Who better to meet, in this winter season, than someone from Minnesota who shares her ideas on how to enjoy the outdoors with children in her blog, Small Wonders?
(I especially enjoyed the post about wrestling with discussing possible truths about a butterfly’s end with her children.)
When we met in person at a conference for the National Association for the Education of Young Children I found that the friendly, inquisitive nature of her blog is really who Patty is, and she clearly enjoys talking about connecting children with nature.
Patty is the founder of Small Wonders, an educational consulting company, and teaches classes on environmental and nature education at universities. In her book, Early Childhood Activities for a Greener Earth (2012 Redleaf Press), she writes joyfully about important environmental topics such as recycling, and her engaging experiences for young children illustrate how to be “greener”—while still being developmentally appropriate and focusing on play. Her background in early childhood teaching shows—the ideas are very doable.
Nature offers a host of opportunities for children to develop scientific thinking skills such as inquiry and observation. Scientific learning is not something that happens only in the science stations in the classroom! Opportunities for scientific exploration in the out-of-doors include: the structures we and other animals build, the air we breathe, the changes of seasons, animals, habitats, the list goes on. Whether you have access to a large wilderness preserve or just a few scattered trees at the edge of your parking lot, you have a rich source of material just outside your doors.
Exploring nature is, in fact, a perfect opportunity to develop the same skills that are essential for scientists, researchers, and engineers throughout the world. These fundamental skills include: making observations and describing those observations, classifying objects, investigating phenomena, asking questions, predicting outcomes, drawing conclusions and explaining outcomes.
Most of you who work with young children will intuitively recognize that these are skills and habits children already practice, simply through play and exploration. Thus, an early childhood environment that embraces outdoor experience, is a perfect setting for practicing the skills of science.
You can support and cultivate these skills by approaching your interactions with children in ways that creatively engage their scientific minds. Some ideas include:
Engaging the five senses, observing and describing—Challenge children to notice ten new things outside and then use words to describe them. Bringing awareness to the senses can really help children become more adept at noticing details. Have frequent conversations that include your sense-observations: “I hear a bird chirping.” “This smells like pine” or “I can feel a light breeze on the back of my hand”. Sentences like this help direct attention to children’s senses.
Classifying—One of my favorite activities to do with young children. This helps children make sense of things, to bring order to collections of seemingly random objects. Pay attention to the many ways that children collect, organize, and use materials such as sticks, plant materials, or small stones outdoors. Ask them to tell you some common characteristics about the materials. Many children will notice colors and textures, others will point out general shapes, or even scents. Then challenge the group to find or describe more objects that fit their categories. Mix up the materials and find new ways to classify them together.
Investigating and asking questions—Carefully observe children’s natural curiosities outdoors. What are they drawn to doing? Do some children always investigate the same tree trunk, day after day? Are others constantly moving piles of sand from one place to the next? What are they investigating by doing so? They may be exploring different ways of carrying sand, a loose material whose texture can be manipulated. Or, perhaps they are curious about how much sand it takes to make a very big hill. Ask them lots of questions, such as “how else could we carry the sand?” or “What can you tell me about how wet sand and dry sand pile up?”
Drawing conclusions, giving explanations—When children are able to make observations, describe and discuss those observations, and are able to repeat an experience, they can draw conclusions based on that experience. Support those explorations by asking children to explain what happened. For example, the child who drops pinecone after pinecone into a stream from a bridge above and then quickly turns to see the pinecones traveling downstream has drawn a conclusion that the pinecones will come out on the other side of the bridge as they travel downstream. He has also concluded that they float (as evidenced by the fact that he knows he’ll be able to see them when they pass under the bridge) through trial and error, he’s tested his observations and is making predictions, expecting a certain outcome. An observant teacher may ask the boy, “What is causing the pinecones to move? Will other objects appear on the other side of the bridge if you drop them into the water too?”
Note that none of the examples I gave above are scripted or pre-planned. One of my favorite things about nature is the consistent unpredictable supply of spontaneous opportunities for exploration! (also known as “fun learning”!) Often things happen in nature that just can’t be predicted: a rainbow in the morning sky, a busy squirrel rummaging on the edge of a sidewalk, or a chrysalis discovered under a picnic bench. Be open to nature’s own “curriculum.”
The idea of free, unstructured time in nature may be challenging for some educators, but I encourage you to allow children to explore freely: following their own interests, spending their time on the things that pique their curiosity. Allow them time to become deeply immersed in their explorations. By observing them carefully, you’ll soon see that their scientific minds are hard at work, although their bodies may appear to be at play.
Patty Born Selly
Early Childhood Activities for a Greener Earth (2012 Redleaf Press)
Read more tips from Patty at Redleaf Press, Author Spotlight