Friday, April 06, 2007

Exploring the Natural World - Part 1

A few days ago I wrote a post about the need to get kids outdoors so that they can spend time exploring the natural world. I was an outdoor kid, so this comes naturally for me. I always took my kids (students) outside for study, and today I take my preservice teachers and the practicing teachers I work with out to consider all the ways the outdoors can enhance and expand their teaching. Even with structured guidance, I still have students who are reluctant about this approach because they aren't sure how to begin or what exactly to do once they go outside.

In an effort to encourage more teachers and parents to get outside with their kids, I would like to share some of my favorite outdoor explorations with connections to books and indoor extensions. For most of these activities you need nothing more than a clipboard, pencil, hand lens (or magnifying glass), jumbo crayon, some paper and a container for your "finds." I have a collection of old plastic cups (kids drink size) from restaurants (Friday's, Olive Garden, etc.) that work really well for scooping up dirt and insects. You may even want to keep a few small baggies in your pocket for the non-living things you find on the ground. If you have a digital camera, consider capturing some photos to use for additional projects and/or discussion.

I Spy Shapes - Looking for shapes outdoors can be a fun activity. When you begin your walk outside, start by noticing the shapes of the buildings, the materials in the walkway, the objects on the playground, outdoor furniture and more. When you move away from the built environment, the challenge is in finding these shapes in the natural world. What shapes are the stones you find? The leaves? Sticks? What do flower petals look like up close? How about at a distance? Have you ever stood far enough away from a tree to really look at its overall shape? Is it round, oval, pyramidal or something else? Get up close to the tree. What does the bark look like? Can you recognize any shapes in the pattern? Do you see any animals? Can you recognize any shapes in their forms? (Does a bird beak really resemble a triangle?) While searching for shapes, encourage kids to sketch what they see. They can even trace objects they find on the ground. After spending some time just looking, play a game of I Spy. Say, "I spy a circle." See how quickly the children can find the object you have in mind. How many other things can they find with the same shape? Finally, consider using all these experiences to have kids write and illustrate their own "Natural Shapes" book.
Looking at Logs - What happens when a tree dies? Even though the tree may be dead, it lives on in the food and shelter it provides for other organisms. One of my favorite outdoor activities is exploring fallen trees. Take your kids to a wooded area and find yourself a tree that is decomposing. Spend some time looking for signs of life in this "dead" plant. How does it look? Smell? Feel? Carefully roll the log back and look closely at what is underneath. Scoop up a small sample of material and pour it out onto a white piece of paper on your clipboard. What do you see? Peel back a section of bark and examine the wood below. Do you see evidence of living things? Is anything growing on or inside the log? What role is the log playing in the forest?
  • Wendy Pfeffer has written a terrific book called A Log's Life. In it she explores what happens to an oak tree that crashes to the ground in a storm. This is a wonderful look at the life cycle of the tree and a really neat introduction to decomposers.
  • Robin Brickman contributes fascinating artwork to A Log's Life in the form of collages of 3-dimensional molded paper forms. You can view samples at her web site. Using paper, scissors and glue, children can try to create some similar pieces of their own.
What Happens to Our Trash? - Kids often ask why we recycle, but we do little in the way of concrete activities to show them why it is important. Find an old shoe box and pick a place in your yard where you can "plant" the box in the ground. Fill the box with soil. Pick a few items to bury in the soil. Take photos or draw sketches of the items before they are placed in the soil. I usually use some apple peelings or rinds from melons, newspaper, an aluminum foil ball, and a small plastic bottle. Make sure the items are covered with soil and then place the top on the box. The lid does not need to be covered with dirt. (This just makes it easy to find the box and its contents again.) Ask children to predict what will happen to these items. Once a week, check on the items in the box, and the box itself, and see what kind of changes have taken place. I would recommend using a stick or similar item to stir the soil each week when examining the contents. You can keep a journal of these weekly observations.
  • There is a terrific book in the Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science series called Where Does the Garbage Go? In it, a group of school kids look at where garbage comes from and then looks at what happens in landfills, incinerators and recycling centers.
  • Gail Gibbons has written a great book called Recycle: A Handbook for Kids. It looks at the content of landfills and how we can recycle to reduce the need for landfills.
  • Composting is a wonderful way to create rich soil for your garden while reducing the amount of trash you produce. You can view the slide show Composting for Kids to learn how to get started. A quick how-to guide on Composting with Kids provides the recipe for composting.
Sock Walk - Provide children with a pair of old white athletic socks (adult size). Go to an outdoor area (a yard, field, park or forest) where you can take a short walk. Once you get to the desired location, help the children to put the socks on OVER their shoes. Take a short walk through the area. Remove the socks and examine the material that is stuck to them. Don't forget a hands lens! Once you are done, you may want to scrape off the dirt and "stuck" material to plant in some soil. You may be surprised by what happens. I like to do this in the late spring and again in early fall in the same location.
  • Generally, the socks will accumulate all manner of seeds. This is a good time to talk about how seeds are dispersed. For kids who want to know more, the Ken Robbins book Seeds is a marvelous photographic examination of different seeds and their methods of dispersal. Kids can learn even more about seeds in the ink and watercolor illustrations and poetic text of A Seed is Sleepy.
That's all for now. Look for the next installment where I will share suggestions for keeping a nature journal, bug hunting, and more.

**Continue on and read Part 2!


  1. Tricia,

    This is an excellent post!

    The first field trip I took my second graders on every year was a walk in the woods. We'd turn over rotting logs and find little brown salamanders. We looked at lichens on rocks, insect galls, and all kinds of fungi. There were also some huge glacial erratics in the area where we took our walks. My students could feel a smooth spot where the bedrock was polished by the glacier. (I always read them Bruce Hiscock's THE BIG ROCK before the trip.)

    I love A LOG'S LIFE. Brickman's artwork is pretty amazing. Have you read THE GIFT OF THE TREE by Alvin Tresselt? Its storyline is similar to the one in Pfeffer's book--but the text is more lyrical in style.

    Do you have OLD ELM SPEAKS, Kristine O'Connell George's book of tree poems?

  2. Hi Elaine,
    I thought about including The Gift of the Tree, but didn't want the list to get overwhelming. I also love Cactus Hotel because of the way it shows the full life cycle of the Saguaro. I love the poems in Old Elm Speaks, and use it whenever I lead a Project Learning Tree workshop. Most of the participants never really think about integrating poetry.
    I think that generally, most teachers don't think about poetry unless they have a personal passion for it. In an already crowded curriculum in teacher preparation, I'm not sure we do a great job in our methods courses of encouraging this.
    I'm glad you liked this! I'm going to keep posting on this theme for the month of April.

  3. Thanks for the inspiring post! As soon as Spring gets here, we will try the sock walk. We already enjoy exploring our compost pile and playing with the wormies (who need to learn a bit more stoicism about it. They are after all put back unhurt).
    Another log book we like very much is "What's under the log" by Anne Hunter.

  4. Just sitting still and observing is a great "exercise". Making a list of the things they see, smell, hear, feel (as in touch & feelings). Drawing what they see, a part or the whole. And then there's just sitting and enjoying the great outdoors...thanks for bringing this up!