Morning. Early May the sun is warm on Aaron's cheeks as he leans in to examine the textures of the tree. Sparkles of dew catch the light through his magnifying glass, and the skin on the grapefruit looks like a network of yellow-veined spiderwebs, a perspective he's never noticed before. Shimmering dragonflies, tiny crawling caterpillars, wavy shadows, and prismatic rainbows — it doesn't matter if your program is in the city or the country.
Nature pokes out of cracks in the sidewalks, flits out of bushes, and hides under logs. The natural world is thick with possibilities for children to investigate, explore, discover, and express.
Children need uninterrupted time to explore outdoors — to feel the textures of their surroundings and search for scientific revelations. Such experiences foster emotional connections with natural elements and help children develop a sense of respect for the environment and empathy for all living being.
Nature is also intriguing and deeply fulfilling to children because it is constantly changing, always surprising, and continually teasing the senses. Young children become young scientists who are constantly theorizing about how the world works, eager to collect, sample, compare, associate, and test. A rich outdoor experience furthers this development like no other environment can.
Tuning Into Nature
Before you can foster children's connections with nature, take time to remember how to do this yourself. Sit quietly outdoors and just listen. What in nature evokes an emotional response in you? What would you like to know more about? Consider your response to the rain, a favorite tree, the morning light, or the sky just before sunset. In the weeks ahead, give yourself a few minutes to flow with nature on a daily basis. Consider keeping a nature journal in which you draw and/or write about what you see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. Here are some other ideas to do by yourself and also to try with children. Focus on:
Slow down. Inhale and feel the rhythm of your breath. Consider the rhythm of the wind on your face and how it changes direction. Listen for the beating of your own heart and the rhythms of your surroundings.
Focus on rhythms for a whole day and help children identify them. If James is tapping his foot at breakfast, point out to children that he has his own "rhythm" going! Go outside and identify naturally occurring rhythms, such as water dripping, twigs rubbing together and branches squeaking.
Science Connection: After you've had a chance to observe and listen for rhythms, work in groups to see if you can tape-record any to listen to and identify later. Provide bird-identification resources, especially about bird songs. Share some simple field guides with children and encourage those who are interested to create their own "field guide to outdoor rhythms."
Look for relationships between patterns people have made — lines on a mowed lawn and rows of flowers or hedges - and patterns that are purely organic — designs on a semi-frozen puddle that resemble the curvy wisps of clouds above. Search for basic shapes - triangles, circles, rectangles, and so on. Unfocus your eyes and see what textures jump out at you. Try texture rubbings so children can touch a variety of patterns, and let children label the rubbings in their own ways. Encourage them to compare and describe their work. Science Connection: Experiment with forces that change patterns. For instance, ask children who are interested to create patterns in the sandbox using their fingers, sticks, or even a rake. Explain that together you're going to observe the patterns later in the day and ask children to predict how the patterns might change. Write predictions down and check them against your later observations. What changes occurred? Why? Record these findings and ask children to experiment with changing the patterns using natural elements, such as water and wind. What are the results? Were any new patterns created? How do wind and water affect other patterns in nature?
Some changes in nature are rapid, bold, and obvious — like changes in cloud patterns and weather. Others are slow, subtle, or delicate, such as the changing color of the goldfinch's wings from brown to bright yellow as spring arrives. The texture of the ground changes from smooth to crunchy, mushy to hard. Water changes from liquid to ice, and back. Colors change, rhythms change, and sounds change. Obviously, it is easier for children to observe and record changes that are immediate, but long-term change can be even more satisfying as children hone their observation skills.
Science Connection: Choose a tree to visit. Help the children get to know it intimately and document how it is different each day. Perhaps one day your tree is wet with dew or holds a new bird's nest. Perhaps it is only one leaf that looks different than it did yesterday. Ask children to predict what other changes might occur in the tree in the days, weeks, and even years to come. Why might these changes occur? Make sure you have resources available for children who would like to learn more about identifying trees and tree growth.
You can also ask children to be "change hunters" and record or remember any changes they notice outdoors for a day or a week. Come together for periodic change reports and to record children's findings. Speculate together on how people are both positive and negative change agents. Can nature cause both positive and negative changes in the natural world? Make a running list of both.
Try observing the natural world from a fresh perspective. Look at something upside down, climb above and look down, get nose to nose, check out the underside of a common object. Each view can add new insights, raise questions, and open more thoughts.
Science Connection: Get out your magnifying glasses and binoculars. Challenge science discoveries children make and observe what captivates children. Encourage them to view the environment from as many perspectives as they can think of. You might even make a chart together that illustrates what a special rock, flower, or caterpillar looks like from above, under, close up, far away, and so on.
Play a Web of Life Game
Take your group outside and bring along a ball of string. Tie one end of the string to a natural object and then hand the string to another child. Ask him to find another natural object and loop the string around it. Keep going until each child has had an opportunity to connect the string to a natural object. As you play, encourage children to ask questions and talk about the difference between what is natural and what is human-made. Soon you will have created a web that children can actually see. Older children can talk about ways in which each natural object relies on or relates to the ones already in the web. This activity helps children gain both a verbal and a visual perspective on how the systems of the earth are all connected.
Observing, Reflecting, Researching, Sharing and Recording
The process of observing, reflecting, sharing, and recording helps children develop an awareness and a respect for the diversity present in the natural world, take an active scientific interest in their environment, and feel empowered to consciously value nature and their place in it.
