Opening Minds through Learning Outdoors
by Wendy Oellers
Over the years, I've taken many groups of children to explore the outdoors. In order for these excursions to be safe and valuable, we set the ground rules early on. During the initial stage of our explorations, my current students created a contract that highlighted the ways to show respect and responsibility when on the nature trail. They understood that the time we spent outdoors was precious and a privilege.
One snowy February evening, seventy people gathered in the hallway outside of our elementary school cafeteria in Gilford, New Hampshire. Behind the closed doors, excited voices called out, "It's almost time." The doors slowly opened and two greeters came out. They announced in clear voices, "Welcome to Marvelous Mammal Night." For my second graders, this night was a celebration for weeks of hard work.
Inside the large room, eager students hosted exhibits showcasing investigations exploring the attributes and survival adaptations of local wild mammals. The displays included a wide range of interdisciplinary work ranging from research reports and geographical maps, to colorful posters, graphs, and handcrafted diaries. Guests visited each one of the exhibits with a student-created scavenger hunt list in hand.
The children engaged visitors with facts they had learned, played teaching games they had created, and shared artifacts they had developed. The program concluded with individual poetry readings, a song, and a community feast.
How we began
Marvelous Mammal Night had its origins in September, when my second-grade students began a yearlong investigation of our natural community. Gilford Elementary School is surrounded by a variety of habitats: meadow, stream, beaver pond, and deciduous and conifer forests. They are ideal invitations for student explorations. Our weekly explorations take on a variety of forms that range from seed collecting and nature journaling, to scavenger hunts and conducting surveys.
However, there is another environment to be considered. Like other schools throughout the U.S., the driving force of standardized testing has also changed and impacted our school district. Time for instruction is critical; any time outdoors must provide justifiable opportunities for learning. The question commonly expressed by teachers is, "How can I spend time outdoors when there is so much to teach?"
When the classroom extends to the outdoors, students' engagement and understandings are maximized. There are multiple opportunities for the children to make important conceptual connections. These understandings are evidenced across the disciplines, through the application and practice of both student knowledge and skills; for example, outdoor observations are guided by our senses. The children are asked to use descriptive words and details to share what they have observed. Back in the classroom, this emphasis on details and description enhances the quality of their writing.
I am fortunate to have my students for both second and third grade. Although I have two different curricula, our studies are guided by the following essential questions, which provide the conceptual connections for all of our studies: The questions are based on the ecological concept of community as, "A group of interdependent organisms inhabiting the same region and interacting with each other." ( http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn)
During those early weeks, students learned the value of quiet observations. As seven-year old Anna expressed, "The more you look, the more you see; the more you see, the more you want to look." I gave each child a nature journal in a plastic bag that also contained a magnifying glass, pencils, newspapers (for sitting upon), an eraser, and sharpener. When we found a place to investigate, we would spend a few minutes exploring the area as a whole group. I next asked the children to find a spot in which to sit alone and observe silently. I asked them to record their observations through drawings and sensory-rich words. The children named these times "Sit-Sees," and were surprised by how their ability to observe silently increased from a minute in September to ten minutes by December.
Sharing the observations
Upon returning to the classroom, we would meet as a whole group to debrief and share observations. We recorded sensory-rich words into a classroom word bank. During the weeks that followed, the children became skilled observers, noting even minute changes on the trail.
These explorations led to questions about the inhabitants of our local wild community. Using field guides, we began to look for evidence of animal life. Outside our window, we were able to graph and record the daily visitors to our bird feeders. Some, like the gregarious chickadee and chattering red squirrel, were obvious. Seed piles, scat, and tracks on the nature trail gave the students clues to our more secretive neighbors. Children found valuable information in books on native species.
Seasonal changes led to concerned questions such as, "How could these animals survive the harsh, New Hampshire winter?" Through our readings we learned that there were two types of adaptations, behavioral and physical.
New Hampshire Fish and Game provided educational kits that contained hands-on explorations of mammal life. Along with suggested activities, these kits included valuable resources ranging from actual furs to tracking molds. When the children were able to research a New Hampshire mammal of their choice, they were completely invested in the study.
During the weeks that followed, I was able to weave key concepts and skills from our unit of study throughout each day. For our Literacy Block, children read about mammals in a wide variety of genres. They learned how to organize and write reports with topic sentences and paragraphs. In writer's workshop, they created first-person (mammal) diaries, menus, various types of poetry, and fables. We expanded the nature trail word bank to include "animal action" words such as skitter, slink and waddle. I observed how their writing was enhanced by the inclusion of the rich language gathered through trail explorations and classroom extensions. As an afternoon energizer, children acted out definitions of verbs or stories about their animal.
