Children and Nature Home Gardens School Gardens


Seeds surround us as we transition from summer to winter.  For gardeners, this means that it’s the perfect time to save seeds to plant next year.   Try letting some of your leafy vegetables, like lettuce and cilantro, flower and make seeds for you to harvest and save.  For young nature explorers, this means it’s the perfect time to build burdock structures, make wishes on milkweed seeds, find out how far a thrown “helicopter seed” can travel, and create acorn cracking factories by the forest edge.  Children can also participate in seed saving for the next spring – equipped with an envelope, you’d be amazed by how many seeds can be found in a fall garden or meadow.  For teachers, there are opportunities to investigate life cycles, parts of a seed, and ways that seeds travel through hands-on outdoor exploration and discovery.

Seeds in the garden: sunflower and cilantro/corriander
Seeds in the garden: sunflower and cilantro/coriander
Hitchhiking and velcro seeds: burdock
Hitchhiking and velcro seeds: burdock
Flower seeds: bachelor button and calendula
Flower seeds: bachelor button and calendula
Helicopter seeds: Box Elder Tree
Helicopter seeds: box elder tree
Parachute and wishing seeds: Dandelion and milkweed
Parachute and wishing seeds: dandelion and milkweed
Children and Nature

In Appreciation of Forests

This past weekend I took some time to browse through past blog entries.  I noticed certain seasonal rituals and appreciations repeat themselves year after year.  Every fall, right about now, I renew my love of the forest and trees.


As an adult on an elementary school calendar, September is always a month full of new beginnings, logistics to sort out, and rhythms to establish.  This is often hard work!  By October, my students have settled in and are ready for exploration further from home base, bigger projects, and the chance to enjoy the last sunny warm afternoons before winter sets in.  The forest is a perfect place for all of this.  For me, spending time in the forest is calming and rejuvenating – it reminds me of things to be grateful for, puts recent stressors in context, and stimulates my senses.

Here are some past forest-themed blog posts for you to browse.  Enjoy!

Making a discoveryChildren and Nature: The Forest ~ Why spending time outside, especially in forests, is crucial for children… “Upon entering the woods, the temperature drops noticeably.  The sounds change – whispering leaves and the occasional bird chirp blocks any outside noises from coming in.  Our foot steps are quiet on the soft needle-carpeted forest floor.  The smell of moist leaves, moss, and bark filters into our noses…”  (read more)

Mossy RoofForts and Fairy Houses ~ Discoveries and lessons learned from forest play… “We’ve discovered things that would never be possible (or allowed) in a classroom.  Different thicknesses of sticks make different sounds when banged against the trunk of a mature tree.  Pine needles make for a soft landing after tripping over a raised root.  TONS of different mushrooms and fungi grow on the forest floor after a few days of rain, and most of them are really slimy.  Pine sap is the perfect glue, but it’s better to keep it off our clothes…” (read more)

Foliage Games and Activities ~ Fun ideas for educators looking for active hands-on ways to teach students about leaves, trees, foliage, and the changing of seasons.  (read more)

Fairy-House6Zooming In: Fairy and Snail Houses ~ Fun photos and observations after several fairy and snail house building sessions with children… “Outdoor educators take note!  Fairy, gnome, and snail house building ties right into lessons on observation, habitat, ecosystems,  community, and respect for nature.  Building miniature things will lead students to observe the intricate details of pinecones, the barbs of burdocks, the veining of leaves, and much much more…” (read more) 

Welcome to the Woodlands Clubhouse ~ How the creation of a fort in the woods engaged a challenging mixed-age group of students for months after school.  (read more)

Stumps make steps and chairs for our fort

A Woodlands Playground ~ Great photos and ideas for adding natural forest elements to play spaces for children of all ages. (read more)

Ticks and Poison Ivy Season ~ Adults are increasingly fearful of the dangers of being in nature… “There are many possible dangers associated with all the activities we do every day, including playing and working outside.  I strongly believe, however, that the benefits of time spent outside far outweigh the risks…” (read more)

(reposted from October 2014)
Children and Nature Recipes

Fun in the Sun

When I was in seventh grade, we were given the choice to  study anything we wanted.  Most classmates picked their favorite athlete, hobby, or food.  I picked Time.  Whew, that was a challenge to put into a paper and presentation!

