The New York Times recently ran an article about Fiddleheads Forest School near Seattle, where the outdoors serve as classrooms without walls. Stenhouse author Herb Broda wrote an encouraging response to the article. Read below and then check out his books Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors, as well as his recent blog posts of practical ideas that help you turn your schoolyard into an outdoor classroom.
Learning from Fiddleheads
The sky is the ceiling and the landscape provides the audio-visual experiences at the Fiddleheads Forest School near Seattle. At this innovative preschool, eloquently described in a recent New York Times feature Preschool Without Walls by Lillian Mongeaudec (Dec. 29, 2015) students spend four hours a day – rain or shine—in classrooms among the native trees in the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. Students are engaged in a wide range of activities that focus on experiencing the surrounding environment. They are immersed in hands-on nature like digging, building forts, taking “listening walks” and building child-size nests in wood chip piles.
The most popular word at Fiddleheads is “notice”. Primary emphasis is given to observing and describing the nature that is literally at children’s fingertips. “Kids are the best at sharing in joy and wonder”, explains a teacher.
Nature preschools with daily outdoor experiences at the heart of their programs have been growing in number—up from twenty in 2008 to ninety-two currently, according to the Times article. Now, I realize that it is highly unlikely that outdoor immersion preschools like Fiddleheads will eventually dominate the scene. Indeed, there are solid arguments both pro and con regarding totally outdoor-based programming. The article does, however, encourage serious consideration of outdoor learning as an effective instructional method.
It really doesn’t matter to me whether a school has a totally outdoor-based program, or a more typical situation where teachers step outside the classroom door to use the schoolyard as a teaching tool. The important thing is that children are receiving frequent contact with nature.
Regular exposure to the natural world provides many benefits that enrich instruction and reconnect children with the outdoors:
- Nature provides both a spacious venue for learning, as well as an abundant source of content. Both students and teachers welcome a change of pace and place. Variety is indeed the spice of life—and the energizer of teaching.
- The outdoors is the ideal place to teach universal process skills like observing, describing, classifying and analyzing. Not only are these skills critical to science, they are also integral to language arts, mathematics and the creative arts.
- Outdoor learning experiences provide generous opportunities for creative play, and a necessary respite from the incessant beeps and glare of electronic devices. We are in desperate need of the calming effects that only nature can provide.
- Research over the last several years is confirming that frequent outdoor experiences contribute to good health, positive mental attitude and even improved cognitive function. It isn’t necessary to be outdoors all day everyday to achieve these benefits. All that is required are regular doses of what author Richard Louv calls “Vitamin N” (Nature).
The article gives me great hope! At a time when children’s natural curiosity about the outdoors is eclipsed by the demands of busy schedules and the ever-present glow of video screens, schools may be the only place where children are encouraged to interact with nature. It’s empowering to realize that the enthusiastic engagement and joy of learning that happens daily at Fiddleheads is possible on your schoolyard!
January 21st, 2016
The weather might be getting cooler, but it’s still a great time to take your class outdoors! Here are some tips from Herb Broda on finding the best seat in the house — or out of the house. Herb is the author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors.
When is the best time for outdoor learning? Any month will work, but the start of the school year is ideal!
“But, what should I do first?” I strongly encourage folks to begin by locating a suitable staging area near the school. I like to call it the “Teaching/Meeting Area.”
The teaching/ meeting area is more than just a location—it’s a powerful classroom management tool. Rather than just running out the door and scattering on the lawn, students know that they are to move directly to the meeting area where they will sit, hear directions for the activity or receive materials—actually experience an introduction to a lesson just as they would indoors.
As you plan the outdoor meeting area, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Keep it close to the building. The less walking time the better. The longer the walk to the teaching/meeting area, the longer it will take to bring everyone back on task.
- Be aware of distractions and student traffic patterns. Avoid nearby playground equipment and walking routes that students and adults typically use.
