50 Ways to Wonder: Science kits for the playground

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom

In an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

8. Make science kits for the playground.

I don’t know how recess works at your school, but at mine, it’s complete chaos. All kindergarten classes have the same recess times, so there are usually about 65 kids running around on one tiny playground. Despite their best efforts to institute rule-following, the poor recess teachers spend their whole time fielding complaints about hitting, tackling, and going the wrong way on the slide. It’s not the recess teachers’ fault though – most of the kindergarteners, especially at the beginning of the year, don’t have the social skills or the independence to organize games together, or do anything except run around like recently-freed monkeys in a zoo.

Don’t get me wrong, I really value recess and think it’s incredibly important for kids to get outside and have time to move their body. If it were up to me, we’d have a recess at the end of every hour of learning (well, ask me that question in the middle of winter, and I would NOT be as excited to facilitate putting on of snow clothes at the end of every hour…)

But when my kids come in after recess, they are mostly just sweaty, and more hyperactive than before they went outside. The environment of five dozen kids running around screaming is not exactly rejuvenating for them.

So rather than complaining about recess (I need to save my complaining time for even bigger problems in public education), I decided to slowly work on this problem, starting with something very small – science kits. The idea came from the nature center where I work in the summer – small bags that kids can take out into the field to investigate the natural world. I figured if kids can use them out in the woods at the nature center, why not make something similar for the playground?

So I went to Michaels, bought four cheap canvas bags, and filled them with magnifying glasses, small notebooks, and a bug catcher. It took me less than an hour to put them together.

They turned out to be a huge hit. Kids were so excited to have something to do besides run around on the playground, and the bags were filled with enough items that 3 or 4 kids could share each bag. Every day I pulled name sticks to pick four people who would be in charge of bringing the bags out to recess. I thought I would have to make a big deal out of not forgetting the bags on the playground, but the kids felt so much pride in bringing them out that they almost never forgot to bring them back in. (I think it was also because they played with them for the entire recess time – instead of just discarding them after a few minutes, and forgetting about them by the time the bell rang.)

The science kits also had the benefit of engaging students who love to investigate the natural world. I saw students working together to create bug homes, identify (often imaginary) animal tracks, and use notebooks to sketch leaves and rocks.

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Using a bug catcher to capture ants crawling on a tree

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Working hard to create a bug home

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Look at these kids at recess! No running around screaming here, just good old fashioned exploring

Below is a photo of what I included in my science kits, as well as a list of other ideas. In the future, I’d love to create other playground kits, including a reading kit and a nature journaling one.

TeachRunEat - science kits for the playgroundIncluded in my science kits:

  • Bug identification cards
  • Small notebooks
  • Bug catcher (actually just a cheap craft box from Michaels)
  • Magnifying glass
  • Pencil
  • Animal track identification cards

Other ideas you could include:

  • Field guides
  • Binoculars
  • Compasses
  • Butterfly nets
  • Flashlights
  • Nature log (for recording animal and plant sightings)
  • Colored pencils
  • Nature journals
  • Maps
  • Jars or boxes for building collections of rocks, leaves, etc.
  • Nature scavenger hunt checklists

Here’s a few more links on creating science kits for the playground: Fun Field Bag Supplies for Kids, and Scavenger Hunt Bingo.

50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Keep a nature journal

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the ClassroomIn an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

6. Keep a nature journal.

Nature journals are a quick, easy way to get kids outside, grow their observation skills, and connect them to the place where they are. I was reading an article from Community Works Journal called “Nature Journals: An Enduring Marriage of Art and Literature,” and came across this passage, which perfectly describes why nature journals are so beneficial for the classroom:

Out of concern for increasing problems among today’s children, including attention deficit disorder, obesity and depression, there is research supporting the idea that alienation from the natural world could be a factor. A malady called “Nature Deficit Disorder” has been described by author Richard Louv in his book, The Last Child in the Woods…Louv’s recommendation is to change the education of young children from the current emphasis on technology, and instead encourage more direct exploration of the outdoors. I believe that Louv would agree that nature journaling offers an important avenue to help introduce children in a very personal way to the natural world that seems foreign to so many of them.

Nature journaling is a perfect aesthetic activity for children at school, whether they are kindergarteners sketching flowers in the school yard, middle school science students observing and recording various species of leaves and bark, or high school AP Studio Art students deriving inspiration from nature to design a beautiful journal page. Allowing children to experience the commitment to a nature journal as a labor of love should be a common opportunity for each child.

And to put it more concisely:

The natural extension of visually studying nature is to feel appreciation for it and then seek to learn more about it.

Exactly what I want for my students!

I created a simple nature journal for kids to use, which is available to download here or by clicking the picture below. But any old notebook or sketchbook would work just as well!

naturejournal

Inspiration for the weekend

allthegoldenlandsI travel to feel lonely…on purpose. What farm-to-table got wrong.

A fascinating idea of how we need to cook with the whole farm. (Farmers spend years making healthy soil by growing cover crops, but most of those cover crops just go to animal feed. If there was a market for buying those crops, farmers would make more money.)

What you think “organic” means may be different than what it actually means. (Basically, it means the food is only 95% pesticide-free. For the other 5%, they can use any chemicals approved by the USDA. Of which there are quite a few.)

