move? Why do you think you decided to peek? Why did you decide not to move?
How did it feel to be IT? What strategies did you use to get a tag off?
Did anyone choose to be a statue the entire time? Why? Why not?
What might the IT represent in “real” life? Why would you want to be IT? Why would you not want to be IT?
What “risk” in your life are you avoiding at this time? How much “energy” are you spending avoiding the risk? Is the energy spent worth it or not? What might you do about this situation?

Add foam pool noodle toys, giving each player a noodle toy to tag and add into their statue forms.

Bullying & Learning

Wood N Barnes is very excited to have the new edition of a true classic by Laurie Frank: Journey Toward the Caring Classroom, 2nd Edition! Here is the first of several Experiential Education blogs from that book.

Bullying & Learning

Dear Teacher,
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So, I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human.
Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

~ Author Unknown (cited in Haim Ginott’s Teacher and Child)

As brain research reveals, creating a safe environment, free from threat, is central to learning. It is also the ethical thing to do. Harassment, humiliation, verbal or physical violence, and shame have no place in schools. Youth and adults alike deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. Although this is obvious to educators, there is also much research on teacher attitudes and school climate in regard to bullying.

Defining what is meant by “bullying” is important. This term has become a label that can pigeonhole people and obscure the actual dynamic or relationship between people. Simply calling one party “bully” and the other party “victim” does not change a situation, nor does it necessarily identify what is truly going on; therefore, keying into a definition and reasons for bullying behavior can be helpful. A commonly used definition of bullying is from Dan Olweus: “A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more students.”

People are affected by their relationships and environments, and the quality of those relationships and environments matters. As educators, it is important to view bullying behavior in the context of a social-ecological framework where it is “encouraged and/or inhibited as a result of the complex relationships between the individual, family, peer group, school, community, and culture.” There are many factors that engender negative, unsafe, and even violent actions between students including pain, fear, teacher attitudes, and school climate.

Some students may experience pain in their lives that fosters a fight, flight, or freeze response and causes them to protect themselves by harming others. Brendtro and Larsen in their book The Resilience Revolution cite a Native American proverb that “Hurt people hurt people.” Trauma, poverty, abuse, and rejection cause pain, and people protect themselves from feeling pain. There is even research that shows how social exclusion registers in similar areas of the brain as physical pain.32 Teasing, sarcastic humor, and activities where people are excluded are emotionally hurtful—and maybe even physically so.
There is also a connection between fear and violence. Fear is instinctual and arises from both real and imagined threats. When we feel fear we naturally take a stance toward fight, flight, or freeze. If the fear is caused by severe or constant threat, a person can stay at a heightened state of alertness, which can grow into anxiety and stress disorders including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Prolonged victimization can cause chronic anxiety. Students who already come to school with severe anxiety from other parts of their lives may be a trigger point away from a panic situation, and many times school personnel are unaware of individual circumstances.33 Students in such a state, then, can either be ready targets of harassment or perpetrate violence in response to something that sparks a panic reaction.

An additional connection to fear and violence is the concept of the “other.” Family and cultural beliefs about people who are different teach children to fear others, which can give rise to hate. Robert F. Kennedy famously described this phenomenon in his speech to the Cleveland City Club after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies—to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
Hatred causes a person to objectify others, seeing them as less-than-human. It is then easier to treat “the other” inhumanely.

Another factor to consider is how teacher attitudes affect the prevalence of bullying behavior in schools. Teachers regularly underestimate the number of bullying incidents in school. Many hurtful interactions take place away from adult supervision (e.g., in the halls, on a bus). A teacher may not define many interactions as hurtful but dismiss them as “kids being kids,” or have a narrow definition of bullying behavior as physical attacks while discounting exclusion or verbal attacks. Still others may hesitate to report ongoing victimization for fear that it reflects upon their behavior management skills in their classrooms.

Finally, a related reason students may become involved in bullying behavior is that the school climate and culture support it. Many times, the norms of the classroom or school contain an atmosphere of “pre-bullying,” defined as
1. Behavior that, if escalated, could become bullying. 2. Norms that set the stage for bullying if the behavior becomes intentional, consistent, and abusive (e.g., sarcastic humor, put downs, unconscious use of derogatory terms—many times found in popular culture).

How people are treated is central to school climate and is largely influenced by adult attitudes and actions. Students who are seen as “different” because they have special needs or stand out because they look or act differently are more likely to be victimized by their peers. Adult attitudes and behavior toward these students influences how other students treat them as well. If ignored or left unattended, pre-bullying behavior and norms can easily escalate into a pattern of harassment and abuse.

The year 1999 was pivotal for raising awareness about bullying behavior because of the Columbine school shooting tragedy. Subsequent studies “found that 71% of the school shooters in the U.S. (from 1974 to 2000) reported being chronically bullied.” Taking into account the social-ecological framework of students involved in harassment and victimization is not a license to excuse the behavior. When encountering a situation where students are being harassed or victimized, we must, of course, intervene to make it stop. The only thing better is to create the conditions where it doesn’t occur in the first place.

A Planning Tool for Student Leaders: The Check Model

Thank you to our author Micah Jacobson for sharing this great facilitation tool from The Check Model: A Guide to Student Led, Advisor Ensured Event Planning by Jacobson and Abbey Levine. This is a student leadership tool for planning extraordinary events, teaching leadership and event management, and ensuring consistent event execution. It is ideal for advisors and sponsors who work with student leadership groups and want to have students involved in planning.

