Tag: Outdoor Education

P.E. majors flock to Lorado Taft for intense hands-on experience in teaching outdoor education

Bright sun peeked through mist and bare trees just after 10 a.m. on a late February day as the first hints of record warmth boldly unleashed an early spring.

For two groups of students – one made up of 20 fifth-graders from Aurora’s Krug Elementary School, the other composed of 10 Physical Education majors from the NIU College of Education – the appointment with nature couldn’t have come at a better time.

Within a few hours, the skies gave way to flawless blue while the mercury soared past 70 degrees. Birds chirped. Chainsaws growled. Neither a snowflake nor a chilly wind – usually facts of life in a Midwestern February – could be found.

This trip to NIU’s Lorado Taft Field Campus, an outdoor education center located within Lowden State Park in Oregon, Ill., truly offered the perfect conditions for teaching and learning for young children and young adults alike.

NIU Physical Education major Brandon Palmer helps fifth-grader Yvonne Chanda learn how to start a fire.

NIU Physical Education major Brandon Palmer helps
fifth-grader Yvonne Chanda learn how to start a fire.

“It’s just the best experience for our NIU students,” says Gail Koehling, an instructor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. “I hear from them, ‘This week really showed me why I want to be a teacher.’ They’ve had this more than 48 hours of working with these groups of children, and it really validates for them why they’ve chosen this career.”

As future P.E. teachers, Koehling says, the students are adding a priceless distinction to their resumes.

“One the major things they learn during this class is, ‘I’m teaching something that is brand new to me. This shows what a great teacher I can be. You can give me anything – any content – and I can teach it. It doesn’t have to be the thing I’ve done all my life,’ ” she says. “These students are ready and prepared to go out and teach any content you can give them.”

Kelly Miotti, a senior P.E. major from Lockport, made progress at Taft toward her goal to “change people’s lives.”

“I’m learning to be able to talk to students. I’m learning to be more calm,” Miotti says. “The skill that you learn at Taft is basically learning how to keep kids involved for three days straight – and that you have to adapt to every situation. You have to go with the changes.”

Nick Wiltsie helps fifth-grader Angelina Sifuentes with her compass.

Nick Wiltsie helps fifth-grader Angelina Sifuentes with her compass.

“Coming out here, you’re testing more than content knowledge,” adds classmate Nick Wiltsie, a senior P.E. major from Elgin.

“You’re testing confidence levels, resilience levels, character-building skills. Their personal character is begin challenged throughout this experience, and so as a teacher myself, I’m able to take notes to help them become a better individual in the future.”

NIU’s students made an initial visit to Taft about 20 days earlier, during Super Bowl weekend, when they took on the roles of the fifth-graders.

Guided by Taft’s professional and enthusiastic staff, the future P.E. teachers explored the beautiful woods while they learned about orienteering, pioneering, birding, forest ecology, survival and Native Americans. They took night hikes through the darkness, played outside games and performed campfire skits about nature.

Most importantly, though, they saw the outdoor education modeled for them while they planned their own delivery of those same lessons.

Such skills were clearly on display when the children from Krug arrived at Taft, which Koehling calls “a hidden gem.”

After whooping up a rousing welcome for the fifth-graders, the Huskies quickly escorted the boys and girls and their backpacks to the cabins for bunk selection and unpacking.

Kelly Miotti works with Angelina Sifuentes.

Kelly Miotti works with Angelina Sifuentes.

Formal introductions followed – the P.E. majors gave their names, revealed their favorite colors and ice cream flavors and demonstrated their favorite dance moves – as did theatrical presentations of the basic rules: Be on time. Dress for the weather. Respect property, others, nature and yourself. Walk. Stay with an adult.

Quick tours of the grounds led to the dining hall, where the campers and their temporary teachers shared lunch, their first of seven meals together.

By 1 p.m., the real outdoor education had begun.

Miotti, Wiltsie and fellow P.E. major Brandon Palmer marched their quintet of fifth-graders to a large field. They opened their lesson on Native Americans with a poll of the favorite family activities of the children – answers included charades, hide and seek, Uno and dancing – and questions about what the children learned from those things.

“Just like you play games with your family, the Native Americans also played games,” Palmer told the group. And, he added, they learned and sharpened hunting skills amid the fun time of bonding.

Dusk falls over the Rock River at Lorado Taft.

Dusk falls over the Rock River at Lorado Taft.

The children then were taught a different way to play tag, one where the tap had to come behind the knee. A player tagged could remain in the game by hopping around on the untagged leg; if that hopping leg also was touched the player still wasn’t “out,” but had to sit on the grass.