- Be aware of sun and shade. If you know there will be a certain time of day when the space will get heavy usage, try to find a spot that may be a bit sheltered from the sun
The best news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on an outdoor meeting area! Here are a few basic ideas:
Logs provide ideal seating material! They are inexpensive or free, very easily obtained, and readily moved. Logs placed vertically will accommodate varying student heights and, by including several log diameters, most any size posterior can also be accommodated!
Probably the major downside to using logs is that they are destined to disappear! Especially in damp areas, logs will rot in a few years and will need to be replaced. Contact a local nature center to learn what types of trees are most rot resistant in your area. Some teachers have also noted that logs may attract nests of insects, so inspect and replace is a good policy.
Although replacement will be necessary, a rotting log beautifully turns into a teaching tool when its useful life as a seat is over. Just lay the log on its side near your outdoor learning area and let students watch how the log becomes a habitat for tiny critters, and eventually enriches the soil.
Rocks and Boulders
Rocks and stones are certainly durable, but also heavy! Before installing a rock or boulder seating area you need to be very sure that your location will not need to be changed.
Another potential down side of rock seating is the difficulty of trimming around the rocks if they are in a grassy area. Logs can be easily rolled aside for mowing, but rocks require manual trimming or things can look overgrown by mid-summer.
No need to spend a lot of money on benches. Just make sure that they are sturdy and safe. One Wisconsin school just used one long sturdy bench as its teaching meeting area. You can also position logs horizontally, or as supports for boards to create a bench.
Flexible and Cheap!
It’s best to use the same location for your meeting area, but you don’t have to have fixed seating in place. Students can carry old stadium cushions to the outdoor teaching/meeting area. Put out a general call for cushions and you may receive more than you need! Another option is to take gallon freezer bags and stuff them with rags or paper– a throwback to the sit-upons made popular by Girl Scouts. Some companies make bags larger than one gallon, which makes it easier to accommodate bigger students.
A school in Michigan contacted a local home improvement store and received a classroom set of plastic pails. The buckets can be inverted to create seating, and also provide a handy way to carry materials outside.
A word about commercial seating products
An internet search for “outdoor seating” will yield thousands of options! The only limit is your budget! If you decide to invest in commercial seating, I would encourage the use of tables that also provide seating. Many schools have utilized sturdy picnic tables, some of which are convertible from bench to picnic table. A sturdy table/seat that is weather resistant and tough enough to last for many years will be expensive. I encourage schools to use inexpensive items like logs or simple benches until you are certain where you want to permanently place the meeting area.
For further information: Chapter Two, “Enhancing the Schoolyard for Outdoor Learning”, from Moving the Classroom Outdoors (Stenhouse Publishers) has additional information and pictures relating to setting up an outdoor teaching/meeting space.
September 21st, 2015
We continue our series on outdoor education with another post from Herb Broda. Now that true spring weather is surely just around the corner, he gives us some ideas on how to encourage students to be more observant of nature around them.
Although change always occurs in nature, the shift from winter to spring is for me one of the greatest shows on earth! From a curricular standpoint, this amazing spectacle of renewal provides a great backdrop for teaching the critical skill of careful observation. The process skill of observation is integral to most content areas, including literacy, science, mathematics, the social sciences and the arts.
Now is a great time to think about how the dramatic change of seasons can be woven into your literacy curriculum. For example, observing the shift from winter to spring can be incorporated into many writing genres. Descriptive and expository writing are the most obvious, but journals and poetry are easily fueled by the changes seen in nature. Even narrative and persuasive writing can be sparked by close observation of changes outside.
Teachers repeatedly mention that a primary goal of outdoor learning is to make children more observant. Improved observation skills transfer outside of the classroom also. One teacher shared how a student burst into his classroom and said, “I saw tracks on my way to school today!” Although the child had probably passed tracks dozens of times before, a lesson about tracks on the schoolyard had made this child more alert even when he wasn’t in school.
