Fishin’ for Change: Combining Physical Education and Outdoor Recreation

We teach at the Ancona School, a small, progressive elementary school in the Hyde Park area of Chicago’s South Side. Each year, our school’s Gone Fishin’ trip combines physical education with outdoor recreation. However, while fishing provides a pretext for this annual outing, the real goal is to give students an immersive opportunity for exploration and skill development in a natural setting.

Our vision grew out of a simple question: “What would happen if we closed school for a day and went on a quest of sorts?” Simply hung out a “Gone Fishin’” shingle and took students to a park or preserve where they could experience, explore, and tune in to their immediate surroundings? The day would feature lots of hands-on learning and physical activity, coupled with learning to navigate an unfamiliar environment.

Why Fishing?

Our school is intentionally diverse, and our students have lots of access and opportunity to participate in a variety of activities, both in and out of school.

Whether the activity is basketball or fencing, dance or “circus arts,” it generally has well-defined rules, a time-driven structure, and adults to studiously facilitate. Fishing offers something different, and though we know that our students are involved in all kinds of activities, we found that most have minimal fishing experience. Many have never fished before at all.

As a school community, we value learning outside the school walls, and as educators we were drawn to fishing because of its many variables and open outcomes.

Anglers must make use of all kinds of information, such as weather, terrain, water temperature, other anglers, and intuition. They explore, make adjustments, and learn from experience and the environment. These are just the kinds of conditions and experiences we want for our students, as they yield rich growth opportunities.

Overall, we have found fishing a great fit for our students developmentally across the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains.

    Planning a Different Kind of Outdoor Recreation Outing

    When planning our first Gone Fishin’ trip, we began by looking for collaborators around the school building. We found them in the fifth and sixth grade teachers, who happened to be nature lovers (though not anglers). We then reached out to our parent body and had half a dozen willing parents and grandparents step forward.

    We also sought community partners and found two right away. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which makes small field-trip grants, agreed to pay for a bus and bait. Also, the largest bait shop in Chicago had a set of 20 fishing rods that it would loan for free. 

    We scouted the location well in advance, finding a state park about an hour away from the school with lots of waterline so the students could spread out. We set a date for early October, as far into the fall as possible without risking freezing weather. Without realizing it, we had hit upon a terrific fishing window, when the water was still warm from summer and fish hungry from a lack of anglers. 

    As our date approached, we used several physical education classes to help students prepare for the day and what to expect. Students brainstormed and role-played strategies for embracing the unexpected and having an open mind. They also played practical games like “What to Wear” Trivia and “Daypack Essentials” Relay.

    What a Gone Fishin’ Trip Looks and Feels Like

    We aimed to establish a positive tone for the day by carefully grouping students, taking pains to avoid cliques and common pairings. Building on the biodiversity theme, we named the groups after local species of fish, mammals, trees, and birds.

    On the bus ride, students received a zine-style “field journal” that contained images of common fish and birds, a short history of the park, questions to ponder and, importantly, a park map. Distributing the field journals on the bus gives students something interesting to do on the long ride.

    Upon arrival, we gathered for an opening circle to review housekeeping rules and have a little team-building fun before splitting into fishing and hiking groups. 

    We noticed that once the students had gotten the lay of the land, they quickly started teaching one another. They were eager to share what they had learned, helping one another bait and rebait hooks, remove line tangles, and share where fish were or were not biting. The adults were able to step back and watch each student flounder and fly in their own time.

    Midway through the day, we convened for lunch as a large group. Students exchanged stories from the morning and gave one another pointers before heading out for the second half of the day. At the end of the day, students had an opportunity to share favorite moments during the closing circle.

    On the bus ride back to school, students still had a lot of energy and were still very engaged, replaying scenes from the day and making notes in their field journals.

    What the Students Say

    Over the years of taking students on this fishing outing, we’ve had the opportunity to gather lots of formal and informal feedback, and the results are in — students love it!

    We generally find that their memories and takeaways fall into three categories: “How-tos” (such as how to bait hooks and use a fishing rod); “Where-tos” (which might be where to look for bullfrogs and goldenrod); and “Considerations” (which includes important lessons like not standing so close to other anglers that your lines get tangled).

    This has grown to be an outing that students look forward to and back on with sincere appreciation.

    What the Adults Learn

    • Find adventurous colleagues, regardless of what they teach. We needed teacher chaperones, ones who embrace the trip’s laissez faire spirit. Not every teacher can stomach a loose schedule with large numbers of students out in the elements.
    • Family involvement fills the gaps. Fishing resonates with groups across the cultural and socio-economic spectrum. Having parents and grandparents along to help students fish is an invaluable resource. They also set an impressive example when putting their own lines in the water.
    • There are external partners waiting to help. We helped our field trip funding partner meet one of its goals: bringing city kids to state parks. There are also local and national sporting organizations looking to support youth angling.
    • Embrace the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Although the weather is less predictable, these seasons are less buggy and less crowded. On a weekday, you may have a normally crowded park or preserve to yourselves.
    • An unfamiliar environment supports positive interactions. Avoid the temptation to plan a trip to a location students already know. An unfamiliar place can help minimize the hierarchies and cliques among students as they explore it together.
    • Equipment can be a choke point. In our experience, very few urban students have rods and reels of their own. That means we have to borrow equipment. One rod for every two students enables them to spend half the day fishing and the other half in a different activity. It’s also a great help to own or borrow enough rods to use them in PE classes prior to the trip. Even if you plan a trip focusing on some other kind of recreation — rock climbing, birding, biking — it’s not easy to find enough gear for every student to act independently.

    Looking Toward the Future

    The outing continues to evolve, with lots of potential. To date, we have completed five annual Gone Fishin’ days for grades 5-6 and two with grades 3-4. Eventually, we’d like to have as many of our school’s 240 students as possible participating, almost a state-park takeover. We are investing in our own fishing rods so students can practice rigging and casting lines ahead of the trip.

    We continue to generate ideas for future iterations and what it might look like to include elements such as canoeing and/or outdoor cooking. Maybe part of the magic is in the fact that it’s not exactly the same every year.

    What is important is preserving an open and immersive atmosphere where students can learn by doing and experience the burgeoning wonder of what comes when one has “gone fishin.’”

    Additional Resources

    Tayé Brown

    Tayé Brown is an educator/administrator dedicated to making learning visible. She believes in diversity, is committed to equality, and is an advocate for social justice both inside and outside school. Tayé joined the Ancona faculty in 2005.

    Christopher Weber

    A former journalist, Christopher Weber is a horticulturalist and certified environmental educator. He has served as Ancona’s Outdoor Learning Educator since 2016.