Thoughts of an Outdoor Education “Elder”

Thoughts of an Outdoor Education “Elder”

by Daniel Kreisberg

During college I was a waterfront director at a sleepaway camp and absolutely loved it. When my post college job search led me to residential outdoor education centers I was thrilled. It was summer camp all year round and it allowed me to follow my lifelong passion for the natural world. The perfect job. Twenty-five years later, after being a naturalist, 4th grade teacher, science teacher and environmental education consultant and having seen outdoor environmental education programs from the perspective of a parent and a teacher, I have decided this all makes me an outdoor environmental education elder.

First of all, what you are doing matters; this work matters. Don’t forget, be proud. The world needs outdoor education now more than ever. The world needs citizens with the knowledge, awareness and desire to live with the earth not against it. This is difficult when children are not spending enough time outdoors. Their lives are overscheduled with activities, they have less freedom to explore their neighborhoods and combined with fewer places to be in the “more than human world” they have become a generation indoors. You are the antidote because only by getting outdoors will children gain the appreciation, knowledge and sense of wonder needed to become stewards of the earth. We know from our own experience the rewards of being outdoors. Only by being outdoors will children reap the physical and psychological benefit the research and our own experiences has shown comes from getting out there.

There is a story to tell, so be a story sharer. Let the land, water and sky help you. Let the children help tell the story as well. Ecology is filled with fascinating characters, interrelationships, conflicts, heroes and more. Whatever it is that you are teaching, there should be a theme with the connections that will help children understand and remember. Don’t teach a bunch of random facts or activities. Share your story in the style that suits you. Back in the eighties I used an Indiana Jones adventure to connect lessons on ecology to save an endangered species. Wilderness survival classes began with a plane crash that required learning outdoor living skills to get back to safety. A lesson on forest ecology began with the story of a red eft. Geology is a journey back in time. It might a short story told in a 90 minute lesson or a longer story over 3-4 days. As the stories are shared, there are some things to keep in mind.

Teach local – There is amazing everywhere. The animals and plants living wherever it is you live, teach the same lessons as those in the jungle, desert or artic. Where you live has mind-blowing flora and fauna that inspire wonder. The best part of all, is that once children learn wonder at your nature center they will be more attentive to what is around their homes. They will be having direct experiences. The lessons from catching a frog far outweigh a website, movie or video of even the most amazing wildlife.
Connect to their home places. It helps to know something about the children with whom you are working. Learn about where they live, what animals and plants might they encounter back home. Talk to teachers about the community. Are there parks, forests, lakes or ponds you can refer to in your lessons? By reading their local newspapers you can relate what you are teaching to the environmental issues back home. Don’t prejudge the kids based on where they live as rich and spoiled or rowdy or whatever. Let them introduce themselves. Expectations lead to reality.

Teach love – Let there be no “ecophobia,” first described by David Sobel, this concept is important to those of us who work with children. Ecophobia is a “fear of environmental problems and the natural world.” Fear is not a great motivator. Love works much better. The stories you tell should be about the wonder of the “more than human world.” The stories should teach how it all works by fostering an awareness of our connection and love for the outdoors that comes from learning through play, exploration, guidance, fun and wondering.

Teach wonder – Look for teachable moments – the times when a child’s questions takes you off track but into a good place, or when a warbler lands on a branch just above your head while you are trying to explain how a sedimentary rock is formed, or when a rainstorm gives you a chance to define a watershed while standing in a puddle. These moments can become part of the story that you are telling. Be open and aware of teachable moments by learning about the place you are working. Explore by spending time walking and sitting. Learn by listening to people who know the land. Read. Gain your own sense of being by learning the natural and human history of the place. Then you can be aware of your part in the story. Be open. A sense of wonder is the greatest gift you can give children.
There are two parts to having a well-developed sense of wonder. One part is the ability to see the wonder in the world, the wow, the amazing, the how is that possible? It is also the ability to wonder, to ask questions, to know there is more to know. Let their curiosity guide the story you are sharing. Be sure the students know it is okay to wonder. Celebrate the good questions. When a child’s face lights up in the presence of wonder, you have done your job.

