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By Judy Reinhartz
The outdoors offers endless prospects for exploration, imagination and creativity, with built-in props and natural lesson plans.
Today the virtual world is at our fingertips more than ever, affording less time for other pursuits including spending time outside. Richard Louv spotlighted this trend of shying away from the wonders of the outdoors in his book Last Child in the Woods by coining the phrase “nature-deficit disorder,” which runs the gamut from diminished use of our senses to increased rates of child and adolescent obesity.
Being outside is a phenomenal way to learn about the world around us, bringing together literature, art, culture, math, history and, yes, science. Reconnecting kids with the outdoors makes learning visible. There’s always something to see, hear, smell and (if safe) touch, whether you’re taking a walk in the backyard, neighborhood, parks or forests, or viewing the summer night sky. So, let’s make a summer resolution: to reconnect with nature.
The outdoors never disappoints: It offers endless prospects for exploration, imagination and creativity. It’s a blank slate with built-in props: the heat of the sun that warms our faces, animal tracks that invite us to wonder about what made them, sounds of animals scampering about, birds singing and making nests, and the beautiful sunrises and sunsets that offer clues for tomorrow’s weather.
Getting kids outdoors this summer should be on every parent’s and educator’s to-do list! The goal is to whet their appetites for what their natural surroundings have to offer and enjoy, including the multitude of visual and tactile experiences that prompt thinking, new questions, interpretations and ideas to share with others. Here are some ways to get your children wandering.
Play exploratory games. Tag, I Spy, hide-and-seek and scavenger hunts can provide learning opportunities as well as fun. On a nature scavenger hunt, kids can assume the identity of an animal in search of a suitable habitat. To get things started, assign each child an animal that lives in the area or one that does not. Each kid is given a card with their animal’s habitat (or have them research this information ahead of time). For example, in a habitat for squirrels, you might find acorns and leaves. Kids search for the items listed on their cards and discuss whether the area would be a suitable habitat for their assigned animal.To document the animal habitat features (shelter, food, water, sunlight, space), take pictures to harvest the memories. Place them in an album to share or serve as a prompt for telling and writing stories. The scavenger hunts can be extended by drawing “treasure maps” where “X” marks the spot of their animal’s habitat. Another fun activity is the “Oh Deer! Game,” where children learn about the essential elements of a habitat (water, shelter, food, space) that are needed for survival. On a rainy day, play the “Oh Deer Card Game.”
Take an observation hike in the cool of the morning. Kids take supplies with them, including paper attached to an 10x12” piece of cardboard with a clip, crayons, bands made of wide masking tape wrapped around their wrists, and bags to hold safe found objects. On the unbound wrists, have them wear “energy bead bracelets,” consisting of 10-15 plastic beads threaded on a pipe cleaner that is twisted to hold them in place on their wrists, and have the kids observe the color changes in and out of the sunlight. (See Stephen Spangler Science for instructions on this activity and many others.)
On their walk, kids hunt for twigs, leaves and/or flower petals that are on the ground. Those worthy make it onto their masking tape wrist bands, and the rest go into their treasure bags. When they take a rest, they can sort the found objects according to color on white paper and place the appropriate color crayon on the respective sheets. Which crayon has the most matches? The totality of matches reflects the colors in their local environment. Construct a data table entering the crayon colors and the corresponding numbers; then plot these numbers on a graph. When the graph is completed, which color was found most in the area? Least? Those in between? Have them support their answers with evidence from the graph.
Take seasonal “color walks.” Repeating this exercise four times a year offers insights into the changes that take place during the year, which can be compared, described and explained. Questions to ask: What are some ways plants differ from each other? How do plants change with the seasons? Or on another note, where did the colors in their crayon boxes come from? This is a good time to introduce Natascha Biebow’s The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, that tells the story of how Edwin Binney used his love of nature and color as inspiration for creating a product that would bring the outside world indoors.
