It’s Just Natural

There’s just something about spring. When the first daffodils expose their sunny faces or the blooming trees reveal the treasures they’ve been hoarding, it’s hard not to respond with some sort of emotion. Perhaps it’s wonder, delight, or awe. Maybe it’s simply relief at the completion of winter. And for our students, it’s often a marked unsettledness and apparent inability to sit still in a desk.

 It can be easy to get frustrated by the spring fever that seems to infect our students on warm days. We have things to accomplish, after all. The end of the year is quickly approaching, and as teachers, it’s easy to only think in terms of how many lessons we have left to finish.

But spring is calling, and our students hear its voice. What if, instead of expecting them to ignore that call, we recognized it as a prime learning opportunity? What if we recognized it as the voice of creation begging us to revel in the beauty of the Creator?

There are many ways that nature studies can be packed with learning experiences. Here are just a few of the myriad of possibilities.

Close Observation Activity

Want an activity that strengthens your students’ observation skills, develops attention to detail, and builds grit? A close observation activity can do all of these things.

For this activity, students will need a notebook, pencil, and something to observe—a plant works well. Instruct your students to sit by their plant and write down everything they notice about it. Encourage them to use multiple senses as they list observations.

The challenging part of this activity is that they need to keep looking at the plant and writing observations for a set amount of time. For best results, make this time limit fairly lengthy. Needing to sit and stare at one plant for, say, fifteen minutes will force them to notice things they never would have otherwise. Obviously the age of your students will determine what length of time is reasonable. A rule of thumb might be to ask yourself, “What is the longest amount of time I can imagine my students staying focused on something like this?” and then adding a few minutes to that. Your goal here is to surprise your students with how much there is to notice in something as simple as a plant—if you take the time to look for it.

A variation of this activity is to have your students observe a square yard of grass instead. You can create blocks with toothpicks and string.

Nature Walk

A nature walk is just what it sounds like—walking in nature. Depending on the location of your school, you may need to transport your students to a woods or near a creek to make this most valuable. There are many ways to do a nature walk well, but here a few tips that may be helpful.

  1. Encourage quietness and stealthiness—while it is somewhat unlikely that any sizeable group of students will be able to sneak up on something wary, the posture of quietness and stealthiness encourages attentiveness and discourages fooling around. However, you do want to encourage students to share what they’ve noticed. So have a method to allow students to ask questions, like raising their hands or writing down notes in a notebook. Additionally, you could break the walk into several sections: the stealthy section in which nobody talks, the question section in which they may only ask questions, the observation section, and so on.
  2. Take the walk yourself before going with students. Make note of a few things that you want to specifically point out to your students. Doing some extra research can help show your students the next layer of interest that the natural world provides. It also gives you the chance to find particularly interesting destinations as climax points for the journey (a rabbit nest, a crawdad pool, a lightning-struck tree, etc.)
  3. Get an expert. Few things will boost the quality of a nature walk like finding someone in your area who really knows about the wilds of your area. Local conservation groups or naturalist groups can be a great resource and may offer supplies that can take the walk to the next level. There are a few phone apps that can help you engage questions beyond your knowledge (Merlin Bird App, Picture This, Picture Insect, etc).
  4. Emphasize water. Streams and small ponds hold so many secrets that most children haven’t explored. A scoopful of water from a creek will often hold numerous fascinating creatures that are just big enough to be fun to watch.

Planting Activity

If you are lamenting the dearth of possibilities for nature observation in your schoolyard, don’t forget that planting your own nature is always an option. Perhaps there’s a small corner of the lawn that could be turned into a garden. Maybe you can create a simple DIY greenhouse (the internet is full of ideas). If neither of those are viable options, flowerpots and a sunny windowsill work fabulously, too.

Allow each student to plant one or two seeds. You’ll want to choose something with a relatively short germination period. Radishes, beans, melons, marigolds, zinnias, and poppies are all great options. Here are a few ideas of how you can help your students to interact with their plants:

  1. As much as possible, let them do the actual planting. You may instruct and demonstrate how to pack the soil, how deep to plant the seed, and how much water to give, but they should be the ones with the most dirt under their fingernails when the activity is over.
  2. Allow them to do research on natural fertilizers, such as coffee grounds, eggshells, etc. and bring items from home to fertilize their plants.
  3. Have them create a watering schedule for their plant and make them responsible for watering it during recess or before school.
  4. Every few days, have them observe their plant and record changes. They could measure it and record the data in a chart or draw a picture of the new growth.

NOWAR Observation

Some days are just so beautiful that it seems a shame to be inside, but it can be impractical to have classes outside. On days like that, a quick and simple ten-minute extra outdoor excursion can help everyone to scratch their outdoor itch.

Instruct your students to pick a spot outside to sit down and complete a NOWAR observation. NOWAR stands for the following:

  1. Notice and Observe—what do you notice?
  2. Wonder—what do you wonder about what you’re seeing?
  3. Answer—what are possible answers to your questions?
  4. Reflect—how does what you’re seeing make you feel/how is it meaningful?

(Note NOWAR observation form below that you can print and give your students.)

NOWAR observation form

Insect Capture and Observation

While insects may make some of your students—or maybe you—squeamish, there’s a lot to appreciate about them when you take time to truly see them. Give each student a clear plastic cup and a thin square of cardboard and have them go out in search of insects. Teach them how to gently catch insects:

  1. Wait until the insect is on a leaf or flower. When it becomes aware of danger, it will fly upwards. Put cup overtop. Put cardboard underneath.
  2. If it is crawling, try to have it crawl onto the cardboard. Then put cup overtop.

Have each student try to catch an insect, then bring it back to a common area. If you have an insect identification guide or access to the internet, have them use these tools to identify their insect. Also, have them draw it and observe its behaviour.

Nature Journaling

Two hundred years ago, nature journaling was a common hobby. Now, it’s a rare activity. Nature journaling can take on many forms (an internet search will provide you with different examples). At its core, though, nature journaling encourages students to observe and interact with the beauty of the natural world through drawing and recording what they see.

This might be big picture, like sitting on a hill and drawing the landscape you see around you; or more granular, like dedicating a whole journal page to a single piece of clover. With some specific guidance on what you expect from your students, nature journaling can even double up as an art project or writing assignment.

These ideas are really just scratching the surface of what’s possible. When it comes to nature studies, the sky is literally the limit. Giving your students opportunities to embrace their natural curiosity about the world around them is a good and worthwhile endeavor.

But further than that, giving our students opportunities to observe nature leads to them experiencing wonder. And wonder is a form of worship to our infinitely creative God.

Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash

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