Enjoying the Great Outdoors with Your Students

by K. J. Wagner

One of joys of teaching is being able to give students experiences. The outdoors can provide you and your students with many wonderful experiences that will be remembered and treasured.

The outdoors can also provide your students with many learning opportunities. Do not think, however, that you have to create elaborate lesson plans and activities to introduce your students to the wonders found in nature. It isn't necessary to identify every tree, flower, or bird to enjoy them.

Most children are full of curiosity and questions about nature. When your students ask questions (and they will), inform them that there are many excellent books and resources available in which to find information. When you return to the classroom, provide students with the appropriate books, magazines, and links to Web sites where they may find answers to their questions.

Try a few of these simple activities during the coming weeks:

Take a "sense" walk. Whether you are walking on the playground, around the block, or in a park, walk at an unhurried pace with your senses alert. Listen to the sounds. Do you hear a starling's song? The wind in the leaves? What do you smell? Freshly cut grass? Salty sea air? Do you feel the hot sun? A gentle breeze?

Have students bring along some paper and pencils and create a word bank of descriptive words as they see, hear, smell, and touch. When they return to class, have them use their word banks (and their memories) to create a nature poem, a short story, a journal entry, or a descriptive paragraph. Encourage younger students to draw pictures of what they saw, heard, smelled, and touched on the walk.
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Magnify nature. An ordinary magnifying glass can reveal an extraordinary miniature world right outside your classroom door. Allow your students to use the glass to examine a snail inching its way through the grass, an ant dragging a bread crumb, or a caterpillar twirling around a twig. Take a close-up look at the veins in a maple leaf, a single blade of grass, tiny tadpoles swimming in a puddle, or a dandelion blossom.

Children love to play hide-and-seek. Why not try looking for the hiding places of insect life? What inhabitants can you find in a tree's bark or in a small clump of weeds? Encourage your students to simply observe, not disturb.

Become a nature journalist. Give students small notepads. Tell them that the notepads are special "field journals" in which they will record their notes. Once outside, have the students select something to observe. (It could be a patch of flowers, a puddle, an insect, or just about anything.). Tell students to make "entries" in their journals about what they discover. Encourage them not only to write in the journal, but to draw and label what they observe also. Too, encourage them to write down questions they may have.

Adopt a tree. If you have trees growing nearby, encourage your students to "adopt a tree." Tell them to choose one special tree as theirs and become familiar with it. Have them sit or lie under the tree and look up through the branches. Encourage them to notice the pattern of the limbs; feel the texture of the bark; examine the shape of the leaves. Are the edges serrated or smooth? Do birds nest in the tree? Does the tree stay green all winter, or does it lose its leaves in the fall?

Tell your students that trees provide homes and food for a variety of creatures. A single tree can support an abundance of life—birds, squirrels, and insects. Students may enjoy discovering and observing the wildlife their tree supports.

Encourage students to make prints of the leaves of their tree. Simply place the leaf on a sheet of drawing paper. Place another sheet of paper on top of the leaf. Rub a crayon (held sideways with the paper peeled off) in one direction across the paper until an outline of the leaf appears. Students may enjoy writing a descriptive paragraph about their tree on the paper. Students may also enjoy creating a tree bark rubbing. Simply place a piece of drawing paper on the tree trunk and have the students rub a crayon over the paper.

Have students make observations about the tree much as a scientist would. Tell them to measure the tree's width, examine and smell the bark, feel the texture of the leaves and so forth. You may wish to provide an observation chart with they can fill in.

Go on a "treasure hunt." Make a list of treasures to search for ahead of time. Your list may include for example: an acorn, a small, smooth stone, a pinecone. The items on your list will depend on your locale and your students' age. To make the hunt more challenging, set a time limit for the search.

Create nature crafts. With some creativity and imagination, surplus natural material found in the out-of-doors can provide your students with fun projects. They may enjoy making a necklace of shells. Long-stemmed daisies can be braided together to form a chain bracelet. Dried corn husks can be woven together to form coasters. Seeds, bird feathers, moss, dried berries, or just about any lightweight natural material could be glued to a heavy piece of cardboard to create an interesting collage.

The outdoors provides many opportunities for your and your students to wander and wonder, think critically, be creative and imaginative, and to experience nature up close. The moments of today form the memories of tomorrow. What better memories could we give our students than those spent together, enjoying the beauty and wonder of nature?