Article

Helping Children Explore and Protect Our Planet

How to introduce young children to the issues of ecology and conservation

By Barbara Sprung
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2

An exciting ecology and conservation curriculum takes a multidisciplinary approach.

Maximize outdoor time in developing your environmental awareness curriculum.

Consider year-long activities to help children learn about conservation and recycling.

Create a learning environment that fosters a love of nature and preservation of resources.

It's spring in a classroom of 3-year-olds. Since school began in the fall, the teacher has created an environment where children are mindful of conservation and recycling. She often says to children, "Why don't we save this scrap of paper or small broken piece of plastic for our art projects? I was thinking that we could save our cracker scraps in a plastic bag and feed them to the birds when we go on our walks." So, one morning, when Heather spies a scrap of shiny paper on the floor that the overnight cleaning crew missed, she says, "This is pretty, I'll put it in the collage basket."

A 3-year-old conserving a small bit of paper is a seemingly tiny gesture — with a big message! Very young children can learn about conserving in developmentally appropriate ways. They are so keenly tuned in to your behaviors that it's easy to become their role model for recycling everything usable.

Now, consider the following scenario:

It's Monday, October 19, in a mixed class of 4- and 5-year-olds in a school in Vermont. A group of children eagerly check the beans they planted in small containers. The plants are displayed along the wide windowsill where the afternoon sun comes in. On Friday, sprouting shoots produced cries of delight from the children. Today, they are dismayed to see that all the shoots have dried up. They run to their teacher to tell her about the plants. She goes to the window and says, "You're right; the plants are all dried up. Let's investigate what happened, and solve this problem. "

Those dried-up plants led to a study of how all living things need the proper amount of heat and clean water to grow properly! Sad as it was that the plants dried up, the incident offered a wealth of teachable moments. The teacher immediately understood what had happened. Since it was after October 15, the heating system in the school had been turned on over the weekend, and the heat had dried up the water in the plants! She knew that this incident presented her with teaching opportunities about climate, the effects of too much or too little warmth and water on growing things, and about the importance of understanding the environment we live in.

This is what the teacher did over the next few days:

  • called a class meeting to discuss the problem
  • charted the children's ideas about what had happened
  • took everyone over to the window to feel the heat coming up (checking first to make sure that it wasn't too hot to touch)
  • asked for suggestions about what to do next: try to see if the plants would revive? Find a new place for the plants? Make new plants? Where could the plants get sun without being on the window?
  • composed a class letter about what had happened to send home to parents
  • asked children to make a drawing about the plants and had them dictate or write their thoughts on the paper
  • brought in some books about plant care for story-time/discussion and to keep in the class library
  • created a class book that documented the problem, what children had learned about plant care, and how the class solved the problem
  • used the plant experience as an introduction to weather problems

 

Create a "Planet-Friendly" Curriculum

These anecdotes illustrate that there are abundant materials for ecology- and conservation-sensitive curriculum all around us, including within the classroom and immediate school environment, regardless of geographic location. There is so much to be learned from a city tree, a patch of earth in the school playground or nearby park, a small schoolyard garden plot or, in locations where sand and water are available, trips to the beach to learn about a host of small sea creatures who need clean water for survival. Temperate, semi-tropical, tropical, desert, or mountainous regions are equally rich in experiences that allow children to explore, appreciate, and learn to conserve the natural world.