After a few rounds, the NIU students asked their campers what they had learned about hunting from playing the game. Be agile, quick and strategic. Stay low. Keep your hands out. Swivel. Face the other players. Don’t let your opponents strike from behind.

Questions about hunting continued with Fox Walking, a game where one child was blindfolded while her classmates tried to sneak up and steal a stick placed at her feet. The child without sight had to rely on other senses to point in the direction of the would-be stick-stealer.

What senses do the prey use? What are some ways that foxes creep up without being detected? How can being slow, steady and quiet apply to rummaging for food? How can we think like a fox?

Gail Koehling

Gail Koehling

Krug children also hurled spears and sticks at empty laundry soap jugs standing in for animals – What were some of the struggles you had while throwing? – and then worked to make fire by rubbing rope against wood. No matter their effort and sweat, unfortunately, the labor produced little more than some warmth in the stick.

Just think, Palmer told the children: Native Americans needed to make fire in this way every time they wanted to cook food or to stay warm – and imagine how lucky we are to simply flip switches.

Lessons in using a compass came next. Children received a crash course in moving the housing and reading the needle before walking around the field in directions dictated in degrees. Later, they worked in groups to tromp through dense woods in search of orange-and-white posts that would disclose the bearings to the next checkpoint.

Success wasn’t easy; many footsteps were retraced and then retried after the compasses weren’t set properly.

“A little change makes a big difference. It’s not only in orienteering. It’s in life, too,” Miotti told the children, then turning to her NIU classmates with a smile. “Yep. I went there.”

During the walk back to the cabins, she offered more wisdom to the girls. “Ladies, we need to talk about respecting ourselves and others,” she said. “Your attitude will reflect your time here.”

And, naturally, this: “It’s OK if we make mistakes. You learn from every mistake you make.”

“I just kept motivating them,” Miotti says.

Wiltsie watches as fifth-graders Cindy Garcia (center) and Bella Davila try to make fire with rope and stick.

Wiltsie watches as fifth-graders Cindy Garcia (center)
and Bella Davila try to make fire with rope and stick.

“This is so real-life,” Koehling says. “This gets them to step up and be the teacher they are – the teacher they’re becoming. They learn about classroom management; about teaching multicultural students; about always being ready to work with other people within your school, whether they’re teaching on non-teaching staff.”

NIU’s course in outdoor education, designed and originally taught by Jenny Parker, an associate professor of P.E. teacher education and now NIU’s acting associate vice provost for Educator Licensure and Preparation, prepares students to teach independently and in teams.

They get the chance to teach curriculum typically not found in the gym, including history and science, along with experience in chaperoning field trips.

“Peaks and Pits” debriefing sessions each afternoon allow them to swap stories of what went right and what could improve with change. It’s important for these almost-teachers to make each other look “golden” in front of the fifth-graders, Koehling says, and it’s already working.

“Our kids are so sweet,” one NIU student shared with the group. “They told us, ‘You’re going to be great teachers.’ ”

For Koehling, who fell in love with this outdoor education course years ago when Parker invited her to Taft to watch for a day, these professional conversations among her students are a joy.

Kelly Miotti

Kelly Miotti

She’s also a passionate participant in the Taft experience.

During the early February weekend, she taught her students the nighttime “Alpha Wolf” game, a non-aquatic version of Marco Polo with howling and jump ropes. No need to keep eyes closed in the pitch-black darkness of a state park.

Koehling also demonstrated to her flock a daytime game that explores survival instincts and the food chain. Players represent herbivores, carnivores and omnivores working to prey on each other – eating down the food chain, or course – while trying to avoid the hunter in search of dinner.

“I’m the hunter,” she says. “We run around like crazy, and I show them how fun this can be.”

Not surprisingly, Koehling hopes to see the outdoor education course expand beyond KNPE to other NIU teacher licensure programs. She also hopes to bring KNPE 200 students to Taft for team-building exercises.

“I just had a former student say to me, ‘I got my principal to OK a trip to Taft for the spring.’ My students know what this experience was like for them, and what this experience was like for these children who get to learn outside of a classroom and away from a desk,” she says. “We’re getting these students outdoors, away from technology and actually moving around.”

Meanwhile, her students are enjoying independence in their teaching for perhaps the first time. They’re being pushed out of their comfort zone, and they’re growing in their confidence and abilities with every happy exclamation from the fifth-graders.

And, even though they’re with the children constantly for three days and two nights, “it’s not about that.”

