The Outdoor Bazaar: The Best Outdoor Activity of All Time
Well, maybe not the best of all time. Maybe simply the best I’ve ever designed (in this case, co-designed with a talented outdoor educator, an alumna – a former student, in fact — Maria Lipkina).
Below, you’ll find
1. The story of the creation of said Best Outdoor Activity of All Time
2. The deets
3. Maria’s own take on the experience
The Story of the Creation of the Outdoor Bazaar:
We were staffing a grade trip with Sophomores, hiking Zion National Park. The theme: leaving home and spending time in nature can help us loosen, even remove some of the masks we wear during our normal lives.
It was the last evening of the trip and we were in a quandary. The plan had been, on the final day of the hike, to take the kids to a quiet spot, send them off to find a place to be alone. The kids would reflect, experience the quiet, write in their journals. We’d regroup and share, head to the buses, the staff would high five, and we’d be on our way to the airport.
That had been the plan.
One problem: that very afternoon, our hired naturalists concluded a day’s hiking with taking the kids to a quiet spot, sending them off to be alone, giving them time to reflect…you get the idea.
It takes a bit of wind out of the sails of a climactic last program to do the same activity, the day before.
Our choices now were limited; we’d sent the Naturalists home already. Maria and I had planned to run this reflective activity on our own. That meant we were stuck with a group of 45 students. Too big to do anything intimate. Too big to take on any other trail in Zion Park – we’d already walked the paths designated for large groups.
Maria and I sat on the floor in the hotel hallway, blurting out and shooting down ideas, not getting anywhere.
It was getting late; we were bleary eyed.
What happened next was one of the most amazing moments of synergy, of collaborative design I’ve ever known. The “Yes, ands” were flying.
It began was a kakamie idea: what if we found a trail – a loop – and we stationed 4 educators at various places.
Each educator had a prompt.
The students would go in small groups around the huge loop.
They’d write or talk about the prompt at that staff-station!
Maria raised a point: it would be a logistical nightmare to cycle 45 students through a half hour loop.
Then, as if a rock had gotten dislodged from a fresh-water wellspring, the program came to us.
The Outdoor Bazaar
One beautiful location.
We start in a circle. Maria reads a Mary Oliver Poem.
We challenge the students to use 45 minutes of silence to find something within to bring home with them. Each educator has 2 prompts, each on an index card.
The group counts down from 10.
The educators scamper away from the circle – finding spots a few minutes’ walk apart.
Each has their two prompts ready.
Silently, students drift to a teacher. Silently, the teacher shows the prompt to a student who has approached.
The student nods. He or she sits on the soft sand to write. Or think. Or look. Or build.
Whenever the student’s heart is ready, off he or she goes to another teacher, another prompt.
45 minutes later, I’ve had about 6 students visit my station. The remainder, I’ve watched walk or sit or write or contemplate.
We reform the circle. We share powerful moments.
Another Mary Oliver Poem. “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
We stand in silence, together.
We head to the bus.
The response from students was tremendous.
One student who is prone to exaggeration said it was one of the most powerful experiences of his life.
One student expressed surprise: how awesome, she had wondered, could could an “outdoor activity” be? And yet, she had to admit, it was awesome: she felt a connection to the natural landscape she hadn’t even felt while hiking it.
One student read from a letter, addressed to a simple rock, extolling the virtue of its silence – written by a girl who struggles with a self-diagnosed propensity to talk too much.
One student talked about how amazing the chance was just to lay and watch the clouds drift by.
One student built an Andy Goldsworthy-style sculpture on the banks of a river where, by nightfall, the current would wash it away.
The Actual Prompts:
Feel free to borrow or change any of these, and I invite you to comment and add creative prompts of your own! I will feature a list of excellent discussion and activity prompts in the week ahead. I’d love to include YOURS!
