Favorite EE Activity Ideas
from PNW Educators
Practical and proven environmental education activities for all grade levels and subject areas, shared by members of the EE community. What is your favorite?
Kristen Clapper Bergsman
My favorite EE resource is a hardback journal with blank pages ready to fill with observations and revelations. Step into a circle of cedars, nestle down in meadow, or sit down on your back porch stairs and nature emerges all around you. Creative nature journaling is a powerful educational tool for young children and adults alike. I use journaling as both an educational activity and as a way to reinvigorate my teaching and writing.
A hardback journal can take the knocks of being thrown into a backpack and carried into the field. You can waterproof your journal simply by slipping it into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. Toss in a waterproof pen, a pencil, a sharpener and perhaps a few watercolor-pencils and you are ready for five-minutes or five-hours of immersive journaling.
Some people are hesitant about their drawing or writing skills, but by using some simple journaling exercises, you can soothe people’s fears about their own abilities. Even young children quickly connect with journaling exercises like gesture drawings, blind contour sketches and event maps.
I highly recommend several natural journaling books that provide sample activities and ideas on how to use journaling as an education tool, as well as having pages filled with lush examples of field journal pages. Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie & Charles Roth (Storey Books, 2000) is an excellent resource for teachers who want to use nature journaling with their students. Into the Field: A Guide to Locally Focused Teaching by Leslie, Tallmadge and Wessels is available through the Orion Society�s Nature Literacy Series. Hannah Hinchman�s A Trail Through Leaves (W.W. Norton and Co., 1997) will provide pages of inspiration.
Clare Walker Leslie & Charles Roth, Keeping a Nature Journal. Vermont: Storey Books, 2000. Pg. 181. ISBN 1-58017-306-3.
Leslie, Tallmadge and Wessels,� Into the Field: A Guide to Locally Focused Teaching. Massachusetts: The Orion Society, 1999. Pg. 83. ISBN 0-913098-52-3.
Hannah Hinchman, A Trail Through Leaves. W.W. New York: Norton and Co., 1997. Pg. 192. ISBN 0-393-04101-8.
Kristen Clapper Bergsman is an environmental educator and freelance writer. She owns her own curriculum development company, Laughing Crow Curriculum. She and her husband share their Seattle neighborhood with over 9,000 crows.
Grade Level: Kindergarten through High School.
Students take a designated outdoor space and observe the changes in that space over a period of time (several months during a change of seasons works best). Depending upon the age of your students, the size of space and the way in which you record the changes varies.
Kindergarten through primary grades: Measure out one square meter of ground. This can be one space for the whole class, or groups can each have their own square. In simple field journals, students draw and write words or sentences about what they see. Simple language arts and math integration can be used through what they find in their square.
Intermediate through high school: Each group or individual child measures one square (or cubic) meter. Observations can be recorded through the use of a digital camera, field journals, or PowerPoint/Hyper Studio presentations. Math (graphing, data collection), Language Arts (cause/effect, writing descriptions) can easily be integrated.
Intermediate through High School: Each student measures a square meter or takes a larger area (Iíve had students use a mile long hiking trail in a forest). Use science probes, soil testing kits, digital cameras and field journals to research and record data. Talk to builders, foresters, farmers, etc. to find out how the changes in the ground affect their jobs and work schedules. Math (graphing, data collection), Language Arts (cause/effect, writing descriptions, letter writing to industry people) can easily be integrated.
Skyway Elementary School
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
Let Them Eat Cake
My favorite activity is “Let Them Eat Cake” from Facing the Future: People and the Planet Curriculum Guide. This is a very effective and interactive activity for demonstrating the inequitable distribution of resources around the world. Students are divided into world regional groups (i.e. Asia, Africa, Europe, etc) and given a slice of cake relative to their regions’ share of global resources. The Asia group (about half the class) gets only a sliver of cake, while the one person from North America gets a quarter of the cake! Students really see how consumptive Americans are relative to people around the world. You can download the activity from their website, www.facingthefuture.org.