40 of the best science podcasts for mobile learning. Having never studied science, I’m always looking for ways to improve my science knowledge so I can teach it to my students.

My current obsession for lunches: Kale avocado wrap.

One of my favorite radio programs has two awesome shows this week: Rethinking Schools and The Secret Language of Plants.

I used this book a lot when I was teaching at a nature center, and I forgot it existed! So now I want to get it. Growing Up Wild: Exploring Nature with Young Children.

Inspiration for the weekend

Here are some things I came across this week that stuck with me…

How to simplify your life a bit.

More and more farms are being built on rooftops.

Reuse Tuesdays: Ideas for projects from recycle materials.

The meal I make basically once a week.

Why knowing the names of plants is less important than making time to play in the forest

Reading helps us grow.

Being active in nature makes kids healthier

By now you’ve probably figured out how much I love infographics. But this one is the best I’ve seen in a while! It’s called Children and Nature: Being active in nature makes kids healthier. As a teacher who works at an environmental education center (for one more week!), the facts in here are great. I printed a copy and laminated it, to put up in my new classroom!

The two most stunning facts:

  • Kids spend more than 7 hours a day with various electronic media.
  • Children have lost 50% of unstructured outdoor activity over recent decades. 

But fortunately:

  • Children living within 2/3 mile of a park with a playground can be 5 times more likely to have a healthy weight.
  • Children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be overweight by 27-41%.

The link to the printable pdf is here.

A sense of wonder

One of my personal heroes, Rachel Carson, wrote a fabulous book called A Sense of Wonder, in which she encourages parents and teachers to cultivate in their children a sense of wonder about the natural world. As I’ve written before, I believe that time outdoors in nature is an essential part of a healthy childhood. But I also believe that simply allowing kids to wonder about the marvels of the world will cultivate a healthy childhood. Far too often, we expect kids to passively digest information about the world through tv programs and computers, without encouraging them to become active and curious about the (non-digital) world around them. One of the teachers at my school, whose fourth- and fifth-grade students have their own blog, recently asked her students one simple question: What do you wonder?
Each student wrote a journal entry responding to this question, and their answers were so refreshing and interesting that I had to share them with others. 

How did the first living thing come to life?

What would the world be like without people?

What do I sound like?

Are there aliens, and if so, do they call their world THE world?

Why won’t Muammar Qadafi leave so there can be peace again?

How long will the earth live?

Why do I like eating so much?

Why do people have a soft spot for things?

What does a cigarette taste like to the ones who are addicted?

What will my job be?

Will we have hovercrafts in the future?

I wnder wy I cant spl?

I wonder how they came up with Legos?

I wonder how the earth was created? 

Why do all people look different?

What is fire? 

 What happens when people die?

Who IS God?

Are dogs ticklish? 

Why is snow white?

I wonder will there be a WWWIII?

I wonder how they make glass.

I wonder who had the idea to make life-saving windshield wipers.

I wonder how the sun was made. 

How long will the earth live?

This is just a small selection of student wonders; you can read the entire list here. I hope this list of wonderings has inspired you as much as it has me. It has motivated me to get outside, explore more, run more, read more, learn more. As Rachel Carson so beautifully puts it,  “Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”

A unique prescription for healthy living

Now that spring is finally emerging from an unusually winter-y winter here in New York, my feet are itching to be outdoors. It seems that each year, my beginning-of-the-year resolution to get more outdoor exercise isn’t fully achieved until March, when the cold weather has finally passed. But as we know, most Americans spend too little time outdoors all year long. The average adult spends most of his/her day in front of a screen, and kids spend a shocking seven hours a day with electronic media, according to reports from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Wildlife Foundation. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it) that so much sedentary time in front of a screen is not good for our health, increasing the risk of all sorts of problems, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and asthma.

As a teacher, it’s astonishing and more than a little depressing to realize that kids spend as much time in front of a screen as they do at school. But lately, I’ve been hearing about an innovative way to fight against the tide of sedentary lifestyles in children. Pediatricians in Las Vegas have begun giving prescriptions for nature to children. The National Environmental Education Foundation launched a program called the Children and Nature Initiative, which trains health care providers to recommend time in nature, rather than pills, as a prescription for health. (It’s only when appropriate according to the child’s needs, of course, but I think it’s always appropriate to spend more time in nature). For kids suffering from obesity, diabetes, asthma, and certain mental health issues, the doctors are now recommending more time spent in national parks and local nature sites. Here is the story from a doctor participating in the movement.

I think this is fantastic. There is an endless list of benefits to spending more time in nature. It reduces levels of many afflictions affecting Americans, from ADHD and asthma to obesity and heart disease. Studies show that outdoor walking does more for mental health than indoor exercise, and that kids who move from urban environments to greener environments have increased levels of cognitive functioning. Plus, getting outdoors will help you get to know your environment, so that you can appreciate (and ultimately help conserve) the land around you. Another bonus.

So, even if your doctor doesn’t write you a prescription for spending time outdoors, it’s highly recommended. As the National Park Service chief of conservation Rick Potts puts it, “Science is validating what moms have known for generations: Being outside is good for your health.” Spring is finally on its way, and the days are getting longer. Let’s spend more of them outside.