By Jeffrey “Jif” Butterworth
Whether your family’s residence is located in the heart of a booming metropolis or the glowing hills of one of California’s many rural areas, opportunities for connecting your sons or daughters with the outdoors is plentiful and worthwhile. Research evidence indicates that children who participate in some kind of nature based education perform higher in school, have improved attitudes about learning, and are all around happier young people. Extensive curriculum and in-depth teaching methodology are not required to start engaging your child with nature. Some kind of green space, a child-like sense of wonder, and freedom from fear of getting a little dirt on your knees are all that are necessary to equip a young person with the tools for life-long learning.
Before spending my summer with Gold Arrow, I was given the unique opportunity to teach 5th grade science at San Mateo Outdoor Education. S.M.O.E., as it is affectionately known, operates out of a YMCA site located in the Santa Cruz Mountains and serves an incredibly diverse population of students from the county. Every day was spent in active exploration of the multitudinous ecosystems within our program’s reach. All day hikes in the redwood forest were complimented the following day with strolls along the sandy shore at Pescadero State Beach. Nature served as both our classroom and teacher, while I in turn facilitated and assisted in directing our student’s inherent curiosity. The gifts I have received from that experience continue to reveal themselves and fortunately for me I have been able to share those gifts with our campers here at Gold Arrow. Listed below are 4 simple activities or tools for engaging your child with nature.
So much of my experience in the classroom from grade school to college revolved around getting the “right” answer. Seldom was I taught how to ask the right kinds of questions. Equipping young learners with appropriate terminology leads them in making sound scientific observation (I notice), engages their inherent curiosity (I wonder), and intimately links the two with pre-existing personal experience (It reminds me of). Teaching my 5th graders to use these words in simple observation exercises proved as an effective tool in engaging them with the subject at hand. Whether it was a 200-foot tall redwood tree or a pile of decomposing forest litter, after a few applications of these terms students were independetly making insightful and meaningful observations in nature.
2.) Nature’s Radio:
This is a fun exercise I like to do in areas where bird songs are plentiful. At Gold Arrow, there is a small section of trail with waist high grass where the warblers can dash out of sight quickly to avoid their larger winged friends. I have all the campers line up shoulder to shoulder. With eyes closed each person raises two closed fists in the air. Every time a new sound from nature is heard i.e a bird song, wind blowing through the trees, or a running stream, a finger from a closed fist is raised. After about a minute or so, I ask them to open their eyes and look at one another’s hands to see how many different sounds were heard. Next, they can “pair share” with someone close by to compare just exactly what was heard. I then tell them Nature’s Radio is always playing. We just have to listen.
3.) C.O.P (Change of Perspective)
Whether on the way to and from school or sitting at a desk in the classroom, much of a student’s view of the world remains unchanging, unchallenged, and automated. This is especially true when our attention is dedicated to a screen. While taking students on hikes in the forest, I always encouraged them to see the world in a new way. This is the part of the post that requires readers to forego any inhibitions about getting a little dirty.
Feet Up a Tree– This activity is performed just as it sounds. Ensuring that there is sufficient flat ground to support their back, have your young person lie flat on their back, scoot their bottom all the way to the base of the tree, and have their legs stick straight up the trunk. Once comfortable, give them anywhere from 1-5 minutes to sit in silence and see what they “Notice, Wonder, Or are Reminded Of” while viewing a tree from this new perspective.
HolyMoley – If you are fortunate enough to live in an area with broad leaf trees, (Oaks, Aspens, Maples, etc.), this is a very simple exercise which gets kids seeing things from a whole new perspective. Have them find a leaf that is in the process of decay and possesses small holes in the leaf tissue. While standing still, have them hold the hole in the leaf up to their eye and ask them to find the “smallest living plant” they can see through their brand new view finder. The “smallest living plant” is interchangeable and your own creativity is the limit for this version of Nature’s “Can you see it?” This activity is also an excellent introduction into learning all about Decomposition and the Nutrient Cycle.
4.) I Wonder Club (A Free-Thought Exercise)
Have you ever found yourself staring off into to space, casually day dreaming about what it might be like if the world was made of Jell-0? Perhaps not, but some of life’s deepest questions arise when opportunities for completely uninhibited thought are provided to us. This activity creates just a space for this kind of thinking, where the sky is the limit and our children’s imaginations are free to expand and deepen. In the past I have performed this activity at night, under a blanket of stars in the forest. It can be done literally anywhere and in any setting but there is some kind of magic quality to being in the quiet serenity of a natural space. Campers are asked to circle up and sit down. Then they are asked to spin around 180 degrees so that their backs are facing the circle. Slowly, each camper lowers their heads to the ground, ensuring that there is plenty of room for everyone to comfortably lay down in the circle. Next, I state that we will spend about 2-3 minutes in silence and this is a time to allow your thoughts to come and go freely, to drift in and out of your mind without effort to hold or let go of them. I then explain that I will break the silence by asking an “I wonder” question. I tell them that there are no wrong questions and that none of these questions are intended to necessarily possess an answer. My only rules are that we do not interrupt one another when they are speaking their question and that we do not scoff or attempt to answer a person’s question. This activity can last anywhere from 5-45 minutes depending on the size and engagement of the group. Some of the questions I have heard leave the lips of 5th grade boys and girls were so profound and meaningful that I hade a hard time believing that they were only 10 or 11 years old.
Every last one of these activities has been handed down from previous Outdoor Educators. Without their dedication, creativity, and passion for engaging young people with nature, I would have never come to utilize these tools for learning. I hope you and your families find some pleasure and use for these activities and continue to spread the gifts that have been so selflessly shared with me. Stay curious and play outside!