Careful observation of seasonal changes is a great introduction to the study of phenology, which Webster defines as “periodic biological phenomena that are correlated with climatic conditions.” Observing changes and the conditions that surround transitions fosters strong observation skills, and also emphasizes the interconnectedness of the natural world. The USA National Phenology Network has an excellent website that includes resources and activities for fostering observation skills through the lens of phenology. I encourage you to take a look at their material.
With the low cost of digital cameras, students can use their observations to create scrapbooks, posters and phenology wheels with pictures that they have taken. By observing a small area closely over time students become amazingly adept at detecting even slight changes. Excitement erupted at one Pennsylvania school when students saw a tiny patch of grass emerge as the winter snow began to melt. In a world dominated by computer imagery and electronic beeps, how refreshing to have students thrilled to see a few blades of grass emerging from under the snow!
In Wisconsin, Georgia Gόmez-Ibáñez helps her students become better observers of nature by creating a “phenology wheel” with her students. Each year she has the students pick a spot where they stand and take a picture each month and arrange the pictures in a circle. She also has another wheel that is divided by month and students keep track of what they notice as seasons change. To guide the observations, she has a checklist that identifies characteristic changes that can be easily spotted in each season, such as certain plants and animals that are evident at various times.
If it’s still snowy in your area, go outside to look for “track stories” after a fresh snowfall. It’s great fun and encourages careful observation, attention to detail and speculation. Tracks after a snowfall can show evidence of animal homes, feeding patterns, and even signs of predator-prey interaction. Wisconsin teacher Matt Tiller takes advantage of the “thaw” that usually occurs in snowy areas, and has students look for the mazes of little tunnels that are uncovered when snow melts in an open field. Matt calls it looking for mouse condominiums. This great sign-of-life activity is based upon a description found in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.
Take advantage of the enthusiasm that is sure to erupt as we emerge from a long winter and begin to see the reassuring signs of spring. Getting students to observe nature closely will never be easier or more rewarding!
March 27th, 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
Winter 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.
Park 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.
January 21st, 2015
We are excited to have another great post from Herb Broda, author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors. In this post he offers some ideas for taking math outdoors to re-energize your classroom and to provide some important math visuals for your students. Check out Herb’s earlier blog post about the Tale of the Tape.
Taking Math Outdoors
It was a strange sight—twenty three fifth graders forming several head-to-toe lines as they stretched out on the playground. Although it looked like a game, these students were actually taking an abstract concept and translating it into concrete (pardon the pun!) terms.
Teacher Laura Grimm had been teaching the concept of data representation through graphing. A variety of examples had been provided indoors through books and other media. But just looking at examples and doing an occasional worksheet was only part of the instructional design. Laura wanted her students to also experience the concept. The playground provided a perfect venue for using the outdoors as a teaching tool.
The human bar graph.
Students grouped themselves according to birth month. Signs had been placed on the ground for the twelve months so students found the correct month and stretched out to form their head-to-toe lines on the pavement. The activity visually verified that most students in this year’s class were born in August.
As an extension activity, Laura has kids line up according to birth dates. The long line is closed to form a circle on the blacktop. She then draws lines on the ground to show where the four seasons would fall and an instant circle graph/pie chart is created.
Although students had fun with the activities, there also was a subtle learning process taking place. Abstract concepts like “data representation”, “bar graph” and “circle graph” suddenly take on new meanings as students experience these ideas rather than only read about them. After you have been a part of a living bar graph you definitely have a stronger perception of the concept!
Students line up by birth month.
Chalk lines show the four seasons in a year.
I want to emphasize that the indoor instruction that took place prior to going outside was just as important as the outdoor experience. It was very helpful for students to hear about the abstract concepts first, and then have the clarifying activity outside. Another variation could have been to do the outdoor activity first as an advanced organizer or motivator, and then do the indoor instruction. My preference with this content, though, would be to frontload the abstractions and then use the outdoors to provide clarity.