This week at camp, we’re making sure to have fun in the sun.  When working with children, I still think it is fascinating to notice how the rotation of our earth and the sun are linked to the rhythms of seasons and time.    There are great legends from many cultures that can be read to explain the sun’s journey across the sky, the change in seasons, and the passage of time.  This week my campers created a human sun dial and shadow circus (photos and explanations below).  More important than understanding the physics and astronomy, I think these activities help us observe our surroundings and consider the other living things in our ecosystem in a new and interesting way.


sun-dialHuman Sun Dial: Stand on black top in the morning and trace your feet.  Every hour, draw a line under the shadow that your body is making.  The next day, stand in your foot prints, look at your shadow, and find out what time it is!  How does your shadow change over the course of the day?

chalk-drawingsShadow Circus: Have a friend trace your shadow.  Add silly clothes, awesome hair-dos, fun pets, and more!  Notice how your shadow is a giant in the morning and in the evening and a midget in the middle of the day.  What does this tell you about the path of the sun?


sunny-cucumbersEarly July Recipes: Meanwhile, the garden is loving the sun!  Our weather has been great for growing this year.  Check out these links to past posts for in-season recipe ideas:

Children and Nature

Know Your Poisonous Plants

Whether you are young or old, if you want to have positive experiences in nature, it’s good to know how to identify the poisonous and irritating plants in your region.  If you work with kids outside, this is especially important! What do you see in the photo below?
Black-Caps-Poison-IvyIf kids or adults know their edibles (black cap berries) and encounter this scene, they may learn about poison ivy the hard way.

Poison-ParsnipHere’s how I help my groups of kids start to learn their Poisonous Plants:

Introducing…….  The Poisonous Plant Guide!

1) Collect your specimens:  Turn a gallon zip lock bag inside out and put it on your hand like a glove.  Find your poisonous plant of choice.  Break off a leaf, flower head, and/or any other parts you’d like your group to become familiar with.  Turn the bag back inside-in, push out the air, and zip it shut.

Poison-Plant-Guide2) Create Poison Plant Guides: Have your group look at each specimen closely.  Use magnifying glasses if you want!  Draw and label each plant in your very own Poison Plant Guide.  Help your young authors notice details such as jagged-edged leaves, the number of leaves are coming off of one stem, the colors of leaves and flowers, and other details.

Poison-Plant-Guides3) Find Examples Growing: The best way to really learn to identify plants is to see them growing.  With enough sightings, even very young kids can become experts in a growing season.

4) HAVE FUN OUTSIDE!  Now that your group knows what plants to avoid, there’s nothing to stop them from fully experiencing, playing, observing, and discovering the outsidoors in wild (and not so wild) places.

5) Don’t stop with poisonous and irritating plants.  Once kids start getting the hang of identifying plants, add edible and healing plants to your guide!

Day Lilly flowers are edible and Jewel Weed is a remedy for Poison Ivy
Day Lilly flowers are edible and Jewel Weed is a remedy for Poison Ivy
Children and Nature

Encouraging Curiosity and Problem Solving with Animal Tracking

In our last several After School trips into the forest, I have been struck by students’ reaction when animal tracks are found.  Conversations between students often go something like this: What walked here?  I think it was a coyote because it looks like a dog but there are no people tracks.  Was it running?  Which way did it go?  It was going this way because I can see the claws here in the front of each track.  Let’s follow it to see where it went!  Oh, here’s people tracks…the tracks must be from their dog going off on an adventure!  I guess the tracks were too big to be a coyote.

Crossing human and cat paths might cause a similar investigative conversation
Crossing human and cat paths might cause a similar investigative conversation

I rarely see this sort of spontaneous back and forth questioning, hypothesizing, and problem solving between students on the playground, in the gym, or doing an art project.  Often during a more structured activity, such reactions can be prompted by an adult’s questioning. There, in the forest, it was inspired by the students’ curiosity and desire to solve a puzzle.

Luckily, you don’t need a forest to investigate animal tracks.  Even in the most urban school yards, I’ve always been able to find at least two different kinds of animal tracks (often pigeon, squirrel, dog, or cat) and numerous human tracks from different kinds of boots and shoes.  No snow? Look for muddy areas!

IMG_0318_1To help students practice noticing the details of and differences between tracks, I love using “Sole Search” from Project Seasons.  In this activity, each student does a rubbing of the bottom of their shoe using a crayon and blank piece of paper.  The teacher then mixes up the papers, passes them out to students sitting in a circle, and everyone puts one of their shoes in the middle of the circle.  Students then have to try to find the shoe that matches the rubbing.  After, if you still have the group’s attention, you can ask students to share an observation that helped them make their match.


