The research is clear: hands-on, experiential learning leads to higher test scores and lower behavior issues. Common sense tells us that sitting still at a desk – no matter the subject – simply does not result in a child who is constructing knowledge or developing a love of learning.
Indeed, the lack of even the slightest connection to the natural world increases stress, decreases focus, and creates an unintended barrier to the spirit and souls of our children.
I know the challenges teachers face in providing our children a connection to the natural world. I also know the magnitude of academic, physical, intellectual and psychological benefits in providing our children (and ourselves) a connection to nature.
Imagine changing very little about your current situation, and realizing the benefits of providing that connection. I believe you can.
Several public school teachers agreed to spend an afternoon with me walking their hallways and campus with the intention of “seeing” their school in a new way.
Seeing their campus through a new lens allowed teachers to think through the possibility of increasing student’s achievement levels while decreasing behavior issues. Most importantly, they could do it immediately for little cost using the resources surrounding them.
So what can you do as a teacher to respond to the mounting evidence that environmental education can improve academic achievement across all subject areas, increase standardized test scores, while also decreasing behavior issues?
Take a moment to consider the following:
Is There a Window in Your Classroom?
If the answer is yes, you have an opportunity to invite the rich world of birding into your student’s lives. Once birds “find” the food source, you will have an inspiring way to discuss the changing seasons, patterns of migration, habitat, and the list will grow as your students find ways to use this fascinating new science tool to explore and understand their world. What do you need?
- Bird feeder. Window-mounted bird feeders start at $8.95 and can be found online.
- Bird food. Use your favorite search engine to learn native bird species in your area and what they eat. Pick up a bag at your local grocery. Prices start around $10.
- Bird identification poster and/or book: Posters from state wildlife agencies are typically free. Your school library may have a bird identification book. If not, your local library certainly will.
Mother Nature will deliver. If she doesn’t, that can also spur learning: What factors could be repelling our feathered friends? Discussions on habitat and human impact could ensue, not to mention the critical thinking and problem solving skills called to task.
Total Cost: $20
Is There a Tree Close to your Classroom/Home?
If you can see it out of your window, all the better.
- Use this tree to illustrate and track the changing seasons.
- Go out to the tree – yes, as an entire class. Before you go, give your students an age-appropriate specific task (i.e.: we are going to “meet” our tree, write down observations you make using all of your senses, draw a picture or write a description of the tree, etc.)
- Once you return to class use technology (i.e.: appropriate search engines) to identify the tree. Is it native? Does it produce fruit? Etc.
Opportunities for math, science, literacy and history lessons abound from the simple source of one tree.
Total cost: $0
Do you Currently Provide a “Show & Tell” Opportunity? Could you?
Replace your current “Show &Tell” time with a Natural Science Museum. Sound daunting? I promise it’s not!
- Find something from the natural world at your home (i.e.: leaf, interesting rock or stick, old bird’s nest, etc.)
- Bring it to class.
- Tell your students you are starting a Natural Science Museum in your classroom and you want them to be the scientists.
- You will be the first scientist. Show them what you brought in and model for them what you expect them to do.
- Let’s say you bring in a brightly colored leaf. You can tell them you found it in your front yard. You were drawn to its beautiful color. You looked around to see where it came from. There is a tree nearby with similar leaves, so you hypothesize it came from that tree. Ask the students why it’s brightly colored.
- Depending on the age of your students this leaf could lead to a conversation on the changing seasons, or the fact that leaves change color because the chlorophyll has drained from the leaf signaling the end of its life and the beginning of a new season. You may have the students write a poem about the leaf, or the tree, or the Fall or….well, you get the picture.
- Set up a small area of your room to be the Natural Science Museum. Students can bring things in, but they have to learn and then teach their peers about the item.
- At the end of the week all items are returned to nature because a dead leaf decomposes to provide rich soil for the next generation of trees, feathers provide calcium for the squirrels that gnaw on them, etc.
You are encouraging students (and possibly whole families) to go outside when they are away from school. This exercise has proven to be popular with all of my students from preschool straight through eighth grade! Your expectations of what knowledge they bring to share should increase with age.
Total cost: $0
These are some ideas that may or may not resonate with your school or home, but are worth considering and wondering if you can tweak them to fit your class or your family. I believe if we use our collaborative minds and the “hidden” opportunities in front of us, we can immediately provide our children the ample benefits of connecting to their natural world.
How Nature Can Nurture the Hybrid Mind — an excerpt from “The Nature Principle“ in Outside Magazine.
Thoughts Following the First White House Summit on Environmental Education: It’s Time to Redefine Green Jobs