Make sure your outdoor space is an interesting, safe place where children feel comfortable exploring. Set the tone with your own sense of reverence, watchfulness, and playful investigation. And remember this cardinal rule: Never tell a child something about the natural world she can discover for herself.
As children explore, ask meaningful open-ended questions to further their investigation and heighten observation skills. Encourage them to use all of their senses. Ask what they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Help them look for traits and characteristics of objects that have piqued their interest: sizes, shapes, textures, colors, patterns, rhythms, and so on. And, of course, encourage children to notice change - one of the most important conditions scientists watch.
Reflection and Discussion
Reflection is a process of thinking about and internalizing meaning, a process children become better at when they are around thoughtful, listening adults. Children who feel they have time to think and opportunities to communicate their ideas, theories, and hypotheses without fear of being wrong become more involved in thoughtful and reflective investigations. Here's an example of children immersed in scientific discovery - a day when a teacher just listened:
It's early morning. Anthony is exploring the schoolyard. Kentucky coffee bean pods have fallen from a tree and are littering the lawn. "Look what I found!" he cries, scooping up a leathery seedpod. Soon Nada, Jamal, and Larissa are crowding around, gathering more and more pods in their hands.
I find myself on the verge of launching into a set of preprogrammed "what" questions: "What do you think is inside?" "What sounds do they make?" "What tree do you think they came from?" But somehow I keep quiet, and Anthony, after several failed attempts, figures out a way to break the thick pod apart to reveal a perfect little row of seeds nestled inside.
"Secrets," Anthony breathes. "Secrets." I breathe back, intensely grateful I have refrained from telling him something he has discovered for himself. Secrets is a far more descriptive word for what he has discovered, and, besides, he has named the seeds, not me.
"Let's find more secrets," he whispers. By now, several other children have joined the search. Sounds of delight erupt whenever a new pod is slit open. Little fingers scatter seeds to the wind.
I feel myself entering Anthony's world and sense him leading the way: "Where will they land?" "How long will they fly?" "Can they swim, these secrets?" Now my questions are born from my own curiosity, and a true conversation begins: a dialogue about seeds (secrets!).
We lie down on the grass and snuggle like the seeds in the pod. We consider what they feel like when they're under the soil. "I think they are glad to be sleeping," says Amanda. "No, they're numb," says Jeffrey. "They can't feel anything at all. They're not asleep, and they're not dead. They're just numb." We wriggle our fingers down deep and talk about what happens to make seeds grow. One child wonders if they think in green. Another child says the sky calls them out of the ground. "Do you know how it happens?" they ask me.
"I know," says Kahindy. "Like this." And she dances a slow, twirling dance all around us.
"Do you want to learn more about your seeds?" I ask. "Would you like to be scientists?"
Anthony and his classmates have already begun the process of observing, recording, and researching by examining their findings closely and working with the concept of seeds in their own ways fixing the experience in their minds. Now it is up to adults to help children build on their curiosity. A trip to the library, a visit to the Internet, will help them begin to learn about and investigate related scientific concepts - dormancy, quickening, sprouting, growth, maturation, blooming, and so on. From there, they can decide what they want to explore further and, with your guidance, how to do so.
As you research and investigate, help children record their thinking and findings. Some may want to take photographs and label the pictures. Others may want to write stories or create a book. One class made a series of murals comparing and cataloging patterns and changes they observed.
By exploring together, guiding children's research, and helping them document their findings, you will be providing opportunities to help children translate their interests into meaningful scientific investigation. With Anthony's group, we touched, felt, and even tasted a variety of seeds in various stages of development. We observed, measured, and charted the growth of different seeds, made a list of edible and inedible seeds, and invited a gardener in to look at our seeds and to share her knowledge about the seeds she plants.
Sharing and Recording
Make time for children to periodically share what they have observed, questions they are thinking about, and information they've learned. Help them use appropriate science vocabulary, such as friction when two rocks make a rasping sound when rubbed together or suction when they fill a meat baster with water. Encourage group discussions and pair up children to work together on common interests and then report back to the group.
Document science learning in a variety of forms books, displays, musical creations or stories, theatrical events, and especially panels or posters. Regularly updated and thoughtfully prepared documentation panels invite parents to participate in and build on children's outdoor experiences. A careful display of children's findings creates a "mirror" in which they can review and revisit their experiences. Paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, diagrams, charts, graphs, and collages are just some of the ways to honor the breadth and depth of their study and thought processes.
Children really do need the wild things and places of the natural world. They need to tunnel in them, nest in them, and create out of them. They need to experience the surprise, creativity, and spontaneity of nature, whether it croaks out a welcome from a nearby swamp or crawls and scurries beneath a log. The natural world invites, sustains, and maintains our innate sense of wonder and allows us to feel at home in the world. It is also a terrific springboard to scientific investigation and thinking.
When we, as adults, are able to reawaken and share our own sense of wonder, we are better able to recognize the value of children's ideas and perceptions and build on their lead in meaningful ways. As children observe, reflect, record, and share nature's patterns and rhythms, they are participating in a process that promotes scientific and ecological awareness, problem solving, and creativity. When born of firsthand experiences and authentic dialogue, science and nature take on true meaning in our lives.
This article originally appeared in the May, 1999 issue of Early Childhood Today.