Sarah Bidwell, Administrative Director Alternatives to Growth Oregon
Fish in the Floodlight
One of my favorite environmental education resources is the Fisheries and Oceans resource “Fish in the Floodlights.” This package contains nine short plays about salmon for grades 4-7.
The plays are useful for teaching about salmon and there are themes of conservation and also social responsibility.
Drama can be a very creative tool for working with students to both empower them and to widen their understanding of ideas and issues in the world. Critical thinking skills can be developed as the students perform plays adopting different points of view.
Each play also contains suggestions for the use of cooperative learning strategies such as Know, Wonder, Learn, as well as integration with other subjects, such as art and math.
The package is very versatile and allows for plays to be read between students or performed before the entire school.
It can be ordered through the BC Teachers’ Federation Lesson Aids service at www.bctf.ca
Look for it under the title “Salmonids Go to the Ocean.”
Food Web Game
Note: If weather and opportunity permits, you may wish to do this webbing activity outdoors (i.e. in the school field). This webbing activity can also be done as a stand alone activity during any outreach event (indoors or out).
1. Review the definition of a food web.
2. Have the students sit in a circle and hand out the species cards randomly. Ask students to put up their hands when their species name is called out. Have a role of string with you to pull throughout the circle, making connections between different species in the food web. At each connection (student), the student is asked to hold tightly to the string. Start with the Sun and pull the string to the plants that require the sun for energy. Then feed the string to the animals that require the plants for food. Continue this process in the order of species below: plankton and bull kelp, barnacles, sea star, crab and shrimp (scavengers, would go after a dead bit of sea star)…now back to another plankton eater (since there are so many animals that eat plankton) – Pacific herring, salmon, cormorant, harbour seal, stellar sea lion, Pacific white sided dolphin, blue shark, killer whale (top predator), and finally the human. By the end of this exercise, the string in the middle of the circle should look like a spider’s web.
While handing out the string revisit the interesting facts of each species and explain again how they fit into this food web. Some examples have been incorporated above. Since the plankton has not been explained extensively to this point, include some information on these free-floating organisms. Q. What are plankton? A. They are “wanderers”; microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton) that drift in the ocean currents. Q. Why are plankton important in the ocean food web? A. First of all they provide the base food supply for many of the ocean creatures. Secondly they (along with ocean seaweed) produce over half of the oxygen that we breathe. We always think of the trees in the forests as being important for producing oxygen. They are, however, the ocean plants produce even more than the land plants. Q. Ask the students if this is another good reason to keep the ocean healthy. To reinforce, now or later ask the students to take a big breath and say “Thank you to the plankton and the seaweed!”
3. After the web has been formed get all the students to stand up while holding onto the string. Q. What does the string pattern remind you of? A. Many will say spider web and you can make this connection to the term food web to help them visualize the concept. The students can now see that they are part of a large ocean food web. Revisit with the students some of the factors mentioned earlier on in the presentation that could negatively effect this web (such as oil pollution, overfishing etc). Select one of these disturbances and incorporate it into the activity. An example of this would be oil pollution. Q. After an oil spill what would be the first organisms that would be negatively affected? A. The plankton would die since they would no longer be getting any exposure to the sunlight. Q. If the plankton die what happens to the rest of the food web? A. All the other organisms will be negatively affected. Some of the smaller ones will die and thus will no longer support the larger organisms which in turn will die or have to leave this ocean environment in search of a new food source. Get the students to actively demonstrate this negative impact on the food web. This can be done two ways.
Option 1: Get the plankton to sit down and then a tug the string to the next person in the web directly connected to them. Once the other students feel a tug they also sit down until everybody but the sun is sitting down.
Option 2: Get the plankton to let go of their string. Ask the students what next will get affected (i.e. who has a loose string hanging down, indicating their food source is gone). As the students lose their food source, they too drop their string until everybody is standing up and the entire web is on the floor.
Joanne Day, Information Co-ordinator
Stewardship and Community Involvement Unit
Habitat and Enhancement Branch, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Government of Canada
Pacific Coast Information Cards
Here is a bit about one of my favourite resources, which I use in the classroom and in public education.