This activity is a great example of how the outdoors can be used as a venue for instruction, not just as a source of content. We often think that going outside has to mean doing some type of analysis or investigation of nature. Although that’s certainly a valid use of the schoolyard, often going outside can provide a motivating change of pace and place just because we are in a different venue. The change of place can revitalize and refocus activities that have become overly routine indoors. Reading a story, having a class discussion or even practicing spelling words (with sidewalk chalk) are often approached with renewed energy and focus simply because of the outdoor venue.
Outdoor activities do not have to be lengthy. In the human bar graph example described above, Laura’s class was outside for only about 15-20 minutes. I feel strongly that the best use of the school grounds for instruction is to take students outside briefly to re-focus on a specific concept that is currently being developed indoors. The brief outdoor activity gives a change of pace and place and provides an opportunity to approach the concept from an experiential perspective.
December 3rd, 2014
We are starting — or rather, re-starting — an occasional web series with author Herb Broda, whose books Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors encourage teachers to take advantage of the natural surroundings around their schools, whether it’s a concrete slab parking lot, or woods and a stream. “The schoolyard can provide a powerful change of pace and place for enhancing instruction,” he says. In this series Herb will share activities that can be taken directly into — or out of — the classroom and engage students across the content areas. For this first activity, all you need is a leaf and a piece of paper.
The Tale of the Tape
Process skills cut across content lines and are important in most all fields of study. For example, being able to analyze data, information, or situations is just as important in social studies as it is in science, mathematics, or literature. Likewise, observing, describing, classifying, organizing, inferring, predicting, and evaluating have universal application. Process skills can be taught either indoors or out. However, by occasionally going outside to focus on cross-disciplinary skills such as observing and describing, we can add welcome variety to instruction.
Here is an activity that focuses on two process skills that are integral to developing writers and critical thinkers: observing and describing. Although I have used this activity successfully both inside and outside, it has maximum impact when done outside. There is something about nature that seems to pull at all the senses and heighten creativity.
What you will need: masking tape, leaves or other natural objects, and a roll of adding machine tape. Students use a two or three foot strip of adding machine tape to record a long list of words or phrases that describe the leaf. This unusual writing surface works well to foster creative thinking.
Each student is given a strip of the paper, a leaf (all of which come from the same bush or tree), and a piece of masking tape. Students tape the leaf to the top of the strip and write as many words or phrases as possible that describe something about the leaf. Encourage them to fill the tape with descriptive words! Allow enough time for the “furrowed brow” to develop. The first ten or twelve items are usually pretty easy to do-it’s the next ten or fifteen that really force close observation and creative thinking. Let students remove the leaf from the paper to get a better look.
When you see that most have exhausted their word banks, ask a volunteer to read his or her list very slowly. As the list is read, students should check off items that are the same or very similar to what they have written. You can also have one student keep a master list of all the words that are generated. As others read the items that they still have unmarked, continue to add to the master list.
Depending on your objective and the age of the students, your follow-up discussion can take a variety of turns. You can simply emphasize that there are many words that can be used to describe a simple object. For a class of twenty, you will probably come up with more than one hundred different descriptive words. It’s a valuable learning experience for kids just to see that people can look at the same object and see many different things. It’s also interesting to have students look at their lists and see if they can find any patterns. Often, you can quickly tell who has the scientific bent in the group (lobed, chlorophyll, food factory), or the artistic (emerald green, symmetrical) or the tactile (rough, soft, fuzzy). Kids quickly see that the mind gets in one track for awhile and generates descriptors all of one type. When that well goes dry, the brain dips into another source.
This activity is a great way to emphasize the power of careful observation-a critical skill in any content area. Teachers use this activity very successfully as a motivator or introduction to the study of adjectives and descriptive writing. It’s a good one to use prior to any activity that demands rich description or careful observation. Not much adaptation is needed for varying grade levels. Of course, higher grade levels will generate more complex and varied descriptive words or phrases. At upper grade levels, the activity can serve as an entry into a topic (e.g., use stones instead of leaves as an introduction to a geology unit). I know some high school science teachers who use it prior to a study of plants.