What makes an ecological- and conservation-sensitive curriculum exciting is that it is multidisciplinary, providing myriad opportunities for the development of language and literacy, math, science, social studies, art, and research skills. The following are examples of how to engage young children in learning about nature, conservation, and ecology throughout the school year:

 

Begin With Books

  • As always when working with young children, start with what they know and what interests them. A good way to begin is to collect colorful picture books about aspects of the natural world — topics such as plants, water, birds, dolphins, fish, whales, weather, seasons, and space. You can make the selection or take children on a trip to the school or public library. If you are going to the library, call ahead and ask the librarian to select some books from which children can make choices.
  • In the classroom, display the books on a table.
  • Give each child a sticky note with his or her name on it to put on the book he or she would most like to read. (Children who are ready can write their own names on the sticky note.) Explain to children that there can be more than one sticky note on a book and that you will begin by reading the book chosen by the most people. Be sure that children know that all their choices will be read during future storytimes. Use the books as a springboard for discovery activities. Create interest groups so children can do further explorations of topics that interest them. Have groups share their discoveries with the entire group.

 

Make a Class Tree

Read a book about trees as a discussion starter. After the story:

  • Talk about trees. Ask questions to find out what information children already know. Then see if children can identify animals that live in trees. Children will probably know about birds, but if you probe further, they also may be able to identify insects and squirrels.
  • Suggest a class walk to look at trees. Select a tree near the school that can become "the class tree." If possible, look at several trees and let the children select the one they want to study.
  • Take a photo of the tree to mark the season.
  • Back in the classroom, talk about aspects of the tree that children want to study during the year.
  • Create an experience chart based on your discussion. It might look something like this:

We want to learn about: 

1. The animals and insects that live in the tree

2. Why trees are important

3. How does the tree stay healthy? What can we do to help?

4. Does the tree look different depending on the time of year? (While deciduous trees certainly look different in each season, most trees go through some type of seasonal change.)

  • Make a schedule to visit the tree every month.
  • Back in the classroom, be sure to chart children's tree observations.

As you conduct your tree investigations, help children develop skill in a variety of curriculum areas with these suggestions:

Math: On each walk, measure the circumference of the tree with a tape measure. Write it down, and compare the figure each month. Did the tree grow? If not, talk about how some things in nature take a long time to grow while many other things grow quickly.

Science: Write children's observations about the tree after each monthly walk. At the end of the year, review all of your monthly charts.

Social Studies: Investigate tree habitats. During spring, observe bird nests and explore why trees are ideal habitats for birds. Relate this to the importance of keeping the trees healthy.

Art: Supply paints that reflect the color of the "class tree" in different seasons. Make collages reflecting various seasonal aspects of trees. You might use scraps of paper to represent autumn or spring leaf colors or bare twigs to represent winter trees. Add cotton balls to represent snow. To make the collaging more "natural," let children create on rectangles of scrap wood or fallen pieces of bark.

 

Build a Compost Pile

Too often, we as teachers don't maximize outdoor time for curriculum. It's true that children need unstructured outdoor time (and many programs have too little), but there is room for both free play and planned activities, such as the following.

If you have access to space for growing a small garden with children, you might want to start a compost pile. If you start composting at the beginning of the school year, you will have rich soil full of nutrients for a spring garden. Here's how:

  • Talk about the idea of growing a garden with the children and find out what they know. Ask if any of them grow a garden or plants at home. Ask if anyone in the group has heard the word compost.
  • Talk about how the compost pile will turn certain scraps of food and other waste into healthy soil and why this is good for our planet.
  • Read a book about how to make a compost pile.
  • Choose a safe spot for the compost pile — a corner of the schoolyard is ideal.
  • Go on a class leaf-gathering trip. Make some holes in the bottom of a large plastic pail or bin with a lid. Give each child a plastic bag (it's a good idea for children to wear disposable gloves for the gathering). Tell children they can also gather small twigs, acorns, or clumps of moss. Put the leaves and other items in the bottom of the pail.
  • Back in the room, scrape some carrots for snack time (or ask the school cook to save some vegetable peels for you). During outdoor play time, add the peels and any leftover dry snack food to the compost pile along with some water and potting soil. Continue to "feed" the compost over the school year.
  • Turn the compost over occasionally using a longhandled shovel (again have the children wear disposable gloves).
  • The children can make a sign to post in the school asking for scraps for the compost pile. They can draw pictures of the types of things that make good compost: egg shells, vegetable peelings, dry food scraps, and things that don't: meat, cheese, yogurt, fats.

