Posts Tagged ‘teaching youth’

Tips for Teaching Groups Outdoors

Teaching kids outside is a great time. It can be a fun day of exploring and learning about the natural world. But if leading a group outdoors gives you anxiety, here are a few helpful tips from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology BirdSleuth program that can help you out.


Outdoor Teaching Tips

What’s Keeping you Inside? Tips for Leading Groups Outdoors

By Barbara Jacobs-Smith K-12 Education Team Resident Teacher Advisor
This blog is the first in our series on Outdoor Education.

As teachers and leaders of young people, I think we have an obligation to take children outside to learn whenever it’s practical to do so, even if it takes us out of our comfort zone. Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor educator or new to taking groups outside, here are some general tips and techniques that can make leading a group in the great outdoors a positive, successful, and rewarding experience for everyone.


1. Plan ahead

As the leader, it is very important that you feel comfortable and confident. Before you go out with the kids, go out by yourself and scout the area. Walk the trail or explore the habitat. Consider where you’ll stop, how long you’ll spend, what features are noteworthy, and concepts that are applicable to the area. What questions can you pose to children, what activities lend themselves to the area, and how will you encourage structured interaction with nature? Make note of any potential hazards. Spending some quiet reflective time in the space you’ll be using can help make it feel like an extension of your own classroom and increase your comfort level teaching there.

2. Set clear expectations

Very young birders are

You no doubt have established expectations for student behavior in your classroom. It’s just as important to do this for the outdoors. Rather than a long list of rules, each starting with, “NO” (No talking, No running, No pushing, No interrupting), keep the list short and positive. “Stay on the trail. Remain with the group. Use materials responsibly.” Spell out the specific guidelines for the group when moving from one place to the next. This can be as simple as explaining that the group must travel as a sandwich. The leader is one slice of bread. Whoever is at the end of the line is designated as the other slice of bread. Everyone else is the yummy fixings that make up the sandwich. We must stay between the two slices of bread because we can’t have our sandwich falling apart!

3. Be a scientist

Third grade students making observations in the field.

When in the field, students should behave as the scientists they are, collecting data, making observations, whatever it is that you are expecting them to do, and doing so in a manner that is serious and focused on the task. It helps if students understand the purpose of their being outdoors. “You act differently when you’re outside for recess than you do when you’re outside for science.” Before you take the group outdoors, lead a discussion with students about specifically how it should look, feel, and sound differently.

4. Stealth mode

There is a time and place for quiet discussion and conversation between scientists working in the field. There is also a time for silence. When you are traveling along a path or through an area, it is far more likely that you’ll observe animals there if everyone is as quiet as mice, owls, or ants. You can call it moving in “stealth mode.” If animals hear a large group of people lumbering along, they will clear out, reducing the chance of seeing the creatures that live in that habitat. Students should understand when they hear you announce, “We are now in stealth mode,” this means silence is in order. Use your vision now instead of your voice.

5. Send them off, but bring them back

Sometimes, an outdoor trip involves giving children instruction and then sending them off to explore or complete an activity. To do this, you must be sure that: a.) you have their attention as you give instruction, b.) when it’s time, you can get everyone to come back to you quickly and easily, and c.) you know that everyone is back. When you send children off to find or do something, in order to bring them back to you quickly and efficiently, establish a “signal word.” As soon as they hear the word, students must stop what they are doing and return to you as quickly as it is safely possible. The word “magnet” works well. You can tell them that when they hear you say “magnet” they magically turn into pieces of metal, and you become a magnet; they will immediately become strongly “attracted” and have to return to you as quickly as they can. Finally, count your group regularly. You can pair children up to help them keep track of each other. “Do you see your buddy?” Make sure you know how many kids you are meant to have and always have that many. No more. No less.

6. Have what you need and know what you don’t


Before you go outside, think carefully about what you are going to do and what you want to accomplish, so you know exactly what materials you are going to want to bring. When it’s time to leave the building, be sure you have everything you need gathered together and ready to go. The less materials and equipment students have to carry in their hands the better. If there are items children must have in order to do an activity, carry a backpack or, if the terrain allows, pull a wagon containing that equipment. If you plan to make trips into the field on a regular basis and there are certain pieces of equipment you want children to have each time they are outdoors, you may want to find a local business that has cloth bags with their logo on them. Ask for a donation of enough bags for every student (or groups of two or three), being sure to explain your desire to take students outside for science, and perhaps the compelling reasons for doing so. If you’re successful in getting the donation, be sure to follow up with a written thank you for the business to post. Are you short on clipboards for kids to use outside? Make clipboards out of a piece of cardboard or old personal-sized white boards with binder clips at the top and a rubber band at the bottom to secure paper to the “board.” Be sure to take plenty of extra pencils in case of loss or breakage. What you are unlikely to have when in the field is access to a bathroom. If that is the case, it is important to remind everyone (no matter what their age) to use the restroom. Making a stop at the bathrooms on your way out of the building can eliminate (no pun intended) emergencies that can bring you in from the field before you’ve accomplished your goals.