Wooden stairs meander along a Lorado Taft hill.

Wooden stairs meander along a Lorado Taft hill.

“It’s about all the other pieces that you need to know about as a caring, loving teacher,” Koehling says. “On Friday, when they leave, the students will be crying, and sometimes, my students are crying. The nurturing piece is what I hope they will take with them.”

Wiltsie, who spent four years in the U.S. Army Reserves during his time at NIU, understands. He wants to teach younger generations to become lifelong learners who are physically active while making the most of the gifts and skills they possess.

“If students feel comfortable out here, they’ll definitely feel comfortable back in a gym,” he says. “And if you feel comfortable teaching out here, you can definitely translate that over to the gym setting and the school setting – and be more confident in yourself.”

“I just want to be there to make a difference, even if it’s just one student at a time,” Miotti adds. “(In) physical education, I know that I’ll be able to improve children’s lives by the hundreds.”



Yunnan University prof reflects on year spent as KNPE guest

Xia Wen

Xia Wen

Xia Wen, a professor of physical education at Yunnan University in China, teaches one of his school’s most popular classes.

But his intellectual curiosity and professional drive are not nourished by high enrollments alone.

That’s why Xia spent a year – from February 2016 through January of 2017 – at the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education as a guest of Jim Ressler.

“Wen’s area of expertise is outdoor education – we have some common interests in those areas – and he’s here to explore other approaches to teaching and developing curricula in outdoor education,” Ressler says. “We don’t have an outdoor education class, per se, but we do have an adventure education class (KNPE 365) that he regularly attended.”

“NIU has a good research atmosphere,” Xia says, “and I am interested in research direction, a good research team and selfless and useful research support system. I learned a more-advanced administrative system, and cultures and methods of research and teaching at NIU.”

Ressler and Xia connected through the Internet.

“He had a colleague from Yunnan here as a visiting scholar during the last academic year. He did some web-searching, found our program and my profile and, at the time, noticed one of my interests was outdoor education,” Ressler says.

“I have some strong connections with colleagues at other university in the United States that do teach in more-traditional outdoor education programs,” he adds. “We’ve spoken with them, and used some of their materials as sources, to help us mold two new courses that Wen is proposing to his university.”

knpe-tennisVoracious in his reading and journaling, Xia devoured “Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming” by Simon Priest and Michael A. Gass, “Outdoor Adventure Education” by Alan W. Egert and Jim Sibthrop, and “Motor Control and Learning” by Richard A. Magill.

He designed two outdoor education courses. He joined NIU experts, community leaders and visiting scholars for a panel discussion on outdoor education and adventure-based counseling. He observed NIU classes in Exercise and Sport Psychology, regularly attended NIU Athletics events and enjoyed numerous activities in DeKalb in Sycamore.

Ressler and Xia also co-authored a research paper on a water safety education program with data Xia had gathered previously, “but he wanted to write it in English.”

Language presented a barrier at first, Ressler says, but the two worked diligently in the beginning to overcome it.

In the interim, the American learned a great deal from his visitor.

“He is a really nice man, very kind and generous, and extremely committed to his family and his profession,” Ressler says.

“His wife is an elementary school teacher in China, and she stayed behind. He brought their 11-year-old daughter with him because he wanted to provide additional opportunities for her. She went to Jefferson Elementary School last year and Huntley Middle School this year.”

Jim Ressler

Jim Ressler

Professionally, Ressler says, “the experience as a whole was wonderful for me to see how Outdoor and Adventure programming is delivered in other countries and other contexts.”

“I’m fascinated by the structure and expectations of his courses – and how students are engaged and assessed. They seem to have many more grad students deployed to support delivery of the courses,” Ressler says. “I’m hopeful we can continue to collaborate, maybe through an exchange of grad students, continued writing projects and curriculum development.”

Now that Xia is home, he is already sharing what he learned here. “I am preaching my experience and knowledge to my university leaders, colleagues and students,” Xia says, “and I will actively create opportunities for them to visit and communicate to NIU.”



Collaborating on Outdoor Education

Professors at meeting

Did you know NIU is home to one of the premier outdoor education facilities in the country, the Lorado Taft Field Campus? In addition to this amazing resource, NIU’s College of Education has faculty expertise and an extensive network of partners working in the areas of outdoor education and adventure-based learning.