 

Plant a Garden

In the early spring, talk with children about what should be planted (the answer to this will depend on your geographic area). Then work with children to plant quick-growing crops like lettuce so everyone can enjoy eating from the garden before the school year ends.

What does your curriculum gain from an activity like this? Through this intriguing compost activity, you have a chance to teach about conservation and recycling, nutrition, formation of matter, awareness of the environment, and the cycle of growth through a year-long activity that is engaging and developmentally appropriate. The activity also has applications for all of your indoor learning centers:

Library and Writing Area

  • Read and discuss books about the whys and hows of making compost.
  • Build vocabulary with new and interesting words for a word wall or a word web — words such as compost, matter, leaves, peels, scraps.
  • Create experience charts documenting each component of the study — the field trip to collect leaves, adding the soil and water, adding the dry food scraps, and so on.
  • Communicate to others, including lunchroom personnel or other classes, about the need for certain types of scraps.
  • Create a series of class books about the project. You might put together a beginning book mat talks about the process of setting up the compost, a mid-year book about the changes in the mix, and an end-of-the-year book about using the compost in the garden and growing a crop. At the end of the school year, make copies of this "series" for each child to take home as an end-of-the-year memento.

Math Area

  • Count each child's leaf collection once the children return from the field trip.
  • Measure the cups of soil and water to add to the mixture.
  • Weigh scraps ingredients for the compost-children can estimate how much a collection of scraps weighs and then check their estimates on a scale.
  • Write amounts and measurements on a chart, for example: 50 leaves, 10 cups of soil, 6 cups of water, 6 ounces of food scraps.

Science Area

Everything about this activity is science:

  • building the compost
  • observing changes that take place over time
  • observing and discussing the effects of water on the compost
  • learning about many of the different nutrients generated by the compost
  • making discoveries while digging the compost into the garden, for example, earthworms
  • planting seeds and observing their growth
  • learning about seasonal changes depending on the climate

Art Area

Children can:

  • illustrate their signs asking for compost scraps
  • draw pictures for their class books
  • take photographs of themselves working in the outdoor garden
  • create a "compost" collage on a piece of scrap wood or heavy cardboard (using leaves, small twigs, seeds, acorns)

Music Area

  • Download seasonal songs from the Internet. Try music by Ms. Jackie, a children's musician with a new song called "Good-bye Winter, Hello Spring," which you can download for $1 at www.jackiesilberg.com.

 

These suggestions only touch on a few ways to bring ecology and conservation curriculum into the early childhood classroom. Depending on what part of the natural world interests you and which environmental issues are having the most effect on your geographic area, you can create developmentally appropriate activities for the children in your classroom.

During the early childhood years, provide a learning environment that fosters a love of nature and a commitment to preserving our precious natural resources. Let children make discoveries in a patch of dirt, study the tracks of birds and small animals, collect trash in a bucket of water to experience pollution first-hand, make weather charts to track temperature changes, or learn about space and space exploration. With simple acts, you can provide a fruitful gateway to children's understanding of the importance of ecology and conservation in our world.

 

Take Note!

We can foster environmentalism without creating a climate of fear. If events such as hurricanes, tsunamis, or flooding occur, classroom discussions can focus on understanding the underlying causes and highlighting solutions. For example, look at the benefits of building houses on stilts or high ground in areas that flood, or how science can help predict weather events so people can get to safe areas in time.

  • Subjects:
    Discovery and Learning, Curriculum Development, Outdoor Activities and Recreation, Biology and Life Science, Early Math, Habitats and Ecosystems, Early Science, Real-World Science, Science Experiments and Projects, Composting, Recycling, Plants, Plant Growth and Development, Plant Life Cycles, Trees, Science through Literature, Observation, Climate, Songs and Rhymes, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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