Take note of sounds and shapes. As kids explore the outdoors, they quietly walk and listen to the sounds of rustling material under their feet, the chirping birds and the sounds of other neighbors that might inhabit the area; read parts of Alejandro’s Gift by Richard E. Albert, where sounds of many desert animals are introduced. Ask children to take note of the different shapes of leaves, branches, twigs, flowers and rocks in nature. When they return to a shady spot, give them a sheet of construction paper and pair of safety scissors so that they can cut out nature’s geometry shapes that they remember, making the shapes big enough to punch holes in and thread string, which then can be hung up. These shapes hanging around a room will remind the kids of what they saw on their walk and provide yet another avenue for integrating science and math.
What’s growing? Let’s not forget the plants and their habitats in the area, specifically trees (bark, seeds, cones, leaves). Are there trees in the area? If so, what types of animals would live near, in, or around them? Why are trees important to animals? What risks do trees face (wildfires, drought, invasive species, loss of habitats, humans)?
Look for patterns. Kids on their hikes may come across the fruit of plants such as pinecones, yucca pods or cacti fruit in which seeds are encased. Take this opportunity to talk about the patterns in nature. Many living things, such as the petals in a flower and the arrangement of scales on a pinecone, exhibit patterns. Reading Wild Fibonacci: Nature's Secret Code Revealed by Joy N. Hulme will present more of nature’s patterns for students to think about.
Look closely at seeds. Have available cut-up fruit such as an apple, orange, or cherry in see-through bags. The children examine the fruit and take note of the number of seeds in each and see if there is a pattern as well. A Fruit is a Suitcase for Seeds by Jean Richards is a great complement to appreciating the role that fruit plays in protecting seeds, also available as a read-aloud. Childrencan make tables listing each fruit and the number of seeds it protects. They can also compare these seeds with those in fruit found on their hikes.
How do seeds get around? Still working with a partner, children can learn about seed dispersal by putting on a pair of socks over their shoes and walking within a 5-by-5-meter perimeter outdoors. Then they take off the socks and examine what is sticking to them and make sketches of these materials on the paper attached to their clipboards. This is a good way to introduce how seeds travel from place to place — on the fur of animals (simulated by the socks) and through animal excretion containing seeds from the fruit that they have eaten. Humans too disperse seeds when they attach themselves to clothing or by humans eating fruit (e.g. watermelons) and discarding the seeds. Check out the seeds song video!
Remember seeds in the home. To extend the study of seeds, give kids bags of different types of seeds (for example, a mixed-bean soup mix) and have them sort the seeds into categories (big and small, etc.) They can then sort those groups into even more specific groups (white and brown, for instance.) The kids will note that seeds come in a variety of shapes, colors and textures: some are smooth or rough, flat or thick, and so on. Provide a foldable with six to eight sections (take an 8½-by-11 sheet and fold in six to eight parts). They label the parts of the foldable to match the different types of seeds described in the classification system according to size, shape, etc. and glue them down in the appropriate sections of the foldable. Reading A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Aston can be another way to expand on the topic of seeds. And Sue House’s The Corn Whisperer provides insight into the importance of corn in Native cultures. Read the story using different voice tones to represent different characters, expressions and suspense.Provide opportunities for children to retell the story, tell a new story or draw a picture of something they remember from the books or what they saw or heard on their walks.
Take a “touch walk.” As another activity on their time outside, kids can work with a partner using materials provided (blind fold, sheet of paper, pair of socks, pencil, crayons) to explore the different textures in nature. One member puts on the blind fold and the other child guides their partner around to touch different safe natural materials — the rough tree bark, smooth leaves, wet grass, etc. Then they switch roles. To extend this activity, ask them to be “tree detectives” and find two different tree barks, then make rubbings following the steps outlined here.
Bring it home. To bring the hike to a close, kids create “walk collages” that reflect nature’s kaleidoscope of colors, shapes and patterns. They can talk about the plants or animals in their collages, which can serve as inspirations for writing poems, limericks, songs and stories.