Walking is a tonic for body, mind, and soul. (Rubinstein, 2015, p. 251)
Walking With High School Students
The Walking Curriculum offers learning activities designed to simultaneously develop your students’ sense of place and to enrich their understanding of cross-curricular topics and core competencies. Walking curriculum activities reflect the principles and practices of Imaginative Ecological Education as they connect engagement of the body, imagination and the local natural and cultural context through outdoor learning activities. The following walking-based activities have been specifically designed for secondary school-aged students. Topics include connections between walking and mental health, mindfulness, and awareness.
2 Walks For High School Students: Practicing Mindfulness & Awareness
#1 Mental Health Walk(s)
Walking has been called the “magic pill” for wellness as it can positively impact so many aspects of our physical and mental health. This walking theme will focus on the practice of walking to reduce stress and anxiety. Begin by asking students: Why walk? What are the benefits? Have a general discussion about the positive aspects of regular walking. Students may already know that walking builds muscle strength and bone density, lowers blood pressure and risk of heart disease, burns calories helping in weight management, and eases back and other muscular pain. Walking has also been shown to slow physical signs of aging (e.g. by keeping the body subtle and the heart healthier) and also supports brain health (cognition, memory) into old age. Walking is also an effective means to lower stress and anxiety. Discuss some of these commonly known benefits of walking with your students but then challenge them (as a follow-up) to independently research one more benefit of walking that is less well-known (e.g. recent studies associate walking with retinal health--I did say it was a magic pill).
Dan Rubinstein, author of Born To Walk: The Transformative Power Of A Pedestrian Act, describes walking as “a tonic for body, mind, and soul” (2015, p. 251). He describes how walking not only benefits our bodies but our communities:
“[Walking] can restore health and inspire hope in places where there is not much of either. Because it can help re-plan the seeds of independence and interdependence, two things we cannot bloom without. Michael Pollan distilled his receipt for a healthy diet into seven simple words. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. My manifesto fits into three. Walk more. Anywhere.” (ibid).
Share this motto with the class “Walk more. Anywhere.” Use it to set the imaginative scene before you walk. Engage The Imagination By Engaging The Body & Evoking Mental Imagery. Focus students' attention on how walking can lower feels of stress and anxiety. It would be wise to begin by acknowledging and discussing how it is normal to feel anxious at times—stress (manifesting in the “fight or flight” response) is one of our survival mechanisms as a species. But it is easy to feel overwhelmed by stress in the world today, and the stress can harm the body—many teens are well aware of what it feels to be stressed or anxious. The walks I suggest next focus on the connections between walking, focused breathing, and stress management. I suggest you send your students off solo (or in pairs) on a few different short walks with different instructions. Regroup often to debrief.
First you might ask them to walk at different speeds, focusing only on their breath. (You might pre-establish a walking route or allow them to walk wherever they would like—set time limits so you can regroup and debrief). Encourage them to allow their arms to relax at their sides, moving with their stride as they walk. Tell them to consume this “tonic for the mind and soul”. Ask them to compare the feeling of breathing and walking at different paces. Encourage them to take long, deep breaths as they walk, breathing in through their noses and out through the mouth.
Now regroup. Discuss how it felt to walk and focus on the breath and to feel the body move. Next ask them re-create the experience of feeling anxious or stressed, worried or unsettled. What does that feel like? Our hearts race, we can have strong negative feelings—anger, sadness, worry—and our stomachs can hurt. Now as you send them walking encourage them to envision expelling bad thoughts/feelings with each exhalation. Help them to imagine how every inhalation brings fresh, positive feelings into the body and every exhalation releases the negative. Encourage students to practice walking on their own as a means of stress and anxiety reduction. You might ask them to keep a journal of when they feel stressed or anxious and encourage them to respond to these feelings through walking.
#2 The Slow Walk
Walking slowly—like really slowly—is a skill we have lost. When we were 2 or 3 years old going slowly, pausing, stopping, investigating was the norm (and it may have driven our parents bonkers). But now, as older humans, we easily pass by the detailed, living, wonder-full world around us. Indeed, hurrying is more often the norm. In this walk the point is to go slowly. In this walk challenge your students to walk 20 feet in 15 minutes. When was the last time you (yes, you, teacher!) took 15 minutes to walk 20 feet? Well, maybe when you were 3 years old OR if you were in the presence of a 2-3 year old. When we are 2 it can easily take 15 minutes to walk 20 feet. We are captivated by the world around us and stop at each instant as the wonder of the world around us engages us.
Click this link to view Dr. John Medina’s brain research series called “Brain Rules”—the #1 rule being the great importance of CURIOSITY for intellectual development. If you watch from 2 mins and 10 seconds in you will hear about the 20 feet in 15 minutes challenge. No need to share with students, but an interesting discussion!
I recommend you have your students do this activity ALONE to avoid distractions. Engage The Imagination By Changing The Context: Given your students 15 minutes to walk 20 feet. They should not finish their 20 feet walk before 15 minutes is up. They are required to take note of absolutely all the things they can as they walk. They musn’t proceed if they haven’t investigated all there is to see. Plant the seed that there is always more than meets the eye. For everything they notice they can ask many questions. For example: What has happened here? What evidence is there of growth here? Where has this object been? Who created it? Where did it come from? Who put it here? How did it get here? What would I do without it? And many more questions. Engage Imagination Through Role Play: What’s it like to walk 20 feet? Have students reimagine the 20 feet as if they were 2 years old. Get the students to describe the experience in “kid terms”.
Stay tuned for the next set of our secondary-focused Walking Curriculum activities!
New To The Walking Curriculum?
Successful use of the Walking Curriculum requires proper preparation and follow-up. Here are five important links with resources to support your work:
Already available on BAM: Engaging with Place & Community: Walking with High School Students
Rubinstein, D. (2015). Born to walk: The transformative power of a pedestrian act. (ECW Press: Toronto).