7. Bring along technology

Apps like Merlin are a great tool to help with identification of birds and other species

If you have a smartphone, you can turn it into a terrific resource with the use of one or more of the handy apps (some of which are available for free) that can help when trying to identifying unknown species and/or answering puzzling questions. (Free apps to ID: birds – Merlin; trees – VTree. Check the app store for free or Lite versions of field guides specific to your state or area.) A camera is an excellent tool to use when documenting what students are doing, capturing candid photos of them at work, “collecting” samples of what was observed, documenting unknown species for identification later, and video recording their “process.”

8. Know it’s good not to know all the answers

Nature journals can help give focus to a trip outdoors.

Don’t let a concern about not knowing the name of every plant or animal species you might see or the answers to all the possible questions kids might ask keep you inside. On the contrary, embrace the teachable moments that exist if you don’t know everything. These are priceless! Not knowing everything gives you authentic opportunities to

model for kids exactly how to find the answers. If someone asks a question to which you don’t know the answer, tell the group, “That’s a terrific question. Let’s write it down to research later.” This demonstrates to students that you’re a learner right along with them.   With some thought and careful planning, you can successfully lead groups of children outdoors safely and provide a positive and enriching experience for them and for yourself. You will be able to bring nature alive for students, and give them the authentic experiences that will start them questioning and wondering about the world around them! Happy trails! Barbara

This blog is Part 1 of a series around engaging and teaching students outside. Click here for Part 2: Creating an Outdoor Classroom and here for Part 3: Citizen Science in Your Outdoor Classroom . You can also watch our video “Nature Walks: Five Steps to Success” below. 



Outdoor Classroom Day!


Have you ever heard of Outdoor Classroom Day?

We hadn’t until recently, but we’re glad this program is around. More and more programs are popping up to get classrooms outside, this one just happens to be global. An international day dedicated to outdoor classes. How cool is that? Plus, this day falls in autumn, a great time of year in Michigan to get outside.

From the Outdoor Classroom Day About page:

“Outdoor Classroom Day is a GLOBAL campaign to celebrate and inspire outdoor learning and play! Why? Simply because although teachers and parents know that spending time outdoors is important, sometimes it is squeezed out of the school day by all the other competing demands.

Anyone who has seen the effect of taking children outdoors to learn and play knows how powerful such experiences can be. Play is essential for children’s healthy development, which means it’s an essential part of every day. Learning outdoors, or ‘learning by doing,’ creates lasting memories, helps build a greater awareness of the environment, provides more opportunities to think independently, and gets children feeling challenged and excited by learning.”

outdoor-classroom-dayThe official Outdoor Classroom Day website has tons of resources, activities, and lesson plans to help you out. You can even get your school listed on a global map showing everyone who is participating.

Anyone can participate, formal school or not. So mark your calendars for Thursday, October 6 and get your kids outside!

Playground in a Box

That’s right, you heard correctly. A playground in a box.

How is this possible?

Simple. Kids are naturally curious about things. They like putting things together, stacking things up, making forts, etc. Give them a bunch of random parts and they’ll create fantastic things.

It seemed fitting that we came across this post by Playground Ideas right after our video about the Power of the Stick. The two seem to fit perfectly together because what is more fun for a random box of pieces that a box of nature pieces?

Playground Ideas and Pop Up Adventure Play collaborated on the “Loose Parts Manual” to inspire unstructured play and encourage people to make use of what’s around them. The idea is, you don’t need to invest hundreds of dollars in playground equipment to get kids active. While nice, playground equipment isn’t the only option out there. There are many benefits to their playground in a box idea, not the least of which is that it’s cheap. Plus, depending on what you want your playground in a box to be, you could event take it with you. It’s portable! Can you say that of your slide and swing set?


Thanks Playground Ideas, for this awesome picture. Love the background props.