Recently NIU’s Physical Activity and Life Skills (PALS) Group, led by the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, hosted a meeting on outdoor education and adventure-based learning. The meeting provided an opportunity to get several area expert collaborators together, including international experts and a local community partner. The PALS Group, represented by KNPE faculty (Drs. Steve Howell, Jenn Jacobs, Jim Ressler, Zach Wahl-Alexander and Paul Wright), is committed to promoting healthy development and teaching life skills to youth through physical activity. Our faculty were joined by three honored guests to discuss current projects and potential collaborations related to outdoor education and adventure-based learning.

Dr. Xia Wen, Director of Theory, Teaching, and Research for the Institute of Physical Education, at Yunnan University in China. Dr. Xia Wen is a visiting scholar from China spending a year at NIU collaborating with Dr. Jim Ressler of the Kinesiology and Physical Education Department. During his time here, Drs. Ressler and Xia Wen will be developing course material for an Outward Bound class, which is one of the most popular courses for students to take at Yunnan University. Dr. Xia Wen’s expertise is in water safety education and he is currently working on a manuscript for an English journal about training classroom teachers to lead water safety programs.

Lynette Spencer, Director of Adventure Works of DeKalb County, an organization that seeks to assist youth in overcoming challenges and becoming healthy adults through adventure-based counseling. Adventure Works serves youth ages 6-18 years old, providing individual, family, and group counseling services. The organization is the first non-profit community-based outdoor adventure education center in the US. Adventure Works programs are led by licensed therapists and include prevention programs for disengaged and impoverished youth in the DeKalb area, as well as mental health intervention programs for students struggling with mental health issues. The PALS Group has organized fundraisers in recent years to support Adventure Works and Dr. Ressler is a member of their advisory board.

Dr. Nick Forsberg, Professor in the Health, Outdoor, Physical Education (HOPE) program at University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. Thirty years ago, Dr. Forsberg obtained his masters in NIU’s outdoor education program and served as a graduate assistant for the Lorado Taft field campus program. He now teaches several outdoor education classes for physical education (PE) majors at the University of Regina. The classes involve several intense outdoor experiences such as the course “Utilization of the Winter Environment” which includes spending five days in Canada’s Moose Mountains during the cold winter season. Dr. Forsberg described, “This is where the magic happens,” referring to students coming together and understanding the impact that outdoor education can have on learning. He also teaches a course in which students design their own outdoor adventure curriculum and he tells students, “Now that you’ve gone through these experiences, you have a responsibility for future generations. Your purpose is to give back through this special outdoor experience.”

(L to R) Dr. Jim Ressler, Assistant Professor, Dept of KNPE, NIU Dr. Zach Wahl-Alexander, Assistant Professor, Dept of KNPE, NIU Dr. Xia Wen, Professor, Institute of Physical Education, at Yunnan University in China Lynette Spencer, Director of Adventure Works, DeKalb County Dr. Nick Forsberg, Professor, Health, Outdoor, Physical Education Program, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada Dr. Paul Wright, Professor, Dept of KNPE, NIU Dr. Jenn Jacobs, Visiting Assistant Professor, Dept of KNPE, NIU

(L to R) Dr. Jim Ressler, Assistant Professor, Dept of KNPE, NIU
Dr. Zach Wahl-Alexander, Assistant Professor, Dept of KNPE, NIU
Dr. Xia Wen, Professor, Institute of Physical Education, at Yunnan University in China
Lynette Spencer, Director of Adventure Works, DeKalb County
Dr. Nick Forsberg, Professor, Health, Outdoor, Physical Education Program, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
Dr. Paul Wright, Professor, Dept of KNPE, NIU
Dr. Jenn Jacobs, Visiting Assistant Professor, Dept of KNPE, NIU

According to Dr. Wright, Director of the PALS Group, “Outdoor education and adventure-based learning are not new topics for the PALS Group. In fact, the Physical Education Teacher Education program in KNPE is one of the only academic programs at NIU that has outdoor education experiences at the Laredo Taft Field Campus built into their curriculum. The same can be said for our Adventure-based learning course. Our faculty have expertise in these areas and a long history of introducing them to NIU students. Now the PALS Group is interested in strengthening our work in these areas by connecting them with our service and research agendas.” In addition to the ongoing curriculum development project underway between Drs. Ressler and Xia Wen, potential action items that came out of this meeting include: supporting an oral history/archival project on the history of outdoor education at the Lorado Taft Field Campus, studying the socialization experiences of teacher education candidates in their outdoor education course, and providing professional development experiences for Adventure Works’ staff in the outdoor environment.

The PALS Group was pleased to host this group of experts and further its mission of promoting healthy development and teaching life skills through physical activity.