50 Ways to Wonder: Have Outdoor Hour.

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!

10. Have Outdoor Hour in your schedule.

There has been lots of media coverage on the benefits of children spending time in nature. A recent article in the Atlantic that fills me with joy, called Kindergarten, Naturally, describes a “forest kindergarten” in Finland where students spend 80% of their day outdoors. Now, being a public school teacher in the U.S., this isn’t a plausible goal for my classroom. Most schools don’t have access to rolling acres of forest and hills that are walkable from their building. I am lucky enough to teach at a place that has a school forest (albeit a “mini” one in the courtyard), but I still can’t get through everything I need to teach if I spent 80% of my time out there.

Forest Friday in the classroom

I can, however, afford to dedicate one hour a week to learning outdoors. I’m calling it “Forest Friday,” and it’ll be at the end of the day on Friday (when my students’ already-short ability to concentrate on indoor tasks has plummeted). Every Friday, for one hour, we’ll go outside to do whatever it is we need to do that day – a science lesson, a math lesson, a Readers Workshop. It’s not going to be play time (although there’s nothing wrong with that); it’ll be Explore time or Reading time or Writing time. Of course, we’ll talk about the rules for learning outside, so it doesn’t become a distraction-fest. And I know it’ll be a learning curve for me (How do I bring all these bookboxes outside? What if the kids need to go to the bathroom?). But I really believe it’ll be beneficial for my students.

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I’ve been telling parents about my plan for Forest Friday, and also telling my students. They’re really excited about it, and we had our first one yesterday (even though it started to rain so we didn’t make it to a whole hour). I told the families and students so I could hold myself accountable, since I know it’s so easy to lose motivation when you have so many other things on your mind. But this is one I want to remain committed to, because kids deserve the chance to learn outdoors.

It’s a small step, but I’m all about small steps towards bringing joy and wonder back to the classroom.

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50 Ways to Wonder: Educate families on how to connect with nature

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!

9. Educate your students’ families on how to connect with nature.

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Rachel Carson, when she says “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder… he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

The quote inspires me to be that adult, the one with whom my students can explore the world and marvel at its mysteries. I do everything I can to make room for joy and wonder in the classroom. But let’s be real – there isn’t enough time in the school day to do it right. The pressures of academic expectations in kindergarten (or any grade) are way too high to really let my students spend the optimal amount of time exploring the outdoors. I am lucky if I get in 30 minutes a day of unstructured time for my students, plus a few science lessons outside each week.

But this is where I turn to my students’ families – after all, they are the ones who spend the most significant amount of time with their children, long after the kindergarten year is over. Why not help them learn to bring joy and wonder into their children’s lives? Yes, families are busy, and many may not be receptive to pushes from their child’s teacher to find time for playing outside. But I believe strongly in the importance of connecting children with nature, so it’s worth every attempt at involving my students’ families to do just that.

There are lots of ways to involve families. I run the garden committee at my school, which has parents and community members on board for planting and growing the garden. We also encourage parents to adopt the garden for a week in the summer, bringing their children with them to weed and harvest during the non-school season.

nature parent books

If you don’t have a garden, consider purchasing books that parents can borrow. I recently read How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott D. Sampson, and LOVED it. It’s filled with ideas for how parents can help their children at each stage of growth (early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence) become enamored by the natural world. He gives ideas for how parents can become “nature mentors” (like Rachel Carson advises), addresses the paradox of technology and the outdoors, and lists tons of other resources for parents and caregivers.

Another good resource is the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. He outlines the research behind the dramatic drop in time spent outdoors, and why it’s bad for children’s health and futures. This one is a little gloomier than How to Raise a Wild Child, but it’s become a classic for parents and teachers who are worried about their children’s connection to nature.

There are also TONS of resources available online, and I sometimes print this and attach them to my weekly family newsletter. Here are just a few you could include:

These conversations might be hard to have at first, since parents are often worried about a myriad of things besides getting their kids outdoors more. But I believe it will help enormously to encourage parents in your mission to bring more joy and wonder into the lives of your students. Make sure to tell parents that they don’t need to be nature experts to take their kids outdoors – it’s less important to name all the plants on your hike, and more important that you are going on a hike together.

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.

When work becomes more important than play in kindergarten

importance of play

This will be my third year teaching kindergarten (and seventh year teaching overall), and every day I become more frustrated with the demands we are making on kindergarten students. Research overwhelming states that children need to play to learn. Just read this and this and this and this.

I know how important play is, and I make every effort I can to put it into my classroom. But the urgency with which we are required to fit in so much curriculum and testing sometimes leaves me feeling powerless to do what I feel is best for my kids.

Sadly, this was a week in which I hardly let my students play. There were too many other things that they HAD to do.