Teach science – Facts matter, a theory is not a guess. Knowledge is collected through experimentation and observation. Then, based on the accumulation of facts, theories are developed to explain what is going on. Decision making should be based on facts. Don’t just tell children how our knowledge was figured out. Have them figure things out for themselves through the activities and lessons you plan. The scientific method is not just for scientists. It is okay to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out.” even if you can’t find out at the moment. By figuring out a way to learn for themselves it can be an opportunity to experience how science works.

Teach hope – There are reasons to be optimistic. The wild is not all gone. There is still much beauty and wonder to be experienced. Human-caused problems have human solutions. Small actions multiplied by millions both cause and can solve problems. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have made a huge difference. The Montreal protocols, an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons has led to the closing of the hole in the ozone layer. Species that were once endangered are now safe from extinction. Yes, there is much to do, but by focusing on what is working you will inspire children more than focusing on what is not working. That just leads to doom, despair and hopelessness.

Teach action – Children need to understand their role in a democracy. This means having knowledge of environmental issues, at local, national and international levels. The knowledge will help them take action and not feel overwhelmed by the attitude there is nothing to be done. Children have the right and responsibility to let their elected officials know how they feel. They will be the ones making decisions in the future as voters and consumers.

Teach effectively – It is okay to expect good behavior, and if that means disciplining your students then do so, it doesn’t mean being mean. I have seen too many times educators talking when children are talking. I admit to having given too many chances and have to remind myself that I am not being fair to the k‑ids that are behaving. Have expectations for their behavior and hold them to it. It’s as simple as waiting until you have their attention before speaking. If needed involve teachers to get support. Do not let one or two students prevent the whole group from having a positive experience. Kids do understand limits, just be fair and consistent, they don’t like hypocrites.

Another way to prevent discipline problems is to build relationships. This can happen by listening and talking while sharing a meal or while walking. Ask questions, make jokes, and connect with some knowledge of popular culture. Be yourself, don’t try to be too cool.

Time is limited so avoiding distractions is key. While it is called outdoor education for a reason and it is true, there is no bad weather, there is only bad gear and lots of children have bad gear. Be aware: wet, cold and tired students are not going to learn. A shorter outdoor lesson with more focus is better than a longer lesson to the point of whining. Location, location, location, it matters where you teach. Think about the places you stop. Is there sun in their eyes? Is it noisy? Are there distractions? Is it wet? Is it safe? Is it safe for the plants and animals that live there?

Don’t be a slave to your agenda, sometimes it will be time to move on before you are ready and other times lessons slow down when children are so engrossed time stops. Whatever material you don’t get to, it will be okay. Don’t worry about not finishing, you are never going to teach everything anyway. Don’t be afraid to admit a lesson is a failure. It is better to cut your losses and move on rather than to plow through. Be aware of what they have already learned and activities they have already done. If you are at a center where more than one instructor will be working with the children be sure to know what the other naturalists are doing. There is too much to do and learn to repeat things. Outdoor education is less about the content and more about the experience. Almost always chose action over talking.

Enjoy, let the children see your passion and if you don’t have it anymore, it is time to do something else. Be the best you can be, don’t settle for mediocrity even if others are. Know why you’re doing what you are doing and do it with passion. ❏

Dan Kriesberg is the author of A Sense of Place, Teaching Children about the Environment with Picture Books and Think Green, Books and Activities for Kids, as well as over 100 articles on environmental education and essays about his personal experiences in the outdoors. He lives on Long Island with his wife, Karen and two sons, Zack and Scott. Dan is a sixth grade science teacher at Friends Academy. Whenever possible he spends his time in wild places backpacking, hiking and hanging out.

Bringing Nature Back to the Schoolyard

Bringing Nature Back to the Schoolyard

by Jane Tesner Kleiner, RLA

Imagine walking out the back door of your school, surrounded by the songs of spring time birds, the soft scents of flowers in bloom, the wind billowing through nearby trees, and (if you are lucky) the croaking of Pacific tree frogs. Sounds great? But… it doesn’t sound like your school? What if?

