Engage Your High School Students In Place & Community: Walking Curriculum (Part 1)

Walk more. Anywhere. (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.


While all of the walks in the Walking Curriculum can be adapted for all ages of students, this is the first post sharing activities specifically designed for students in secondary school. Themes cultivated in the walks include connections between walking and mental health, mindfulness, social justice, community-building, and “walkability”. The next section overviews the main aims of the Walking Curriculum and provides important links with information for effectively using the activities. One of the most important links discusses how to imaginatively introduce the Walking Curriculum to students—be sure to set that scene each and every time! If you are familiar with the Walking Curriculum, then scroll down to read about three new walking themes designed for secondary students.


New To The Walking Curriculum?

Walking Curriculum activities are designed to:

  • engage the body, emotions, and imagination in ways that can increase familiarity with the local and natural contexts of school and learning;
  • increase attention to detail, particularity and their attunement with place;
  • connect place-based learning activities with cross-curricular goals;
  • serve as examples for your own, place-inspired teaching ideas.

Successful use of the Walking Curriculum requires proper preparation and follow-up. Here are five important links with resources to support your work:

Before You Start:  Preparing To Use The Walking Curriculum

Before You Start:  Introducing The Curriculum To Students

Post-Walking:  Debriefing & Extending Learning Across The Curriculum

Motivations, Musings, & Sources of Inspiration

All The Walks! (One stop shopping.)


3 Walks For High School Students   

#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” (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.” (p. 251).

Share this motto with the class “Walk more. Anywhere.” Use it to set the imaginative scene before you walk. Somatic Engagement/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 Understanding Community Walk

Rubinstein (2015) notes how walking helps us become familiar with our community and the people we share it with. On foot, we are immersed in a multi-sensory, interactive environment. We experience with our bodies and minds, the places we inhabit and those we pass through regularly. Being on foot is a very different experience than being in a vehicle, separated from the physical environment by glass and metal. Our perceptions are different, too, when it comes to feeling comfortable in our communities. Research indicates that school-aged children who walked to school have more holistic views of their neighbourhoods; they have enhanced awareness and feelings for their places (Rubinstein, 2015). Walking also can support the building of a shared sense of community with others.

When you travel through a place in a car you don’t have the same opportunity to share a greeting with someone, make eye contact or say hello. Sure, you can put on “blinders” as you walk—headphones and smartphones drown out local frequencies—but as a pedestrian you still have more opportunities to engage and empathize with people as they pass by. Rubinstein (2015) notes that the kinds of engagement that can happen while walking may be small but they are significant for community-building (e.g. a salutary nod or smile, a short conversation with a stranger or a long talk with an old pal). In areas with less car traffic and more foot traffic people have a stronger sense of community, and more relationships–even friendships–with their neighbors.

Role PlayFor this first walking activity, introduce the French term “flaneur” to students—Does anyone know it? Well, a flaneur is a “passionate wanderer”, someone who strolls the streets and absorbs the physical and cultural atmosphere (Rubinstein, 2015). Encourage students to be flaneurs—whether during class or as an extra-curricular assignment—have them experiment with how walking helps build community. First they can focus on personal interactions. As they stroll in pairs in the vicinity of the school, for example, ask students to keep track of the kinds and frequency of engagement they have: How many opportunities do they have to “engage” with others—how many opportunities to say hello? How many opportunities do they have to pet a dog? How many opportunities do they have to smile or nod? Next (or at the same time) ask student to see what they can learn of the culture of a place from a stroll through the place. Imagining they didn’t live here, what clues are there to the culture of the place? When you regroup as a class compare “notes” and examples of how walking helps us gain a “flavor” of a place and can also help us connect with others in a community.

Following Up: Play With Visual Formats/Extremes & Limits of Reality:This activity will elaborate and develop the idea that walking helps us build a sense of community: ask students to draw maps of the local area from memory. If they live within walking distance to the school they should draw a map that indicates all possible routes for walking to school. (Students who do not walk to school can be asked to map either routes to locations near the school that they like to visit or simply walking routes in the community surrounding the school). Students should do a legend that classifies the routes according to different criteria. Possible criteria: longest (they can have fun with this!), slowest (why), most obstructed/unobstructed (why), most/least populated, most dangerous, safest, bumpiest, greenest etc. Ask students to locate “safe” places on their maps—why do they feel that these places are safe? Why are other places dangerous? The aim with these activities is to develop a community “feel” map that increases students’ comfort and awareness. (Richard Louv argues that fewer and fewer children/teens explore their local neighborhoods—there is a lot of fear around doing that. His argument, however, is that kids are safer when they can confidently explore their neighborhoods. That is the intention of this set of activities.

As a final activity (either now, or preferably after completing the “Reading” Place Walk described next) the class can collaborate on creating a huge map of the local community. Aim to create a map big enough to cover a whole wall of a classroom or a large section of a wall in the school hallway! Students can work together to decide what roles each will play in creating this final product. The map should be filled with important places—places that matter to the students.


#3 “Reading” Place Walk—The Human Story

Every place tells us a story; aspects of that “story” include diverse socio-cultural, geo-physical, and ecological dimensions. I love this line from Beames et al. (2012) book on outdoor learning: “The story of the land is brought alive by directly interacting with it” (p. 8). This walk theme looks at the human story and asks students to experience it through walking.

“The human story of the land: who lives and/or worked here 50 years ago? 200 years ago? 2,000 years ago? How have they shaped the land? What is their story? Who own the lands? Who is “using the land and for what purposes?” (Beames, et al. p. 53)

Ask your students to walk the local community seeking evidence of the following four dimensions of the human story (inspired by Beames et al. 2012):

  • the cultural aspects of a place—What evidence is there in this place of what the culture or society values? What are its priorities?
  • environmental issues/concerns—What evidence is there of different concerns about the health of the place? How are the people in this place conserving/preserving/restoring it?
  • the business and economic development in a place—What examples are there of local economic activity? Who owns/operates local businesses? Who benefits from the trade?
  • social responsibility—How are people taking care of place and each other here? What evidence is there of social responsibility?

Identify The Story-form: Creating Headlines. Have your students imagine they are reporters responsible for creating an engage (but brief) account of the place. What’s the dominant story in this place? What human interests have most shaped this place? What tension exists in this place? Where are two different needs/desires coming in conflict? (e.g. How are nature and “empire” (humans) at odds?) Ask them to start by creating a “headline” that emotionally captures something about the human story of the place. They could then report in 1-2 minutes the content of their “story”. (Try to combine knowledge about the “human story” of the place with the large community map you have created in the previous activity. What can be added to show the diversity of the place?)


Stay tuned for the next set of our secondary-focused Walking Curriculum activities!

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Beames, S., Higgins, P., & Nicol, R. (2012). Learning Outside The Classroom: Theory And Guidelines For Practice. New York: Routledge. (University of Edinburgh; The Moray House School of Education)

Rubinstein, D. (2015). Born To Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press: Toronto).






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