Pacific Coast Information Cards, beautifully illustrated black and white recipe-sized cards with pictures of Pacific Ocean species (one species per card) on one side, and a description of the following “need to know” tidbits of info. on the flip side: Common Name
Quick Identification (basic physical description)
Predators (or, as I tell the kids, what eats them)
Feeding Type: (“what they eat”)
Commercial Value” (how humans have historically perceived them)
Status: common, rare,
Comments: special features of interest
These cards can be used in many different activities–I like to give a few to each student to sort when introducing classification and let the students loose to come up with their own criteria, or guide them with preset (for example, phyla) categories. Foodchain sequences are another great way to get the students engaged. First nations’ use of the organisms, and harvesting methods in modern economies, are other great focus possibilities.
The Pacific Coast Information Cards were published in 1998 by Oregon and Washington Sea Grant Programs. The artists were Karl Geist, Philip Croft and Mark Wynja, Cooper Publishing, editing , design and production. Gloria Snively at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, one of my “marine mentors”, was the author, and commissioned the creation of the cards to accompany her “Beach Explorations” curriculum. I highly recommend this resource.
You will want to possibly laminate them for frequent use!
Margy Ransford, past-President, NAME (Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators)
Crumple Your Own Watershed
Make your own three-dimensional map, and use it to explore how flowing water defines the areas of land we call “watersheds.” This activity provides opportunities for creativity and for meaningful discussion, a great combination for engaging students.
You can have each student make their own, or have groups collaborate.
Loosely crumple a piece of graph paper, unfold it but don’t smooth it out, and tape it onto a stiff backing so that the remaining wrinkles and creases resemble mountain ridges and valleys.
Use brown, purple, or black ink to identify and mark the ridgelines — “where water would ‘choose’ whether to go on one side or another.” These are the lines that define a watershed: on one side, the water will go one direction, and on the other side, the other. (The Rocky Mountains are the classic example of a defining ridgeline: raindrops that fall to earth on either side of the main ridgeline may end up flowing downhill to oceans thousands of miles apart.)
Use blue ink to trace where you think water will gather into rivers, lakes, streams, etc. These are the water-bodies that the water is shed into. Water connects areas of land — discuss various ways water connects landscapes, local bodies of water that define students’ home watersheds, etc.
Use other colors to add farms, houses, factories, roads, cities, etc. If students are planning out an island or city, this process can be quite elaborate. The grid-lines on the graph paper can be used to designate personal land areas in group projects, or to estimate the relative sizes of farms, cities, etc.
When “all done,” bring the landscapes over to a suitable table, and “make it rain” with the squirt bottle. (Squirt water onto the map until it runs down the creases.) See if student’s drawn-in blue rivers correctly anticipated the flow of water; did any cities drown? If landscapes sag, this may be a good opportunity to discuss how forces of nature (including water) can cause similar effects in real life.
In addition to watching the water, watch the colors it carries with it. Colors from uphill things will smear downhill, and water bodies below populated areas will show the effects. If you let the paper dry, the end result is often quite beautiful, with streaks of color from the ridges and valleys.
While watching the colors run, you can discuss connections to local watershed issues, such as dams, agricultural or urban runoff, water-rights negotiations, etc. One of my favorite all-purpose factoids is the “Fido Hypothesis:” in California, Florida, Idaho, and Virginia, researchers have found that dog “doo” runoff from parks and yards contributes dangerous bacteria to lakes and coastal waters, sometimes to the point where it’s unsafe to swim at local beaches. (Dog doo can be responsible for 10%-30% of the fecal coliform bacteria in coastal waters, including the now-infamous E. Coli.)
You can also discuss other kinds of land features, and what their analogies would be: sponges for wetlands, tiny clay dams, permanent-marker forests or other structures that resist runoff.
Some teachers extend this basic activity to teach students to read contour lines. (To make this work smoothly, it’s helpful to crumple the paper around something so that there’s one mountain peak and all the slopes can be reached from outside by the fixed-height pen. This isn’t as useful for showing watersheds, as it tends to eliminate meandering valleys, but it’s way easier to show contour lines around a single mountain.)