In place of playing, here are a few things I asked my five- and six-year-olds to do this week:

  1. Complete 7 math worksheets.
  2. Write a personal narrative.
  3. Edit and revise their personal narrative.
  4. Sort spelling words according to their letter pattern.
  5. Read silently for twenty minutes each day.
  6. Take a state-mandated test on their “reading level.”
  7. Memorize flashcards of high-frequency words, and participate in a daily song drilling these words.
  8. Write using a “graphic organizer” to demonstrate what they learned in science.
  9. Complete four math homework sheets.
  10. Summarize and retell a book each day, as well as tell me the title, setting, main character, problem and solution.

This isn’t what kindergarteners should be doing in school. Third graders, maybe. But not kids who are still learning the most basic of life skills, including taking turns, having empathy, asking questions, and making observations.

To learn these skills, kids need unstructured play, small group interactions, movement, exploration, free time. I will continue to create pockets of time for these vital learning experiences. But it’s an uphill battle.

50 Ways to Wonder: Watch fascinating videos like “The Kid Should See This.”

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!

7. Watch fascinating videos like “The Kid Should See This.”

The internet is filled with so many interesting videos on all kinds of topics, but they’re not always kid-friendly. Plus as teachers we don’t always have time to sift through all the YouTube search results to find an age-appropriate one. Enter The Kid Should See This!

52 Ways to Wonder video

Their tagline is “cool videos for curious minds of all ages,” and it’s true. I could spend hours just watching these videos by myself. But the kids love them too. Here is how the website describes itself:

There’s just so much science, nature, music, art, technology, storytelling and assorted good stuff out there that my kids (and maybe your kids) haven’t seen. It’s most likely not stuff that was made for them…

But we don’t underestimate kids around here.

The Kid Should See This is a growing library of super-cool, STEAM-focused, “not-made-for-kids, but perfect for them” videos that are perfect for watching together.

I subscribe to the email list, so that I get an email of that week’s top five videos. But there are tons of videos on every topic you can imagine, sure to promote wonder and curiosity in the classroom (and also, let’s be honest, a few minutes of peace and quiet for the teacher…)

Here are a few of my favorites:

50 Ways to Wonder: Have a Wonder Table.

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. Have a Wonder Table.

Kids are constantly bringing in things from outside to show me. I used to say “oh thank you” and just put the items on my desk. Then I realized that kids were bringing them in because they were interested in them, and wanted to learn more! So I started a Wonder Table. It was basically a plain table with a sign saying “Wonder Table.” The rules were that kids could bring anything they found outside or at home that made them wonder. We brainstormed examples, including items from nature, interesting toys that made them think, or books that taught them something new. I also sent home a letter to parents explaining the project.

After that, the items just started flooding in! Nests, dead bugs, leaves, rocks, all sorts of natural items that the kids were fascinated by. (I put each new item in a small basket so it didn’t get super messy.) I also left magnifying glasses and our science journals at the same table. It was a favorite place to go during free choice time, and I like to think that it also helped place more value on wonder and curiosity.

Click the image below to download a sign that you can print off and tape to one of your tables to start your own Wonder Table!

wondertable

50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Visit a “Sit Spot” every season.

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!

5. Visit a Sit Spot every season.

The idea of a “Sit Spot” came directly from the Cultivating Joy and Wonder curriculum from Shelburne Farms (which is free to download – such a great resource). I used it this year for the first time, and I really liked it because it can be done no matter what type of schoolyard you have – concrete, prairie, garden, playground.

Sit Spot

Talk to the class ahead of time about how many scientists make observations of the same place over time, in order to have a better understanding of what goes on in their environment. By visiting the same spot every week, month, or year, they can observe what has changed, what has gone missing, what has grown or been replaced.

Explain that you’ll be doing the same thing at school. Go out into the yard, parking lot, or other surrounding area and help kids choose their own Sit Spot. They will be returning to this spot again and again. They should take careful notes (or drawings, depending on the age) on what they see, smell, hear and feel.

Be sure to return to the same Sit Spots at least once a season, and make time for the students to share after each Sit Spot period. They can use previous entries to compare and contrast their spot in each season. Ask probing questions like “Why do you think there are no flowers in your spot anymore?” and “What has stayed the same in your spot?”

This short activity takes only about twenty minutes, tops, and really encourages students of all ages to notice patterns and changes in their environment. Plus it brings in just a little bit more questioning and wonder to the classroom!

50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Mystery Bag Monday

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!