Teachers have used many items for this activity. Stones, twigs, leaves, and even kernels of corn have been taped to the paper strips. It’s most effective to use natural materials that come from the same source (like twigs from the same tree, or corn kernels from the same ear). The power of this activity emerges when students realize that a wide diversity of observations can be generated from looking at very similar objects.
Step outside and try the Tale of the Tape. Treat yourself and your students to a change of pace and place!
October 22nd, 2014
This week is National Environmental Education Week and we invited author and educator Herb Broda to talk about why it’s important for children to experience the “real thing” when it comes to nature, instead of watching it on a YouTube video. To honor National Environmental Education Week, we have assembled a special package of three books that give you practical, classroom-ready ideas to bring the outdoors into your classroom and let your students experience nature first-hand. The package includes two of Broda’s books: Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors, as well as Childhood and Nature by David Sobel.
Citizen Science: A Powerful Teaching Tool
I heard an interesting story a few days ago. A teacher-friend of mine had her 8th grade students raise tomato plants from seed and then transplant them into the school garden. To build enthusiasm, she explained that the crop would then provide some food to be served in the cafeteria. One student was appalled, however. “ Who would want to eat those plants!” It quickly became obvious that the student didn’t realize that tomatoes grew on plants—she thought that the entire plant would be served for lunch.
Although the story brings a smile, hopefully it is not a typical scenario. It does underscore, however, the urgency and value of getting students involved with “real environmental learning”—handling the materials that are a part of our natural world. My friend’s student will now remember that tomatoes in the grocery store come from plants like the ones she planted!
With our incredibly easy access to media-rich websites, YouTube videos, interactive learning games, etc. we sometimes let “technomedia” trump real-life environmental experiences.
Environmental Education Week is a great time to consider incorporating Citizen Science into your teaching. It can provide a beautiful blending of hands-on environmental learning with technology. According to Citizen Science Central at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, citizen science involves “projects in which volunteers partner with scientists to answer real world questions”. In a K-12 context, the volunteers are our students who partner with scientists via dozens of websites devoted to exploring specific scientific questions.
Citizen science is part of a broad concept called Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR). Included under this banner could be everything from playground temperature recording activities by elementary school students, to sophisticated sky observations made by amateur astronomers. The unifying factor, however, is the partnering with professional scientists to intentionally gather data to focus on a question.
Citizen science projects are not new. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count has been around for over 100 years and is a classic example of utilizing citizen participation to gather information over a huge geographic area. Gathering data on the scale of the Audubon Bird Count would be impossible without citizen volunteers.
If you are looking for a handy listing of a variety of citizen science projects, there are two sources that I think are especially good. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a central place to find descriptions of dozens of citizen science projects. The site allows new projects to add information, making the site a constantly expanding resource. Although the site does not claim to provide a complete list of citizen science projects, it is an excellent starting point for teachers curious to see if there might be a project that aligns with the local curriculum.
A second great citizen science project locator is “Scistarter: Science we can do together”.
This wonderful site provides the ability to pick an activity (e.g. at school, at home, at the beach in the car, etc.) or a topic (e.g. animals, food, insects, etc.). The site features a project of the day, newsletter and a blog.
For each project listed, Scistarter gives a very practical one page overview of the project, plus a sidebar that provides at-a-glance information about participation fees (if any), other expenses, location restrictions, indoor or outdoor activity, appropriate grade range, and any special gear or equipment needed. This handy overview can save valuable time by allowing you to narrow down very quickly to the project you wish to explore in more depth.
One of my favorite citizen science projects is the Journey North Tulip Test Gardens Project. The tulip project is just one of many programs available at the Journey North website.
Following easy instructions from Journey North, students plant a specific variety of tulip in the fall. They then go to the project website and log the zip code of their community. A symbol appears on a map of North America that shows their exact location. As spring approaches, students check the tulip garden for signs of emerging plants. When plants are detected, students return to the website and a new icon appears representing plant emergence at their school. When tulips are in bloom, students make a final data entry and a third icon symbolizes the blooming tulips.