If working with a group of students who don’t know basic animal tracks, I always start with the difference between cats and dogs.  You can draw an X in the middle of a dog track.  Additionally, you can almost always see claws above each toe of a dog track.  Cats have more of an M shaped pad, retract claws when they walk, and have toes lined up more horizontally.

Once you’re primed to make detailed observations and know a few key differences between common tracks, get outside!  Investigate human tracks.  Look for animal tracks.  Ask questions like: Which was was this animal walking?  Do you think it was running?  Hopping?  What animal or person do you think this track belongs to?  What details can you see? Where did it go?  What was it doing?

Children and Nature

Foliage Games and Activities

Why do leaves change color?  Why do leaves fall from the trees in the fall?

These questions are common for those working or playing outside with inquisitive young people.  Every fall, I make sure to address these questions in a fun way.  Before jumping into games and crafts, however, remember to cover the basics.

I always introduce my students to a few basic words used to describe leaves and branching.  I make a poster with the following terms illustrated: needle/broadleaf, opposite/alternate, palmate/pinnate/parallel, toothed/lobed/smooth, simple/compound.  This is a great way to practice sorting, identify differences between two similar items, learn tree identification, and begin to start to think like an ecologist.  This website has some nice and basic information that might be helpful to read before leading leaf themed games with students.

After explaining the basics, my groups are ready to run around.  My favorite leaf running game is a Leaf Relay Race.  At one end of our running area, I place three paper bags labeled with large bold text: Maple, Birch, Oak.  I picked these species because they are common trees in our community. At the other end of the running area, I bring a bag filled with previously collected birch, maple, and oak leaves.  After making two lines, each student gets to “draw” a leaf from the bag.  Teammates can help each other identify their leaves.

I explain: “When I say go, the first person in each line will run across the field, put their leaf in the correct bag, and then run back and tag the next person in their team’s line.  That person will then run to deliver their leaf.  The first team back, sitting, and silent wins.”  With younger or urban students, I ask everyone with a toothed leaf to wave it in the air – that, I tell them, is a birch leaf.  We do the same for those with palmate leaves (maple) and lobed leaves (oak).  On your mark, get set, go!

Rather than focusing on who won, I bring the groups attention to the bags of leaves.  The group puts their thumbs up if the leaves I remove from the bag are correct.  We can try again if there are several mistakes (or if we still have a lot of energy).  Otherwise, I congratulate the whole group on their success.  One way to celebrate is to each grab a handful of leaves and throw it into the air on the count of three.  Leaf confetti!

Tree Identification:  With older groups, this is a great time to learn how to use Tree Identification Guides.  I strongly encourage adults to guide the group to a tree they know.  Use a book arranged using a dichotomous key like Tree Finder.  It will offer you choices like, “Are the branches of your tree opposite or alternate.”  Once the group decides the answer, you are directed to the next question.  It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure books!

Leaf hunting comes next.  Our mission: to find the best five leaves we can.  Maybe they’re the coolest leaves, the most colorful leaves, the smallest leaves, or the leaves from our favorite tree.  Collected leaves can be used inside to do a leaf rubbing and leaf stained glass.

Leaf Rubbing: Place one of your collected leaves under a paper taped to a table or on a clipboard, vein side up (to make more bumps).  Scribble on top of paper with a crayon to allow the bumps of the leaf come through.  Encourage students to rub multiple leaves and use many colors to fill their entire paper.

Leaf Stained Glass: “Laminate” leaves between shipping tape and trim with scissors to make art that can be hung in windows like stained glass.  Contact paper allows for bigger pieces of stained glass.  I start by placing a piece of tape sticky side up in front of the student, folding the corners down so that it is gently affixed to the table.  After the student places their leaves, I put a second piece of tape on top.

So, why do leaves change colors?  My favorite way to answer this question is verbally when all students have started their leaf rubbings.  Rubbing doesn’t take much brain power, but it keeps hands busy and allows the group to stay seated.  When I began as a teacher, I read the book: “Fall Leaves Change Color.”  There are other great books that can explain the process at the right level for your group.  Now that I’m more familiar with the facts, I prefer to tell the story without a book, which allows more questioning of students who can often help me tell the story.

Have students who are still interested?  I created a set of cards made up of six pairs of leaves.  They can be used to play Memory or Old Maid.