It may sound daunting, the idea of transforming your school grounds into a green, lush learning environment. However, there are great resources out there, to help put your school on-track to having learning and play environments that include lots of nature. It’s not only the kids who love and benefit from being in natural spaces; so do the school staff and the neighboring community, too.

So many schools have little more than grassy fields, paved surfaces and fenced areas. They may have a few trees and landscape beds, and hopefully an awesome playground, but most are static and sterile environments. There can be benefits to these school grounds: they are relatively safe, and it’s easy to monitor the kids during outside time. They are also seem easy to maintain (although mowing costs are a big pull on a maintenance budget). Yet, they don’t provide opportunity for imagination, let alone the creative activity that sparks imagination.

Over the last 30 years, a growing body of research strongly asserts that children experience myriad benefits from daily access to nature. Richard Louv, of the Children and Nature Network, states in an online article that,

“…including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity, and social cohesion. New longitudinal studies also suggest that nature-rich schools can help raise standardized test scores. And children in low-income communities appear to benefit proportionally more from access to green space than those in higher-income communities.”[1]

Research also suggests that providing close-to-home, regular, access to nature will help kids overcome fears of the unknown. Adventuring further, they build self-confidence and interest in the broader world.

In a normal M-F week, children spend 41% of their waking hours at school[2]. With that in mind, school grounds are uniquely positioned to provide access to nature for kids. I certainly see benefits in the students that I work with, not to mention my own kids. I have seen students become self-assured, skilled and proud owners of their schools’ outdoor spaces.

There is also the matter of agency, of capitalizing on kids’ buy-in by involving them in the planning stages. Promoting student voice throughout the planning, design, fundraising, installation and maintenance of school greenspaces gives them hands-on experiences that they may not get elsewhere. And the ownership? People don’t destroy what they built themselves.

To begin, start by listening. Here are some things that I’ve heard, from schools I work with in the Vancouver area:

  • When asked what changes kids would want to see to their school campus, they said two things: more fun play equipment and have the school grounds be their own backyard fieldtrip.
  • When staff were asked where they want their school facility to be in 5 years, they want to be able to teach outdoors; this includes garden spaces and a diverse setting of natural elements.
  • Teachers want to be able to teach using the whole school campus, making use of all features.
  • The process for considering “how” to change the campus, let alone fundraise and maintain the new nature features is daunting.

Where do you start? Luckily, there are professionals who can help every school maximize the opportunity to add more nature to your campus.

It starts with lots of conversations, centered around a few key principles.

In essence, the design will:

  • meet multiple goals, including direct ties to curriculum.
  • allow for exploration, observation, discovery and fun.
  • expand and broaden structured AND self-guided learning and play.
  • foster a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity.
  • build upon what kids love to do: jump & hop; climb & balance; build & take apart; make art; allow for passive quiet time; use all senses. Create! Imagine! Explore!


Now that you’re excited to get going and transform your school grounds, here is a short recipe for a successful campus plan:

  • Culture. Form a team to build your natural schoolyard. The team will brainstorm, plan, design, build and maintain the spaces. Don’t rely on one person, or else it won’t be sustainable in years to come. Bring on partners and ask for help! PTO/A’s, local businesses, community groups. Local businesses may be a source of funding, but business people have an inherent stake in the health of their nearby schools. Give them a chance to offer their ideas, skills and, yes, money.
  • Individuality. Each school is unique. Build upon its existing features and add elements that easily complement the site. If you make it too complicated, it will be hard to maintain in years to come.
  • Diversity. Each user group will have different goals for the enhancements, and sometimes they will conflict. By discussing the goals and objectives first, with children’s well-being the focus of the conversation, the best solution can be refined to meet everyone’s needs. Provide something for everyone.
  • Community. Every child, every family has something to gain. Tap into your school community. You have a ready-made pool of hundreds of concerned, hard working adults. Learn who has skills, talents, and materials to contribute to the project. This will help build ownership in the project over time.
  • Inclusiveness. Make sure all the right people have had a chance to weigh in with their ideas and approvals: district staff (facilities, curriculum leads, risk, etc.), teachers, school staff, maintenance, grounds, and most importantly the students.
  • Problem Based Learning. Engage the students in every step, and empower them to meaningfully contribute, create and build a successful set of spaces for the next generation of students. This is learning! Kids will learn important, lasting lessons at every step.
  • Partnership. Find local and national organizations to support your project. Possibilities include:
    • certifying for wildlife habitat
    • becoming a state certified Green School
    • supporting the national pollinator project.
      (Certification goals are great motivators, rallying stakeholders to, “keep on track and get the plaque!”)
  • Consultation. Work with a local professional (e.g. landscape architect, school garden coordinator, etc.) to facilitate the discussions. They can capture all of the ideas and put it into one overall master plan for the site and create a report that can be used for approvals, fundraising and keeping the project on track over the years.