As hundreds of classrooms across North America track the emergence and blooming of tulips, students can check weekly to see how spring moves across the continent. The website also provides animation so students can replay the week-by-week progression. The Tulip Garden Study is an elegant example of an engaging citizen science project that promotes interest in nature throughout much of the school year.
I continue to be both amazed and gratified at the enthusiasm generated when children take part in scientific studies connected with other schools and real scientists. As one student said. “This isn’t textbook stuff—it’s the real thing!”.
April 17th, 2012
Herb’s done the fieldwork so we don’t have to…he dismantles every roadblock and provides clever dynamics for motivating staff, parents, and students to connect with the outdoors and improve learning.
—Rick Wormeli, from the foreword to Moving the Classroom Outdoors
Are you intrigued by the benefits of outdoor learning and looking to get started or expand some initial projects? Herb Broda’s new book, Moving the Classroom Outdoors, is your guide. Rooted in the experiences of dozens of educators in schools and nature centers across the country, this companion to Herb’s earlier book, Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning, offers a wealth of practical advice for making outdoor learning an important part of the curriculum at any school—urban, suburban, or rural.
Starting with key planning issues that address the physical site, staff, and parents, Herb offers suggestions for establishing a long-term commitment, class management, ensuring safety, working with volunteers, fund-raising, and more. The heart of the book presents case studies of schools that have successful outdoor learning programs, complete with illustrative photos.
You’ll also find an outdoor activity sampler, information on incorporating technology into the outdoor learning experience, a chapter on the unique concerns of urban schools, and resources and organizations for sustaining your outdoor initiatives.
The print version of Moving the Classroom Outdoors will arrive in our warehouse later this month. Browse the entire book online now.
May 11th, 2011
This week’s Quick Tip comes from Herbert Broda’s 2007 book Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning: Using the Outdoors as an Instructional Tool, K-8. The book just received the Environmental Education Council of Ohio’s Publication Award. The award was presented to Herb at the organization’s annual meeting and is given to a publication that has made a significant contribution to the public understanding of an environmental issue.
The outdoors can serve as both venue and content as students use spoken, written, and visual language. Because the outdoors pulls at the senses, the schoolyard can provide fantastic raw material for description!
The outdoors can provide great inspiration for writing poetry. Because the outdoors stimulates thinking in so many directions, students don’t have a problem fi nding substance for poetry writing. A very effective introduction to poetry is the “See What I Found” formula poem. This is one of those activities that has been around for many years, but I have no idea who may have “invented” it. Although this may not fit a technical description of poetry, it certainly emphasizes the aesthetic qualities of language and coaxes the use of descriptive words. The structure of this five-line poem is very simple:
First line: See what I found?
Second line: (name of object)
Third line: (adjectives and/or descriptive phrase)
Fourth line: (tell where you found it)
Fifth line: (make a comment or question about it)
See what I found?
Flitting and glowing in the sunlight.
It’s resting on a flower.
I wonder how long it will stay?
There are many ways to do this poetry activity. Sometimes I will have students find an object in nature that is no larger than a thumbnail. They bring the object to the outdoor teaching area and write the “See What I Found” poem. They always, then, return the natural items back to the original locations.
Another variation is to have kids take their clipboards or lapboards and find something interesting without removing it from its setting. This can be another one of those activities that can focus on either the macro or micro aspects of the schoolyard. You can have students find a special spot and then write about something no more than 3 feet away from them. Or you can have them sit on the grass and write about something they see in the distance. I really like this option since it does not disturb the environment, and makes it possible to utilize an animal or large object in the poem. It’s also great to see kids enjoying the outdoors, observing and writing.