You can download the manual for free, but you have to sign up first at Playground Ideas. Just enter a name and email address and it arrives in your inbox immediately. We can’t wait to go though ours. Happy playing!

Behold! The Power of the Mighty Stick!

By: Jennifer Hunnell, Michigan Arbor Day Alliance


You think that emphasis in the title is an exaggeration, but I assure you it’s not.

Just think about it. Is there any toy out there that inspires so much creativity and imagination than a simple stick? There’s a reason that young children often end up playing with the packaging of that expensive thing you bought them for their last birthday. Kids crave a world of their own. When they are out playing on their own, with no adult guidelines, they can create any scenario they want. Think back. Didn’t we do the same when at that age? Fabricate fictional worlds where we could do anything?

And what better tool to do that than with an unstructured piece of nature like a stick?

A stick can literally be ANYTHING. With no preconceived image of what it’s “supposed” to be, kids can use their imaginations to transform it into whatever they wish. You want to be back in Medieval times? How about a knight’s sword or a king’s scepter? You want to be a witch or wizard like in Harry Potter? Sticks make great wands and flying broomsticks. Large ones can be used to build forts, lean-to’s, and hideouts. Small ones can be used to create pieces of nature art or can be a handy writing tool in the dirt; did someone say mud paintbrush?

When unleashed, a child’s imagination can take them to incredible places. If we only let them have the freedom to do so.

Still aren’t convinced in the power of the stick? Then check out the video below which features wordsmith and Game of Thrones star Raleigh Ritchie. He wrote the poem in the video for the National Trust, promoting their “50 Things To Do Before You’re 11 3/4” activities. (Check out that program HERE. Keep in mind this is an organization in the UK, so some of the things on this list may not be familiar, but you can always add your own.)


Kids Activity: Tree Cookies

Summer is here! This means all kinds of opportunities for outdoor fun. But just because school is over, it doesn’t mean you can’t sneak in a couple of educational activities in there too. Learning can be fun, especially when it’s outdoor learning. 🙂

In honor of the official first Friday of summer, we would like to share an activity that we ourselves will be doing at our Science Adventure Camp this year. This activity is from Project Learning Tree (PLT) and if you haven’t heard of them, visit this link. It’s an awesome curriculum all about trees.

The activity “Tree Cookies” is a great way for kids to learn about growth and structure. They can count the rings on tree cookies (you can either make some yourself or buy them from sites like Acorn Naturalist) and even relate a tree’s growth to their own life.

These are scanned pages from PLT’s handbook so if you can’t see them clearly, here is a pdf version you can download.

Tree Cookies_Page_1

Tree Cookies_Page_2

Tree Cookies_Page_3

Tree Cookies_Page_4

Tree Cookies_Page_5

Reading is Great! But for More Than You Might Think.

Everyone knows that reading more is good for kids, especially when they’re young. Reading improves literacy, vocabulary, writing, communication…which all translate to better test scores later on in life.

However, reading children’s books can also be a great tool to get kids to think about bigger, complicated problems in a way that’s relatable to them. There may be a lot more going on between those colorful pages than you thought.


Green Eggs, Ham And Metaphysics: Teaching Hard Ideas With Children’s Books

June 4, 2016  7:00 AM ET

Children's books scattered on the floor

LA Johnson/NPR

Children's books scattered on the floor

What is language? What is beauty? Who gets to decide?

Philosophers have grappled with these questions for centuries, and they’ve generated a pile of long (and often tortured) books in their efforts to answer them.

But for Tom Wartenberg, some of the best books about philosophy are much shorter and a lot more colorful: Frog and Toad Are Friends. Horton Hears a Who! The Paper Bag Princess.

Every spring at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., Wartenberg offers Philosophy 280: Philosophy for Children. Once a week, he loads his students into a bus and drives them to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School of Excellence in nearby Springfield.

Green Eggs and Ham
 There, with some help from Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak, his undergraduates get second-graders to talk through some deep philosophical questions.

It’s one example of a bigger truth: Children’s books are amazingly flexible teaching tools. They help millions of kids learn to read and write, of course. But we can also use them to teach kids — and adults — ideas that might otherwise seem overwhelming. Want to teach philosophy? Use Harold and the Purple Crayon. Financial literacy? The Berenstain Bears. Even math is a little easier with help from Pete the Cat.

Let’s start with philosophy.