- Make a list of 20 (awesome) things about yourself
- Draw a “constellation” of your life – with 40 stars, labelled with the most important people, places, activities, and things
- Write: “If you really knew me…you’d know…and you’d see…”
- List as many smells / sights / and sounds as you can
- Draw a picture or cartoon about your ideal future
- What advice do you wish you could give your freshman self and send it back in time?
- Create an Andy Goldsworthy-style sculpture out of the rocks, plants, and terrain around you
- Lay down, close your eyes, and count down slowly from 100. (If you fall asleep, we’ll wake you up at the end :O)
- Pick one object in your view and try to convince it that it’s really important
- Gather 5 beautiful things and hide them
Conclusion : On the bus home, I was full of excitement and pride. Maria and I had used the limitations of the final program to create something new, an Outdoor Bazaar, where students could browse, graze, or indulge in the experience that most spoke to them.
Now, we can use that activity again. Change the activities. Change the location. Keep the framework.
Now, I can share it with other outdoor educators.
But the best part? I co-designed it with a brilliant and creative colleague, one with an amazing head on her shoulders, and a great heart. One whose judgment and creativity I respect and admire.
One who I’d caught and scolded for sneaking out of her hotel room, long after curfew, on her own class trip.
Eight years ago.
* * *
Maria’s Story in her own words: Imagine a group of 45 teenagers. What comes to mind? In your vision, they might be texting, laughing, talking loudly on the bus. Maybe you see them in a classroom, or at a sports game, or at the ever-stereotypical mall. I’m willing to bet, however, that you did not initially imagine them sitting peacefully on the bank of the Virgin River, writing studiously in their journals and building sculptures reminiscent of Zen gardens. That rare scene is the exact sight I was treated to on the 10th grade JCHS trip to Zion National Park.
To be honest, I did not have huge expectations for the success of our closing program. On the contrary, I was full of doubt. “The kids are going to be bored, or distracted, or tired, or cold,” I thought. “After 4 days of activities, hiking, group reflection time, games, and programs, what on earth could we create that would capture their attention and imagination?” Enter Evan Wolkenstein, Experiential Education Extraordinaire, and, of late, my mentor, colleague, and cheerleader. “Let’s design the program together,” he said. “Let’s keep the ideas rolling, the creativity flowing, and yes, let’s stay up till 1 in the morning, scribbling on scratch paper in the hallway, if that’s what it takes.”
Beyond the program itself and the reactions of the students, what amazed me about this process was the true experience of co-designing and co-creating with a colleague/teacher. I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced a synergy quite like it before.
One of the main factors which I believe made our process flow so well is our mutual respect for one another. I see Evan as a sort of “educational magician” who knows how to be honest with his students, how to be fully present and earnest, how to listen in the way all teachers wish their students would, and how to orchestrate journeys and lessons which push the boundaries of “standard” education. Evan sees me (and I only know this because he insists on telling me, often) as an “outdoor education wizard” of sorts, and I can tell by the way he says “Hmmm” after I’ve presented an idea that he takes said ideas very seriously. Thus, when we set about designing a program together, I quickly learned that this mutual respect allowed the good ideas to flourish and the bad ones to be shut down. If Evan wasn’t thrilled with my suggestion, he immediately vetoed it, and I was thankful for the constructive feedback. If I thought a prompt he presented wasn’t awesome, I felt free to be honest rather than polite, and we nixed that too. Thus, when we heard “Yes, and…!” we knew we had struck a truly good idea (or at least one which both of us believed to be truly good).
The immense success of the program literally brought me to tears. As students shared their impressions and feedback in our closing circle, I was floored by the depth of their thought and their willingness to share vulnerability with one another. As someone who fully believes in the power that the natural world can have on the human soul and psyche, I still tend to be amazed when I witness the effects of “Nature Time” on others. In the end, our success as educators was simply in setting the tone for students to take some “Nature Time,” and do with it what they would. They had been given an activity with the freedom to choose their own level of engagement with the content.
Overwhelmingly, they chose to dive in fully. What a sweet sight, indeed.