Eden C. Stein
Our school is very fortunate to have a variety of trees, shrubs and flowers on the grounds along with two small outdoor classrooms with seating. In addition, there are two lovely parks within walking distance which we may visit. Others who want to teach this unit may investigate their own surroundings and tailor the natural phenomena focused on accordingly. As a rule, children look forward to spending time outdoors though they may at first moan and groan a bit about weather conditions and walking; typically, this passes quickly to a relaxed open-minded attitude once they realize they are free from the confines of the classroom and most of its associated rules and expectations. Having the students keep a nature journal will be an integral part of outdoor sessions. With one place to write down their observations, draw and brainstorm they will also be encouraged to reflect and think critically about their experiences. In addition, they can use their nature journaling to write poetry about nature in a variety of formats and also brainstorm ideas for short works of fiction.
Teaching keen observation will be a central component of the unit as it is necessary to practice in order to learn from nature as well as life in general. Among people who live close to nature, the moons of the year or even very short seasons are named for observed agricultural events that take place at that particular time. An interesting reading for students is “Japan’s 72 Microseasons” which illustrates the close observation of nature by naming seasons after what occurs during each five days of the year. For indigenous peoples such as the Oglala Lakota and Western Abenaki, the names of the moons show significant agricultural and nature related phenomena such as the availability of animals and plants for food.5 The use of the turtle’s back with its 13 large scales is a common symbol in Native North American and would make a great graphic organizer for students to engage in naming the months or seasons of their own school year in a similar fashion after comparing some of the moons named differently by tribes in various geographical areas. In addition to just naming seasons, the class could have monthly celebrations that are themed around the natural events of their own environment. Bringing rituals including food into the class study of nature may have a lasting impact that reading and writing alone do not always have.
As mentioned above, nature journaling will be a key teaching strategy during this unit and included in all visits outdoors. According to Laws and Lygren,6 Nature journaling helps students slow down and pay attention, develops creativity and critical thinking, nurtures connection with nature and facilitates interdisciplinary learning. A simple observational activity of “I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of”7 can be completed on most of the excursions. The idea of having a “sit spot” is described in detail by Jon Young in his landmark text about the variety of bird songs, What the Robin Knows.8 There are some basic activities adapted for children in Devin Franklin’s “Put on your Owl Eyes'' that can be completed by students to help further their individual connections to nature. Students will also be shown pages from Consie Powell’s beautiful book Leave Only Ripples: A Canoe Country Sketchbook. The pages are inspirational in the way they blend brief prose with pen and ink illustrations of natural artifacts and watercolors of the setting. Thinking and journaling routines provide structure and familiarity for students and allow them to feel secure while exploring unknown territories.
The use of an outdoor classroom is possible in our school and with careful planning can be used throughout the year. Laws and Lygren9 advise taking time to make sure students' physical needs are met by anticipating weather related items such as hats, gloves, sunglasses, dry areas to sit, etc., as well as supporting students emotionally who may not be accustomed to spending time outdoors. Previewing activities, using routines, and re-visiting the same spot can be helpful. When the weather does not permit going outside, nature can be brought indoors and even lead toward the building of a classroom collection of artifacts. Perhaps students will want to collect objects on their own natural excursions to bring in and share with the class. Such artifacts could then be used as inspiration for writing assignments on days when inclement weather prevents learning out of doors.