Students also developed math skills during trail activities. When the children excitedly discovered tracks, I taught them the three "P's" of tracking: Print (size and shape), Place (location), and Pattern. The children learned to identify the pattern (waddler, hopper, walker, or leaper) and measure both the size and distance. They measured and created a graph displaying the dramatic difference in the lengths of the strides of New Hampshire mammals, including the observation that the four-inch white-tailed mouse is greatly shorter than the nine-foot-long moose. They would attempt eagerly to solve any word problem that included references to our outdoor explorations.
I was also able to integrate social studies and science. During their research projects, the children honed their mapping skills by identifying the ranges of their animals. We made comparisons of the different types of community ranging from the classroom and natural community up to the national level. Throughout this unit of study we also explored key concepts in the studies of adaptations, classifications, habitats, and food chains. We adorned the word banks in our room with key science and social studies vocabularies.
The promise of a showcase night also inspired my students' engagement and motivation. When we discussed the idea of an audience, we set standards on how to create quality products. They initially had a concern about public speaking. We devised some strategies to build confidence. They practiced individually on a tape recorder, with each other, then in front of a group. By the time Marvelous Mammal Night arrived, the children were thoroughly prepared.
What can we study next?
After the presentations, parents repeatedly commented on how the children were both confident and poised. They were astonished at how much these young "experts" had accomplished. During meeting time the next day, the students shared their excitement and pride. I was especially impressed with their eagerness to begin another unit of exploration. I repeatedly heard, "What can we study next?"
Like most classroom teachers, I am continually searching for ways to enhance student learning. Twenty years of teaching have taught me the value of outdoor or place-based learning. I've observed firsthand how this type of learning experience can positively impact all of my students' learning, across curricular disciplines.
Multiple forms of assessment, from standardized to performance-based, also support my observations: for example, I had observed in the past that my students would often do better on reading tests that were fiction based. Since I have incorporated environmental activities, I have seen an increase in their ability to comprehend non-fiction texts. The questions my students expressed on the trail and during debriefing sessions led us to information sources that were often above grade level. The children worked hard at deciphering the words that would tell them what they wanted to know. I have seen a steady gain on their reading benchmarks (tests for assessing reading levels), especially in the genre of non-fiction.
Outdoor learning activities provide a cross-training for other curricular areas. When children learn to pay attention to details and specifics, they can bring that attention to other areas, for example, noting a decimal point or adding details to a story. Sensory rich observations give rise to enhanced verbal and written expression. Learning how to listen quietly is a valuable skill in a world that is too often chaotic and loud. When children learn the concept of niche, it helps them to understand their own unique role and value in a community. I have also observed that my junior naturalists are keenly aware of what we should do to keep our natural world clean and healthy.
Time and time again, I have seen students who have behavioral and learning issues become confident leaders on the trail. One child in particular comes to mind. He had encountered failure all the way through kindergarten and first grade. Early in the second grade year, he discovered a strange beetle while our class was "bug-hunting" outdoors. When he asked me what it was, I replied, "I don't know, but I know where to look." I pulled out an insect guide and together we found out what kind it was. Together we read the information. Back inside, he asked if he could "teach the class" all about it during our debriefing time. He showed his classmates the picture and slowly read the descriptive passage. Afterwards, he asked if I had any more guidebooks. When I showed him my shelf of nature books, his eyes grew wide and he gleefully announced, "This is the best day of my life." This once reluctant reader could always be enticed by a nature book on critters.
During my early years at Gilford, I would use the trail on random occasions. Although Gilford is a rural area, I was surprised at how few of my children actually spent time outdoors. I loved being outdoors and wanted to share my enthusiasm with children, but didn't really know how to connect the trail with our mandated curricular expectations. My pedagogical tool bag now includes activities from organizations such as Project Learning Tree and the grant funded CO-SEED (Community-based School Environmental Education program) from Antioch New England Graduate School. Both of the programs provided activities, resources, and training to ensure that relevant learning can take place all year long. Subsequently, I have been able to witness my own evolution and the dramatic difference that evolution has made in my work with students. I now use the outdoor environment as a valuable source for instruction where I can help my inspired students make relevant and meaningful connections.
Besides providing multiple opportunities for cross-disciplinary and differentiated instruction, outdoor explorations help children create a valuable personal relationship with the world around them. Alan McIntyre, an environmental and CO-SEED teacher from the local Audubon Center once said to me, "If you provide a child with a sense of place, you help them to build a sense of self." In our demanding, fast-paced, changing world, we all need to feel a sense of place. I am completely convinced that the time we spend in natural explorations can help build vital connections for both our students and for ourselves.
- Wendy teaches at Gilford Elementary School in Gilford, New Hampshire. She is the co-developer of the award-winning Integrated Instructional Model (IIM) (http://www.ges.gilford.k12.nh.us/sites/iim.htm) and co-directs a summer institute for arts integration at Plymouth State University. She presents programs on arts integration, differentiated instruction, and the integration of environmental (place-based) learning. (2009)