The previously described Tale of the Tape activity (Chapter 4), in which students generate a listing of adjectives and descriptive phrases for a natural object, makes a wonderful precursor to the “See What I Found” poem. One teacher includes Tale of the Tape as an introduction to the use of the thesaurus.
The schoolyard can provide a magnificent setting for many traditional language arts activities. For example, Pam Tempest takes advantage of the Florida sunshine by frequently taking her students outside for reading. Sometimes she reads a story aloud to students outside and other times the schoolyard is used for sustained silent reading. Sometimes Pam has a small group of students who borrow a quilt and sit outside of her classroom windows on the lawn and read.
An Ohio teacher achieves a change of pace and place by taking students outside to write poetry on the sidewalk with colorful chalk. The novel setting and unconventional writing tools spur the creative juices, with nature often providing a creative writing prompt.
Since the outdoors is so conducive to reading or writing, it is well worth the effort to create an outdoor seating area. As a bonus, an outdoor courtyard or other type of outdoor seating area can also serve as a location for performance. Language arts standards emphasize that students should be able to use spoken, written, and visual language to communicate for different purposes. In the outdoors, those purposes might include describing evidence of an environmental problem found on the school site and then researching the problem, gathering data, and proposing solutions. Or it might include describing one’s own feelings and responses to the outdoors.
April 26th, 2011
In his book Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning, Herb Broda shows how the school grounds can become an enriching extension of the classroom. In this week’s Quick Tip, Herb talks about how to bring the outdoors into the classroom with little effort.
I have a vivid image of Linda Lang’s former classroom. She used to teach in one of those wonderful old rooms with creaky wooden floors and lots of wall space. There wasn’t much wall to be seen, though, since nearly every square inch was covered—mostly with naturerelated posters and student work that refl ected the outdoors.
The outside wall was blessed with many windows, one of which had a large pine tree growing nearby. She had placed bird feeders near the windows and the pine provided cover for the birds. Kids busily observed the various species of birds at the feeders and then recorded what they saw. Her class participated in the Classroom FeederWatch program through Cornell University, which actually turns the bird feeder outside the window into an interdisciplinary research activity and enables children to share their data with students across the country. The data is then accessible online and can be compared with fi ndings in other regions. More information about this program is in the “Resources” section at the end of this book.
Placed near classroom windows, feeders can provide a unique opportunity for students to get an up-close look at wildlife without leaving the classroom. Feeders also can promote a stewardship ethic as students take responsibility for filling and maintaining the feeders.
Feeders also provide a great opportunity to carry the message of enjoying nature back to the home. Simple bird feeders can be made from a variety of simple materials and often require no construction. Pie pans, plastic bottles, and pine cones with peanut butter and seeds can be converted easily into bird feeders that kids can watch at home. Linda feels that this carryover factor is one of the most important outcomes of outdoor-based teaching. If kids get excited about something they see in nature, hopefully they will develop and share a sense of caring and concern for the environment.
Having some plants or domestic animals in the classroom can provide a strong personal link with nature. Even things as simple as a small aquarium or some indoor plants on the windowsill can provide a natural feel to the classroom. If students take on the tasks of cleaning, feeding, watering, and generally taking care of these living things, feelings of responsibility and stewardship begin to develop.
Some teachers have found classroom pets to be valuable teaching tools. I’ve seen classrooms with gerbils, hamsters, mice, rats, snakes, even ants and worm farms! The decision whether or not to keep a live animal in a classroom is one that needs to be considered carefully, however. Multiple factors need to be evaluated, such as:
- amount of care needed
- purchase or donation of the animal
- health needs of the animal
- cages or other environment
- weekend and vacation arrangements
- cost of feeding and maintaining the animal
- student allergies or other health concerns
- appropriateness of the animal for your classroom
The pet should be included in the classroom only if it can be justified as a way to teach learning objectives throughout the year.
The modeling of humane and compassionate animal care is essential. Several outstanding websites are referenced in this book’s “Resources” section that provide a useful background for making a decision concerning pets in the classroom.
September 28th, 2010