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

Ideas for the First Weeks of School ~ Getting to Know Your Students and Creating Community

Leading up to the first day of school always gave me the jitters, and many dreams. Dreams which were borderline nightmares because each one woke me with the terror of being disorganized and unprepared, which equaled chaos! There I was, in the middle of my classroom, looking around at boxes of materials, no manipulatives, and a room that had cobwebs and a filthy floor. I had shown up in my classroom with my nightgown on and no shoes. The list of possible fears and nightmares was endless and it did not matter how much I worked tirelessly on getting the classroom ready (inside and outside) for 24 little people, I still had the dreams and worried until the first day was done!

The excitement I had for my first day of teaching kindergarten had been an answer to a dream of mine for a very long time. In fact when I finally did become a “real” credentialed teacher and my placement was in kindergarten, which continued for 11 years, I was elated! I did not become a credentialed teacher until I was 39 years old. I had already been married for 20 years, a mother of three for 17 years (17 year old, 9 year old, 6 year old), and during those 20 years I was mom first and part time worker second to help support our growing family. I took on all kinds of different types of jobs, from newsletter editor of UCSB Family Student Housing, to Resident Coordinator of Family Student Housing, to Program Advisor for Santa Barbara City College, as well as bookkeeper for Million Manufacturing Company which my father-in-law owned. I was the type of mom, who always had hands-on activities for my children to do and believed strongly that connecting them to the outside world and nature were as important as brushing their teeth and giving them a good healthy diet of curiosity and a love for learning! I was always immersed in caring for children from a very young age and began “baby-sitting” at the age of 12 years. I loved being with children of all ages! I was so thankful for the early years of learning with young children and the countless hours of joy I experienced alongside them!

My early years as an adolescent and young adult were consumed with learning about early childhood education. I read extensively about a variety of different pedagogies and was particularly interested in the pedagogies that supported children to learn about their world through play and hands-on learning. I was committed to bringing my passion for play-based learning to my teaching practice and to finding ways to create learning environments that provided children with rich opportunities for learning that touched every part of their being, which for me meant that students needed to be able to incorporate all their senses in their learning process. You may be asking yourself how does one do this in a traditional public school, where there are great expectations for meeting benchmarks and attaining learning targets that are not always developmentally appropriate? How does one teach standards and at the same time make the learning relevant and engaging? How do you bring the outside in and connect it to the curricula you need to teach? How do you create critical thinkers? How do you make learning fun? These were some big questions that I was excited to try and answer!

I hope that you will come along with me on this journey so that I can share with you some of the ways I tackled some of these big questions, and how I went about creating curricula that was engaging and hands-on for my students. The creation of this site is a vehicle for me to share my thoughts on education, and lessons of study/units that are standards based, hands-on, and connect children to their place of learning.

The Ethical Trinity ~ A foundation for building a Caring Community

The Ethical Trinity evolved through a collaboration between my master teacher and myself. I had the great fortune after my teacher credential program to become my master teacher’s teaching partner and we shared one classroom and two classes of students. We wrote an article about our work together, which was over 15 years ago, but I still think that there is a lot of relevant information in the short article (It is included in this post if you are interested in reading it). It was a very special opportunity and one that I cherish still to this day! The first year we taught together, I was the AM kindergarten teacher and she was the PM kindergarten teacher. We both knew how important it was that the students felt positive about where they came to learn each day and that they were empowered to be in charge of their actions. The motto “take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of this place,” became a positive way for us to engage students in developing the concept of what “care” meant and how it looked in their actions. We could observe children doing these things everyday and we emphasized the positive impact it had on the whole classroom community. Often we would hear students say, “Mrs. Million, I am taking care of Andrew, he needs a bandaid.” Or we might overhear a student say to another student, “You are not taking care of this place when you do that. I will help you.” Referring to a student who was throwing away their litter or not playing with the toys in a safe way. These practices became refined overtime to be known as the simple principles of the Ethical Trinity. In later years it became the ethos for all who came to learn in our classroom, whether inside or outside in the classroom without walls. I am often thrilled when I go and visit a classroom of one of my newly credentialed teachers to find the saying on their classroom wall.

Every morning my kindergarten students and I walked into the classroom together and we made our circle around the perimeter of the area carpet. We recited the following saying and we also used body gestures that we did along with each of the phrases. See the video link that shows you exactly how to make the gestures for each line. The children soon learned that this was all we needed to learn how to do so that we could have a safe and caring learning environment.

  • Take Care of Yourself
  • Take Care of Each Other
  • Take Care of This Place
    • insert Video link of how to do this

Building a Community of Care

The Sunflower Activity – Every Floret Makes a Difference is a wonderful activity to do at the beginning of the school year. Using the analogy of being like a floret, which is just one of the many small flowers of the sunflower which is a composite of them all. The children are like the florets, all of them make a difference in the classroom and they all have a place to shine and grow. Please see the photos attached on how you can construct the floret for each child to cut out and then you can place their photo in the center (I have blackened out the photos of my students in the example). I have also included the template for you to use with your students. One of the books that I always loved reading at the beginning of school, is Sunflower Sal by Janet S. Anderson. The story is about Sal, who is a very big girl and she can’t sew a quilt like her Gran can. She eventually finds that her skills lie elsewhere.

This sunflower activity also segues beautifully into expanding the children’s appreciation of Sunflowers and provides a curricula opportunity to begin a lesson study about sunflowers while integrating other content areas. More to come in the next blog 😊

Ethical Trinity
Bulletin Board Example