Prop a waterproof pen or pencil at a fixed height (tape it securely across a ruler, or stick it horizontally through a paper cup or piece of cardboard, so that the point stays the same height). Slide the pen around against the crumpled ridges, marking an equal-height line. Mark other lines at other heights the same way; 3 or more heights is appropriate. At the end of the activity, unfold the papers. The now-flat paper approximates a topo-map of the origonal surface. (There will be a few discrepancies, and steep slopes will not show up as dramatically as on a real topographical map. A photocopy or photograph of the intact crumpled paper would be more accurate, but not as beautiful.)
This activity has been documented several times, so you may be able to find it online. The version I use is currently available at http://www.omsi.edu/teachers/psd/
2000/watershed/crumple.pdf. Credit goes to Chris Maun for the version in “The Living River: An educator’s guide to the Nisqually River Basin,” and to Greg Dardis who originally adopted that activity for use at OMSI (the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry).
The “Fido hypothesis” was reported in USA Today (06/06/2002, “Dog waste poses threat to water” by Traci Watson, USA TODAY), and in other sources.
Erica Ritter is a science educator at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon.
One of my favorite activities, Macroinvertebrate Mayhem, comes from (of course) the Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide. If you liked Project WILD’s Hooks and Ladders, you’ll love this one!
Students get to act out macroinvertebrates while playing a game of tag. Sensitive critters have challenging “hindrances” to cope with. For example, caddisflies have to play in their case….a pillow case. And, stoneflies need to get extra oxygen by doing push-ups every ten steps. The mayflies flap their gills wildly.
Various “Environmental Stressors” race around tagging macroinvertebrates out. Survivors play on. Tagged macroinvertebrates can come back, but if they were a sensitive species, they return as a tolerant species.
This activity clearly demonstrates how water quality affects macroinvertebrates and how diversity and populations are affected by the health of their ecosystem.
Karen Lippy is an award-winning teacher in Shelton, Washington.
One of my favorite activities is simply teaching students to make a naturalist’s journal. Using examples of Olaus Murie’s journal or the journals of Lewis and Clark is a good way to model and begin. We go outside for a few minutes and record the date, place and some weather data and then do a field sketch or a writing in response to a prompt. The journals can be worked into lots of areas of instruction or can become a phenological study themselves. A good journal makes for a good keepsake of a field trip or school unit or year.
My favorite EE resource is simply the outdoors. Just stepping out for a teachable moment in the school yard can be very inspiring. Recently we experienced a beautiful frosty morning, so I took my students out for a quick peek at the huge frost crystals that had formed. Great lesson, followed by cool student questions. The entire experience took maybe 15 minutes. You don’t have to be much of an expert to find something pretty interesting right in your own backyard (or schoolyard!).
Tim Maze teaches at Tongue River Middle School in Wyoming
Dancing Up Worms: A Teachable Moment
It was a damp, sunny day, and my grade three class was called to the front lawn of the school for a school-wide portrait. Classes from kindergarten to grade five trooped out and jostled for places on the lawn. My third graders, however, were distracted. They were peering into the long grass at the gigantic earthworms that were wriggling at their feet. Seeing other students shy away and shriek at the worms, my class sprang into action, the bravest of them picking up the worms and moving them to the edge of the grass, away from the stampede of feet. Eventually, we were chastised for holding up the photo, and my worm wranglers were themselves wrangled into place.
With the photo shoot completed, the students looked around frantically for the worms. The questions came fast and furious – why would the worms come out when they’re going to get stepped on? One child suggested that worms come out when they feel the ground shake. We decided to test it and find out. We spread out on the lawn and stomped up and down, and up popped a worm. Jubilant, the students danced more vigorously, laughing. The office staff was laughing pretty hard, too. Every student danced a worm up out of the ground that morning. We observed them, and let them go, and finally headed back inside.
Laurelei Primeau teaches in the Coquitlam School District in Coquitlam, British Columbia