Taking a nature walk

Upon reflection on last year’s practice of taking children on “nature walks” outside, I see how much they enjoyed nature, made gains in vocabulary and became familiar with diversity in plants. In June, at the end of the school year, I had the occasion to write to the school families about their children’s nature learning from experiences in the tended garden around the building.

Child gently touches leaves of Paw Paw treeDear families,

Children who had never heard of a Paw paw tree now know where one is located in the Garden and may even recognize the shape of its leaves. This is significant because it represents the many times we’ve run to it, stopped to feel the leaves and notice how they have gotten bigger since last time, and the times we’ve picked leaves up some from the ground and felt the bare twigs and flower buds. The children have become familiar with several other trees (at least with what they can touch at ground level) and other plants by touch and smell. They understand that birds, deer, squirrels, and smaller animals, such as insects, live in the garden. They have learned to touch plants gently so the parts of the plants that are still being used do not get damaged.

Children stand around a still garden fountainThe sometimes-on and sometimes-off flow of water from the upper pool source to the “pond” (garden fountain) has challenged them to think about where the water might come from, why it stopped flowing, and what they can do about it. Some children speculated that the rocks in the upper pool are blocking the flow, or maybe too many leaves fell into the water and were excited to share their plans for reestablishing the flow. I wish I could let them try out their ideas for restoring the flow!

There are many ideas we can let them try out. These are questions children asked aloud or through their actions: “Are the peas ready to pick?” “Should I bury the beetle back in the sand where I found it?” What made the holes in the Paw paw leaf?” “How do birds get food from the bird feeder?” “Is that smell coming from the bush?” “What can I hear when I put the shell up to my ear?” “What does clay stick to besides my hands?” “How far will this leaf go when I throw it?” “Which is bigger, this leaf or my shoe?” “What lives under a log?” “How can I pour water into this tube?”

Through their investigations they are building a beginning understanding about plant life cycles, seasonal changes in plant life, the needs of small animals, diversity in plants, the properties of earth materials, and the physics of sound and water flow.

Sharing children’s work with their families strengthens their learning because they have additional opportunities to talk about their ideas and use new vocabulary words. Family members learn how deeply children think about science topics and may more often provide ways for children to try out ideas.

Clouds in sky above buildingsDuring a nature walk children may learn many new words: cloud cover, leaf, underside, stem, bark, insect, community. Repeating the walk each week gives them opportunities to use that vocabulary again and again, and to see changes in the area of the walk as weather and seasons change. Every early childhood program has some aspect of nature available to observe, talk about, and record. Can you see the sky from your front stoop? Whether you have a patch of grass or a huge field of prairie, your children can use their senses to experience it, describe it and notice weekly changes.

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4 Responses to Taking a nature walk

  1. Paula Young says:

    You never know what children might see/find on a nature walk, or even in your backyard! My granddaughters (4 & 6) found a locust shedding it’s exoskeleton yesterday. They were fascinated! They had seen locust “shells” before, but never a live one.
    They each have their own garden in planters in my yard. The 4-year-old harvested a cucumber, and the 6-year-old green beans (they had selected the seeds they wanted to plant). They questions they generate are amazing!
    Paula Young

  2. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Paula, So cool that your grandchildren got to see the locust in mid-shed!
    Thanks for sharing your experience and your blog!

  3. Steve Rich says:

    I thoroughly and wholeheartedly endorse this blog post in full, and I support the practice of taking students on a nature walk in the school yard. It is one of the most powerful teaching practices of my career. Even though I advocate for every school to have an outdoor classroom/garden, it is completely possible to effectively use the school yard as a place for learning and observing science in action without a designated space that has been cleared or planted for this purpose.
    Just keep it simple. Students may take a clipboard and a pencil and a single sheet of paper. Pause halfway through the walk and ask for them to make a jot list of what they have seen. Ask them to complete the jot list upon finishing the nature walk. The follow-up may be completed indoors or out. Ask students to draw or sketch something they have seen such as animal tracks, two or three different leaves, or perhaps the clouds they saw. Ask them to either label it or to write a short narrative. The possibilities of what you can do in the school yard with kids are endless. Take them on a mid-year walk soon. They will be refreshed and so will you.
    Steve Rich, Ed.D. – Author, Outdoor Science; A Practical Guide.(NSTA Press)

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