Connecting Your Students to Nature Through Observation and Inquiry

Lil’ Naturalist Toolkit

  • 1 Plastic Hand Lens
  • 1 Magnification bug box
  • Paper Bag Nature Pockets
  • Ring of color swatches (begin with one and continue to grow the colors)
Lil’ Naturalist Toolkit

“Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves.”

Stephen Moss

As a teacher of young children I believe in making sure that students have multiple opportunities to explore their natural surroundings while at school. I made sure to use our school yard and the surrounding open space across the street, known as Ellwood Mesa (now known as the Sperling Preserve at Ellwood Mesa), which was my students’ backyard, as an extension of the indoor classroom. This open space also happened to be one of the largest overwintering sites for the Monarch Butterflies located in California. This amazing open space provided my students with endless outdoor learning opportunities on a weekly basis. During this time in my teaching career, the notion of teaching in a “classroom without walls” truly resonated with my curricula, learning flow/structure, and routines, which reflected the natural rhythms of the outside world; the classroom beyond walls. I found myself relying more and more on pedagogy which brought the outside into the classroom and made learning relevant and connected to the natural world that the children were experiencing on a daily basis. They were learning core content that was supported by the seasonal events taking place in their environment. For example, we learned about life cycles (science), patterns (math), key words (lanaguage arts), journaling (art/language), and so much more by observing what was happening in our big backyard. Helping children to become observers of nature and inquirers of their world, while making content relevant, was one of my deep goals as a teacher. This meant that students needed tools to observe nature and opportunities to be out in it. These two things I could provide and they would naturally discover the rest.

In the photo above you will see the essential ingredients for the Lil’ Naturalist Toolkit. The “nature pocket” booklet is made from 2-3 folded paper bags with some twine or yarn tied around the middle of the folded bags. You can help your students make these and they can decorate it with a leaf print, leaf rubbing, or with their own drawing of something they found in nature. As students find natural objects they can store them in the booklet pockets.

The small hand lense is the perfect size for little hands and these can be bought online in quantities of 10 for about $15.00. The magnification bug boxes can also be bought online, 30 for under $25.00.

The ring of color swatches can be created with either construction paper or you can get color swatches from the any hardware store that sells paint.

Begin Simply – On the first day of school begin with each child chooing one color swatch from a paper bag (prepare with a hole punched in the corner). That will be their nature color to find for the morning. I recommend that you take a nature walk before school begins to observe what colors you see in nature that you will want to make sure you have in the bag. We want to set children up for success, so making sure that they can find a color in nature that matches their swatch is important. Also, have the rings prepared ahead of time with the students name attached to their ring. This will be the beginning of their own Colors in Nature Ring. A peg board works great for organizing the students’ color in nature rings. See the photo below

Example of color swatch

Developing Inquiry Skills – To help develop your students’ observation and inquiry skills you can develop a daily routine of finding “Colors in Nature.” Students begin with one color, which they choose from a bag of colors (without looking) and they get to look for that color in nature during the morning. Once students find their nature object, then they get to illustrate it, write/dictate about it, and share what they found in nature with their classmates at circle time. This activity is also wonderful to use out on the trail, in the school garden, when taking walking field trips, or when taking walking excursions around the school yard/campus. This is a super great routine to begin on the first day of school and a great way to learn about their school environment.

How to use the kit – When taking the students out on a walking excursion, pause on your walk and ask your students to share what they have observed in nature that matches their color. They can then be invited to exchange their color card with another student who had also found their color in nature. Once colors have been exchanged the students are able to look for the new color in nature on the next leg of the walk.

Reflection – When I became a school principal, the night before school started I would visit the classrooms, leaving off a small note of appreciation and best wishes for a new school year and small gift for each of my teachers. I was always so amazed by how fantastic most of the classrooms looked, and how much effort each teacher was putting into making their classrooms look inviting for their students. Every time I did the rounds, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see teachers begin their first day of school with a nature observation toolkit, instead of the stack of textbooks and workbooks, that were usually on their students’ desks?” I wished I could have seen something like a nature toolkit on each students desk, with the hope that students would develop a habit of observation and inquiry that would continue to grow well into their adult years.

I know that we all spend a lot of our own money on school supplies, but there are many ways to get donations from families or other small grant funding sources to support you in purchasing the materials that you need for your students. I never regretted investing in developing my students’ curiosity with the natural world and neither will you!

“Teaching Children about the natural world should be seen as one of the most important events in their lives.”

Thomas Berry

Author: Colleen Million

I am a recently retired elementary school principal and school teacher of 21 years. As a principal I implemented a restorative approach to discipline, school-wide empathy practices and parent education classes on English language acquisition, health, food/nutrition/gardening, empathy, and restorative justice. As an elementary school teacher I was intentional about designing units of study for students in grades Kindergarten-6th grade that focused on developing healthy self-esteem (SEL) through a thematic project-place-based constructivist learning approach with an emphasis on the Ethical Trinity, “Taking Care of Yourself, Taking Care of Each Other, Taking Care of This Place.” The Ethical Trinity became the guiding principle in the work that I did with students and families, which supported the values and modeling that I expressed in my interactions with children and thus created a safe place for learning. Whether students were out on Ellwood Mesa coastal bluffs exploring the natural habitat of the flora and fauna or back at the school site, tending the Monarch butterfly garden, feeding the worms, collecting eggs from their chickens, or harvesting crops in the garden, the ethic of care was intentionally woven into the instructional tapestry. I also dedicated years of service to land preservation, which culminated in the Saving of Ellwood Mesa, an overwintering site for the Monarch Butterflies in the school’s backyard on the Ellwood Bluffs in Goleta, CA. I recently retired as the Co-Director of Teacher Education at Antioch University, Santa Barbara, where I supported and mentored teacher candidates, taught social science methods, and nature-based early childhood curriculum courses.

2 thoughts on “Connecting Your Students to Nature Through Observation and Inquiry”

  1. Thank you Colleen for keeping me in your loop of teachers who are thinking about the importance of involving children in their immediate environment. Wish we could spend some time in person (once the days are not so hot) in order to walk around one of our local community nature places and talk about kid’s learning. Let me know if you are up for this.

    Your friend and colleague, Ann

    Like

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