In the Schoolyard: Exploring Books

January 21st, 2015

We continue our outdoor learning series with Herbert Broda with a new post that includes some helpful book recommendations and activities for outdoor learning in the winter.

Using Books as a Springboard

moving-the-classroom-outdoorsWinter is a great time to explore books that could be incorporated into outdoor teaching. A few years ago I met Florence Milutinovic of Park Forest Elementary in State College, Pennsylvania who shared with me a wonderful way to incorporate outdoor learning into a unit about prehistoric life. Here is the activity she shared with me for Moving the Classroom Outdoors.

Florence takes her students outside and reads the book If the Dinosaurs Came Back by Bernard Most to her second grade class. This whimsical children’s book entertains kids by showing dinosaurs in a modern day setting, catching lost kites and pushing away rain clouds. She then poses the question, “What if dinosaurs came to our schoolyard?” Students then draw pictures of what that might look like and also write about what they think might happen. Creativity as well as a sense of scale come out as kids write things like, “They would eat all the leaves” or “They would give children rides.”

As students continue to learn more about dinosaurs, Florence poses the question, “Could dinosaurs fit in our schoolyard?” She then cuts yarn to the lengths of various types of dinosaurs—the longest was 180 feet, while the smallest was three feet in length. The class took the yarn outside and held the various lengths to see for themselves where the various “dinosaurs” might be able to go on the school grounds. As a culminating activity, dinosaur “eggs” were hidden on the schoolyard and the class trooped outside for a new twist on the traditional egg hunt!

The dinosaur in the schoolyard activity is a great example of using the outdoors as a venue for learning. Although Florence could have read the book to students seated in a classroom, the concept of “dinosaur” and the scenarios portrayed in the book are enhanced by an outdoor setting. Simply talking indoors about the size of dinosaurs just doesn’t make the same dramatic impression that is created when twenty-five kids hold 180 feet of yarn and try to imagine the body that occupied such a large space.

schoolyard-enhanced-learningPark Forest teachers also suggested two books by Lois Ehlert as great springboards for outdoor activity and discussion. One is Leaf Man, a delightful picture book that tells a story with leaf collages that take the form of different shapes and animals. The book can inspire wonderful art projects using fall leaves, and most certainly makes children more aware of the variety, beauty and complexity of the autumn landscape. What a great precursor to a walk!

Planting a Rainbow is another Ehlert book designed for primary level children. The book is a perfect way to build excitement for planting on the school grounds. It begins in the fall and introduces children to several types of familiar bulbs that can be planted on most school sites. Beautiful pictures then show the springtime flowers that emerge from the bulbs. The book progresses to familiar annual flowers that can be planted as the weather warms. I love the last third of the book that shows the spectacular colors found in common flowers around the schoolyard and in home gardens. The color section would be a perfect segue into an outdoor color matching activity. I like to use paint chip samples (usually readily available from paint or home improvement stores if you explain that you are a teacher) and have children try to match the paint sample with something in the outdoors.

At the primary grades, there are hundreds of picture books that can create enthusiasm for outdoor exploration. Like the books described above, many books written for very young readers immediately and almost instinctively lead to outdoor activities.

If you are looking for a good source of current outdoor related books, the National Outdoor Book Awards (NOBA) website is good place to begin. NOBA is “a non-profit, educational program, sponsored by the National Outdoor Book Awards Foundation, Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, and Idaho State University.” The program was founded in 1997 and includes a children’s books category. You can look at lists of book winners for every year since the program began. You can search only for children’s books and get a good listing of books that have been selected since the beginning of the program. At a time when traditional outdoor-themed books are being eclipsed by social issues and dystopian topics, the NOBA site provides a helpful compilation of books that emphasizes the outdoors.

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