Coyote's Corner

Field Lessons and Games, Insights and Resources

Rooting Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in Outdoor Education

by Anna Eick

“Nature will teach us many lessons if we take the time to visit her classroom.” – Donald L. Hicks

For over 38 years Canyonlands Field Institute has provided quality outdoor education on the Colorado Plateau, to inspire care of wild places, and renew the human spirit. We believe that outdoor education offers a meaningful opportunity for growing Social Emotional Learning (SEL). In this context-rich environment, SEL education nurtures students of all ages and backgrounds by creating connection to self, community, and natural spaces. 

Hear from one of CFI’s Program Managers Anna Eick, as she shares practical and enrichment-based examples of how our field staff embeds Social Emotional Learning within outdoor education at Professor Valley Field Camp.

PILE on at Professor Valley Field Camp:

“Today, we are going to create a group contract. Can anyone tell me what a contract is?”

I pose the question to a small learning group of 7th and 8th graders. We are sitting in the red dust shaded by a large cottonwood tree along the creek at Professor Valley Field Camp. In the silence after posing the question, a few leaves that are just starting to turn yellow rustle dryly overhead.

The students stepped off their bus an hour prior into a whirlwind of introductions, camp orientations, and sleeping bag unpackings. The students are divided into small learning groups with which they will spend the next few days learning and exploring the 35 acre camp. In our small learning group, we started with a teambuilding game to prompt reflection on what it means to work with a group. We use these activities to create a space where students can practice sharing their thoughts, which they will be asked to do throughout the rest of the week.

A few hands tentatively go up in the air. I take a few answers about the definition of a contract. I explain that our goal as a learning group is to create a Positive, Inclusive Learning Environment, or ‘PILE.’ I then prompt students to reflect on two personal experiences: when they enjoyed working in a group and when group work was challenging. What was different between the two experiences?

Working together to reach for our “Hopes and Dreams.”
Discovering new pathways of connection with land and peers.
An intentional time for self reflection during PILE learning group.

Working together, our group contract takes the form of a tree on a piece of poster board. Starting at the leaves, I ask students to share outcomes they’d like to see from this learning group throughout the week. What do they want to learn? How do they want to feel at the end of our time working together? Students take turns sharing their thoughts out loud and writing them down in marker. Students who were hesitant to engage move in close to sit in the red sand next to our drawing. Next, we move down to the roots. What actions can we take to make these outcomes happen? What role can each of us take in supporting these desired outcomes? As the questions continue, more hands shoot up with ideas. When we have finished our brainstorm, I connect the leaves and roots with a trunk, where each student can sign their name agreeing to uphold our group contract and our pathway from actions to outcomes.

Examples of PILE group contracts created by middle school students and hung up at PVFC for the week.

We step back and look at the tree we have created. We sure like to ‘PILE’ on the metaphors here at Field Camp! I point out how we progressed from low-hanging goals of “have fun!” to more thoughtful ones like “look for ways to support group members” and “be open to new ideas.”

I remind students that this is a contract they created and that we can add to it anytime throughout the week. We walk back to the camp commonspace to hang up our contract so any student can access it when needed. Through this interactive community dialogue, the students have become more grounded and connected to the possibilities the week might hold.

Throughout my three years as a CFI guide and educator, I have found PILE to be integral to the success of a learning group. It establishes expectations for the week, gives students the opportunity to have a voice in those expectations, and promotes reflection about each student’s role in their group.

A Mental Health Crisis Among Youth & Adolescents:

I started working for CFI in 2019, as an apprentice naturalist guide. When I returned in 2021, I found that the students had changed. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Associate released a joint statement; the overarching message, ‘America’s youth and adolescents are facing a mental health crisis.’

“Over 1 in 10 youth in the U.S. are experiencing depression that is severely impairing their ability to function at school or work, at home with family, or in their social life. 16.39% of youth (ages 12-17) report suffering from at least one major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year. 11.5% of youth (over 2.7 million youth) are experiencing severe major depression.”

Figures by Mental Health America

CFI education is designed to be an additional pathway of support to students outside the traditional school space. One of the foundational components of our river and land-based outdoor education programming is the Social Emotional Learning curriculum. Here, we create an interactive learning environment by giving them the tools to connect with themselves, their peers, and their surroundings.  

What is SEL (Social Emotional Learning):

The Five Core CASEL competencies of SEL. To learn more about the CASEL framework, click the link.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines Social Emotional Learning as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” CASEL identifies five areas of core SEL competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making.

Canyonlands Field Institute’s school and summer camp programs intentionally develop, support, and reinforce CASEL SEL framework. Through CFI’s land and river programs, students have consistent opportunities to engage in SEL practices throughout the student-centered, place-based, unplugged, play-centric and immersive learning experiences.

The Benefits of SEL in Outdoor Education:

All of the experiences we offer students at CFI, from overnight expeditions to day hikes, are opportunities to develop SEL skills through social interaction. UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science BEETLES program explains that “SEL helps build students’ social skills, emotional awareness, and resilience.” At CFI, the growth of these skills in nature translates to student success back in the classroom. Research from CASEL shows that SEL education positively impacts academic performance, relationships, mental health, and attitudes about self.

Using SEL curriculum to establish expectations and provide healthy avenues for students to practice emotional identification and awareness became a pillar of successful programs for me as an educator. Outdoor education is a field that focuses on exploration of place and identity, problem solving, and teamwork to promote environmental stewardship. The language and curriculum of SEL simply gives us more tools to help students grow and succeed in the outdoors and in their everyday lives.

Learn more about CFI’s school programs and curriculum at the link here.

Throughout my time at Canyonlands Field Institute I have seen how SEL curriculum has become a transformative cornerstone of our outdoor education programming. SEL provides healthy tools for students to continue to nurture their emotional intelligence in school, home, and community.

Take Home SEL Activity:

‘On Canyonlands Field Institute expeditions, we use Group Contracts as a tool to promote learning and help students feel confident when they are out of their comfort zones. Group Contracts establish communication norms, give us a chance to express our feelings, and serve as a key developer of social and emotional health. Here is an…

Guide & Author Spotlight:

Anna Eick found her passion working with kids as an environmental educator when she was a student at Colorado State University. Anna started at CFI as an Apprentice Naturalist Guide in 2019 where she hopped on a raft for the first time and continued to develop her skills as an educator. Anna returned to CFI in 2021 and again for the 2022 season as a Program Manager. She is grateful for the many new skills, adventures, and friends she has gained through her time at CFI.