Hina Jawaid took Wartenberg’s class in 2010, her sophomore year at Mt. Holyoke. She’d already taken several philosophy classes, and done well. She wrote thorough essays. She got good grades.

But she found that she understood the material better when she swapped out Kant for Seuss. When talking with second-graders, she says, she could no longer hide behind big words like “epistemology” and “metaphysics,” or name-drop philosophers.

“I had moments of being like … ‘Oh, that’s what that meant,’ ” she remembers.

For example: Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement. Kant argues that every human enjoys works of art because our minds are the same, and because both art and nature have a kind of inherent beauty.

Professor Wartenberg draws a direct parallel between the Critique of Judgement and William Steig’s Shrek!Shrek!

Shrek is an ogre who relishes putrid stews but runs scared from adorable children. Eventually, he comes across a hideously ugly princess, and falls in love with her.

In other words, Shrek enjoys things others hate, which Wartenberg uses to challenge Kant’s idea of inherent beauty.

Wartenberg is definitely not suggesting that second-grade teachers sit down with their students and do a reading from the Critique of Judgement.

Instead, he suggests that they read Shrek! and other books out loud, and then help kids dive into the issues the books bring up.

For many popular children’s books, he has a list of questions teachers can ask, like:

Can you like things that are ugly?

How can people think different things are ugly?

Do we only love people who are like us?

It’s important, he says, that the kids get a chance to answer the questions through discussion. That kind of conversation does more than just stimulate children to think deeply about the books that they read. It also teaches them how to talk.

As Hina Jawaid remembers, the kids she worked with improved — “distinctly and exponentially” — during the semester. She says they learned to ask each other questions, to listen, to disagree politely.

“These are skills that teachers are supposed to teach but don’t always know how,” Wartenberg says, “because it’s not the sort of thing that has as easy a methodology as teaching mathematics.”

Inch by Inch

“Well, maybe that’s a bad example,” he adds after a second, “Mathematics isn’t that easy either.”

And children’s books can be enlisted to make math less intimidating, too.

Emily Borgerding teaches first grade at Roosevelt Elementary in Faribault, Minn. Her classroom is full of bright colors and shapes — a wall full of vocabulary words, an ABC rug on the floor and, in the corner, baskets called “book tubs.”

One popular book is Inch by Inch, by Leo Lionni.

In it, an inchworm wanders through the world, measuring flamingo necks and toucan beaks. Borgerding reads it out loud to her students, and then has them measure things around the classroom with an inchworm-shaped ruler — tables, chairs, little shapes Borgerding makes out of paper and plastic.

It’s just one of several books that she uses to teach math concepts, and that students can reread later on.

Cameron Turitto, one of her first-graders, says his favorite book is The Greedy Triangle, a book that teaches shapes. In it, a triangle keeps collecting more sides, turning into a square and a pentagon.

“The book teaches me stuff I didn’t know,” he says, “like math facts and shapes.”

Borgerding notes that many of her students are English-language learners. Her school has a large Latino population, and a large number of refugees from Somalia.

“They might not have any idea what a cucumber is,” she says, and that makes a word-based subtraction problem involving cucumbers difficult. But, she explains, if they can see a picture of a cucumber and hear a story to go along with it — that makes the problems more accessible.

Borgerding also thinks stories involving math, whether it’s measurement or shapes, help students retain information: “They can remember, ‘Oh that’s what’s this character did, and that’s how they did it, I can do that next time too!’ ”

Activity: Family Nature Bucket List

So, you have read the studies, have seen the advertisements and articles. You know that spending time outside is good for your physical and emotional health. More importantly, you know how good it is for your kids.

Now here’s the real question…what do you do once you’re outside?

The simplest answer is, nothing. You don’t have to do anything outside. Unstructured time outdoors can be very beneficial and may even lead to adventures you wouldn’t have dreamed of. There’s nothing like the imagination of a child to take even simple trips to interesting places.

But maybe this seems too daunting a task. Maybe you’re a person who likes a little more structure, more direction? There’s nothing wrong with that either. In fact, the following activity may be just the organizational tool you need.

bucket listThe idea of a Family Nature Bucket List is simple. Take a bucket, decorate clothes pins with different ideas for outdoor activities, and as you complete each activity you put it in the bucket and watch your memories pile up.

This is a great way to get the entire family’s input on what they want to do while outside and gives you a handy go-to list of things to do when the kids are bored.

Want to get started? Nurture in Nature has a step-by-step guide on how to create your very own nature bucket list.