4. Have Mystery Bag Monday.

Mystery Bag Monday is such a fun way to introduce a new topic or review an old one, and kids LOVE it. I just took a simple brown bag, glued a Mystery Bag picture on it, and voila! Instant Wonder And Mystery. Here’s how I do it:

When I’m starting a new unit, I choose something that represents the topic, such as a leaf for a Trees unit, a mini pumpkin for a Pumpkins unit, you get the idea. Then I pass the bag around the circle and let each student touch, hold and smell the bag. Just don’t peek inside! I write one clue at a time on the board, and call on a few kids to make predictions after I reveal each clue. Then, after all three clues are given, they take their science journal back to their tables and draw or write what they think is in the bag. We each share our predictions, and then I do the big reveal!

mystery bag

This is so much fun, takes very little time, and is a great way to gauge your kids’ understanding of the new topic. You could do the same thing as an assessment, giving them three clues about something you’ve already studied. And most importantly, it brings a little bit of curiosity and wonder into any unit of study!

50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Teach the word “hypothesis.”

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!

3. Teach the word “hypothesis.”

It’s a common misconception that young students shouldn’t be taught big words. Who hasn’t met a five-year-old that can’t tell you the difference between a brontosaurus and a stegosaurus? Kids are drawn to big, complicated words, and they are often ready to handle the big, complicated concepts that come with. Early on in the year I teach my students the word “hypothesis,” defining it as something like “your best guess answer to a question, based on what you already know.” I then make an effort to pose lots of questions that allow them to form a hypothesis.

My favorite way to introduce new units is by posing a question or two, letting the students form hypotheses, and then giving them time to look in books to find the answer. For example, I kicked off my unit on turtles by writing the question “Why do turtles have shells?” on chart paper. I asked each student to draw or write a simple answer to the question, then gave them time to browse through lots of non-fiction books to look for evidence that proves them either right or wrong. I usually ask them to search with a partner, in order to stimulate dialogue on the topic.

teachthewordhypothesisIt’s amazing to see kindergarteners scrutinizing photographs and captions to find evidence that turtles use their shells for protection. I hand out sticky notes to each pair, suggesting that they mark any evidence they find in the texts. After about ten minutes, we come back to the rug and share what we learned. I usually follow up by reading a simple non-fiction text that will give us a definite answer to the question posed. But sometimes I leave it open for debate!

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom

As I mentioned before, I am continually frustrated with the lack of space for curiosity and creativity in the classroom. Teachers are pressured to fill every minute with minilessons, assessments and benchmark objectives – at the expense of real, engaging education. This means that elementary students spend more time with their butts glued to their desks, writing a “readers response” and making “text-to-self” connections, instead of talking about books they love. They spend more time deciphering specific directions for how a science experiment should be done, instead of being allowed time to experiment with hands-on science materials.

I could go on and on, but I won’t, since I did so in a previous post. Instead, I’ve decided to start sharing some resources for how busy teachers can fit in small ideas that bring curiosity and wonder back into the classroom. I call it my “50 Ways to Wonder” project.

Each week I’ll share a different resource or idea that is both easy and inexpensive for teachers to implement in the classroom. I’ll try to make the ideas for all ages (at least K-5), and something that is feasible. For as much as we would all love to build a school garden from scratch, those types of projects are just not feasible for elementary teachers who are juggling six subjects, 30 students, and an inordinate amount of meetings and paperwork.

Thus, I’ll try to keep these ideas short and simple. Hopefully a few teachers can use these ways to bring joy and wonder back into the classroom, encouraging kids to have fun, be curious, and love to learn!

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom

So without further ado, here is the first way to bring wonder into the classroom!

1. Have a Wonder Wall.

Kids are naturally curious, which leads to lots of questions throughout the day. Teachers don’t always have time to answer every question, particularly if they are ones that we aren’t equipped to answer without a little research! A Wonder Wall serves as a great place to store these questions until you can find time to answer them. Writing them down gives your students the message that you do take their curiosity seriously – and further encourages kids to ask more questions!

A Wonder Wall can be as simple or as fancy as you’d like. I just stick a blank piece of chart paper on the wall and title it “Wonder Wall.” Then, whenever a child asks a question that I can’t answer (perhaps because I’m reading a book out loud, it’s in the middle of an unrelated activity, or because I just don’t know the answer!), I write their question on the chart paper.

Here is my current Wonder Wall. Just search “Wonder Wall” on Pinterest to see much prettier versions of this same idea. 🙂

Wonder Wall

When the paper is filled up, I dedicate one Writers Workshop period to investigating the answers to these questions. Finding the answers can take many forms – including looking for related books in the library, interviewing someone in the school who might know (like the music teacher or the librarian), or searching on the internet (with my help, of course). In the future, I think I’ll incorporate more writing into the research part of the Wonder Wall, encouraging my kindergarteners to write a letter to a community member who might know more about the subject. (For example, our town is right next to a major university, so I could foresee writing a letter to a professor who studies the topic.)

I hope you find these ideas helpful… Happy wondering!