Making Decisions: Open, Narrow, Close

Events begin as an idea. Actually, events typically start with lots of ideas. Everyone involved has his or her notion of which events should be done, how they should go, what components will be necessary, etc. In the Check Model, we want to use the opportunity of event creation to continue to build skills for students as well as enhance the cohesiveness of the planning team. To do this, we follow a meeting skills process adapted from The Interaction Method found in How to Make Meetings Work. Deciding what events to hold and some of the details of those events follows a typical pattern:


The opening stage is where we typically find brainstorming and idea generation. Do you have to brainstorm? No. There are many ways to get lots of ideas on the table. In this stage we are just trying to see what possibilities exist and the group should be free to explore every possibility.

Brainstorming: This is the most common method for generating a lot of ideas in a short period of time. Brainstorming involves one person (often, but not always the Team Leader) facilitating the rest of the group members, trying to get their ideas up on paper or white board so that the whole group can see them, reflect upon them, and add more to them.

Brainstorming must follow a few key rules in order to be successful.
1. All ideas are “good.” This means that every idea should be written down, no matter how outlandish or impractical. Often “bad” ideas serve as a gateway to better ones. Stifling ideas in the brainstorming process can inhibit the group members’ abilities to generate great ideas.
2. No discussion about ideas (no criticism, commenting, cheering, etc.). Ideas have a tendency to create conversation and comment. Group members often have immediate thoughts and judgments about the potential success of an idea. This is not the place for those thoughts. There are two major problems with comments at this stage. The first is that comments can inhibit sharing. The second is that comments can derail the brainstorm, sidetracking the group.
3. Everyone has the chance to participate. Finding a way to encourage individual and group creativity can be tricky. When a Team Leader puts his or her ideas in first, others can be intimidated. Use individual think time or even index card contributions to get ideas from everyone.
4. All brainstorms should be timed. Brainstorming can go on forever if allowed. A time limit ensures two things. First, it limits and focuses the contribution period—although great ideas will continue to bubble up, at some point a group must move from idea generation to event implementation. Second, it can help a group that is having trouble getting started—a time limit ensures that the group does not give up after just one or two ideas but rather forces group members to sit in the process of idea generation for a period of time, making sure they are taking advantage of all the creativity in the room. A good time limit for most student brainstorms is two to five minutes.

The last thing to keep in mind is the ease and speed of capturing ideas. Ideally the Team Leader, or whoever is acting as the facilitator, should keep ideas coming as quickly as possible. This might mean having a separate person available to write the ideas down on the white board or newsprint paper in front of the group. Both the facilitator and the recorder of ideas should refrain from dominating the conversation and instead focus on getting group members to contribute their ideas.


So your group now has a lot of ideas on the board. The challenge is to take that huge list of ideas and quickly narrow it down to just a few reasonable ideas. Most commonly, groups will hold a vote at this point. Often that vote will be some version of “majority rules.” Everyone gets one vote for his or her favorite idea and the one with the most votes wins. This is a bad idea for student leadership groups. Majority rules works wonderfully well for building divisiveness, creating winners and losers, and generating animosity among members—look no further than every democratic legislature in the world for verification. Ideally, you want to avoid this in your group.

Instead of majority rules, use a process called N/3 (adapted from How to Make Meetings Work):
N/3 works by taking the number of ideas you are considering (N), dividing that number by 3 and issuing that number of votes to each member present. For instance, if 20 ideas have been brainstormed, take 20 and divide it by 3, then round to the nearest whole number. In this case, everyone would get 7 votes. Next, quickly move through the list asking people to raise their hand clearly and immediately for their top 7 ideas.
A couple of important things happen with this method. First, because people have multiple votes, their allegiance to any single idea is diluted and some of the passion that occurs when people have just one vote is avoided. Secondly, because people have a limited number of votes, ideas which seem fun, but are likely impractical, don’t get votes.
After going through each of the ideas on the list, the group, with the facilitator’s help, should look for the ideas that seem to be the most supported. Often, you will find that this is the same number of ideas as you had votes to distribute. Therefore, if everyone received 7 votes, 7 ideas will have more votes than all the rest. If you have fewer or more, that is okay. Simply look for the ideas that seem to have broad support and move forward with those ideas.
The N/3 process allows the group to take a large list of ideas and narrow them down to a few workable and supported ideas in a very short period of time (often less than 10 minutes). The group may repeat the N/3 process multiple times until there are no fewer than 5 ideas. At that point, stop the narrowing process.


Having narrowed your brainstormed ideas down to five or less, now is the time to decide upon the idea(s) that the group wants to move forward with. The final decision should be made in a small group of less than six people. That group should consist of the advisor, the Team Leader and the other key decision makers for the group. This group should look at the whole picture of events for the year, considering some or all of the following:
• The group’s energy and desire
• The practical implications of each idea
• Time limits
• Resource and budget limits
• Other events happening at school
• Other events to be planned throughout the year

Remember to look at every possibility, utilizing all the tools you have to work with in the course of coming to a consensus decision.

Combine: Sometimes two ideas can be seamlessly combined into one, or the best parts of each can be put together.

Yes, And: An idea might be very close to working with just a couple of additions. For example, the group might say, “Yes, the dance is a great idea, and what if we add a game room off to the side?”

Go Big: Even with small events, there is often a way to go big or fully show up in the idea. Look for the Wow moment that can be created in all ideas.

Once the small group has come to a decision, focus on how to inform the rest of the group with enthusiasm and excitement!

The Check Model for Event Planning: A Guide to Student Led, Advisor Ensured Event Planning
by Micah Jacobson and Abbey Levine. © 2012, Boomerang Project, 800-688-7578, www.boomerangproject.com

How to Make Meetings Work: The New Interaction Method. Michael Doyle and David Strauss. © 1990, Dove Publishing

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