Friday, April 13, 2007

Exploring the Natural World - Part 2

When I began teaching, I found myself in a school that was located adjacent to a cemetery that occupied 249 acres of prime green space in the city of Buffalo. With more than 200 species of trees, it was an amazing arboretum. Numerous birdhouses placed throughout the cemetery made it a year-round haven for more than 240 kinds of birds. Founded in 1849, Forest Lawn Cemetery is a veritable garden, with rolling hills, roads that curve and intertwine with the landscape, spring-fed lakes, a creek, and a wide array of sculptures that reflect the natural setting.

While the school itself had a field, it was the cemetery that started me on the path to using the outdoors as a classroom worthy of our attention. Some of the activities my students and I engaged in can be done in any outdoor setting. So, building on the activities described in Part 1, here are some more ideas for getting kids outside and learning in the natural world.

The Year of the Tree - Select a tree (preferably deciduous) that you would like to observe through the course of a year. Every two weeks (or any time period that makes sense to you) give children the opportunity to make a detailed observation of the tree, with the goal of creating a book at the end of the year. The first page of the book should include a description of the location of the tree, with information on why that particular tree was chosen. On this first observation, children should do the following:
  • Make a rubbing of the bark (to serve as the cover of the book)
  • Select one leaf for pressing
  • Make a detailed sketch of the tree
  • Look for and record signs of life in the tree, such as nests, holes, etc.
  • Use a large string to find the circumference of the tree
  • Estimate the height of the tree
    • Measure the child's shadow and the tree's shadow at the same time of day. Calculate the tree's height by using the following ratio: child's height/child's shadow = tree's height/tree's shadow. (You can learn more about measuring tree height at this site on Mapping the Louisiana Territory.)
On every visit to the tree, children should make a sketch and record information about how it looks, smells, and feels at the time. Encourage observation of the tree both up close and from a distance. Spend at least five minutes sitting at the base of the tree just watching for signs of life. At the end of the year of observation, all sketches and notes should be assembled into a book about the tree. (If you are interested in using a "ready-made" form, the Science Spot has pages for an Adopt-a-Tree activity.)
  • Sky Tree: Seeing Science Through Art by Thomas Locker - In this book, Locker depicts the same tree throughout the seasons. This is a terrific book for helping children to notice even the smallest changes that occur through time.
  • One Small Place in a Tree by Barbara Brenner - When a bear uses a tree as a scratching post, it sets off a chain of events that leads to a large hole that becomes home to a variety of forest animals. This is a great book for looking at many of the species of animal that can call a tree home.
Focused Observation - When I first begin to take kids outside, we do two activities designed to help them become better observers. In the first, I assign partner and give each pair a hula-hoop. The pair finds a spot in the yard, field or forest they would like to focus on. The hoop is laid on the ground, where it provides the boundaries for the observational field. How much can you find in this "small" circle? PLENTY! The first job should be to simply sit and look at all that is inside the hoop. Kids should sketch what they see in their journals. How many kinds of grass or vegetation are in the hoop? Knowing the names here isn't important, but rather recognizing that things look different. Encourage kids to get down on their knees and use their hands or a stick to part the vegetation and see what is beneath. A hand lens will help here. I often set timer this activity and then ask for groups to share what they have found. I also give groups the opportunity to repeat with a second plot so that they can see how different these small areas can be.

The second activity focuses on our ability to hear what is happening around us. Before we start, we sit together in the grass and I read The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor. Then, each child finds a spot to lean against a tree. We all close our eyes and spend several minutes just listening. When the timer goes off, the children open their journals and record what they heard. We repeat one more time, and after children have made their journal entries, we share what we heard.
Bug Hunting - Sometimes searching for small forms of life is easier and more interesting than looking for other animals. First, a bit about the word bug. In this case, we are looking for insects, spiders (arachnids), centipedes and millipedes. These are members of the phylum arthropod (we have left out crustaceans), the largest phylum of animals, containing more than 80% of known animal species. It may not be particularly scientific, but the word bug works for kids. I love to take kids on a bug hunt, both inside and outside the classroom. Inside? Yes, we share the indoors with lots of these little creatures. What kinds of bugs live in your house or classroom? If you don't see the bugs, can you see signs that they were there? Once your bug hunt moves outside, there are many places to look for bugs. In the air, trees, dirt, fallen logs, fence posts, bushes, etc. In the early morning hours you can even take a web hunt to see if the spider webs you find are different in location and appearance. You can take bug boxes along on your hunt, but I prefer to leave animals where I find them and just look. However, I do hold ladybugs, caterpillars and spiders so nervous kids can get a closer look. If you do this at home with your kids, consider hunting in the early morning hours and at dusk. You should see a marked difference in the bugs you observe.
  • Field Trips: Bug Hunting, Animal Tracking, Bird Watching, Shore Walking by Jim Arnosky - This book, written in field-journal format, provides helpful hints for taking successful outdoor field trips with kids. A visit to the coloring pages at Jim Arnosky's web site provides reproducibles for 100 animals every child should know. There are many "bugs" on this list, and these pages can be incorporated into field trip journals.
That's all for now. In the next entry in this series I will share some terrific teacher resources that provide ideas for sharing nature with children.

**Continue on and read Part 3!


  1. Thank you for making these lists! The class tree activity reminded me of the "Tree Project" in Sam Swope's teaching memoir, _I Am a Pencil" -- have you read it?

  2. Hi Anamaria,
    I remember hearing a story about Swope's experience on NPR, but haven't read the book. I sure will now! Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. I'll have to pick this up!