In the end, here is the winning equation:

program needs + site opportunities + available resources + curriculum goals = action plan


What goes into the plan?

Consider what type of features to add to your schoolyard.

The physical space.

  • Wildlife habitat. Native trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract butterflies, birds and mammals (provide food/water/shelter/place to raise young).
  • Outdoor classrooms. For classes and small groups to gather to work, listen and learn.
  • Nature play. Use natural materials for kids to actively engage in unstructured and imagination play.
  • Working spaces to actively plan, plant, grow and manage plants such as vegetables, fruits and flowers.
  • Messy areas. Creative spaces to make art, containing moveable elements to build and change.
  • Quiet spaces. Beautiful, peaceful settings with small group seating, to listen, slow down, de-stress and regroup.
  • Exploration spaces. Unique spaces that support a variety of curricula; might include elements for tactile learning, such as water tables, sand play, learning lab stations, and more.
  • Experiment stations. Areas that support the testing of theories, experimentation and active learning. Could include built-in features such as solar equipment, rain harvesting station, or space to create.
  • Green infrastructure. Your school district may want to upgrade features to meet sustainability goals, such as stormwater management, energy efficiency, reducing heat island effects, etc. Meet their needs while creating active learning spaces. Welcome these ideas, as they are often tied to grant money.


Photo from the Intertwine

Using it

Creating the space is one thing, using it is another. Look for the tools that will help your school use the campus successfully:

  • When talking to potential partners, emphasize the 4C’s of 21st Century learning:
    • collaboration
    • creativity
    • communication
    • critical thinking

Successfully redesigned schoolyards encourage all of them.

  • Provide training to your staff. Help them find the resources and lessons that tie to their curriculum goals. Most school districts will have a specialist available to help.
  • Identify agencies that offer programs for outdoor learning, and invite them (repeatedly) to your campus. Look for watershed and conservation groups, environmental education centers, local environmental professionals, and sportsmens organizations.
  • Encourage your district to hire a garden or outdoor teacher or coordinator, to works with your teaching staff to coordinate the activities and lessons that are taught outdoors. The lessons can cover all curriculum areas, as well as activities to build social skills, independent learning and team building.
  • Meet maintenance goals by creating jobs for students, classes or small groups to accomplish throughout the year. Create a shared calendar to outline the needs and then divvy up the tasks. Don’t leave it to one dedicated or passionate person….they will eventually have to move on.
  • Make it the culture of the school to embrace, use, respect and care for your whole campus. The school community spends so much time together on campus, use the entire space to your advantage and care for it as a resource.
  • Remember, your space will be used after school (programs and neighborhood use) and during the summer. Embrace the fact that a variety of users will use the space. Finding ways to welcome them will encourage others to care for it and keep an eye on things when school is not in session.

If you need ideas on how to use your campus for outdoor learning, there are lots of great guides and curriculum resources that provide engaging activities for all grade levels (early childhood, pre-K, K-12).  A few examples include:

  • The BioBlitz. No, this isn’t a game or app (check out the National Parks website). In this activity, students look for all living species on your campus. Have them document what they find and identify the species (plants, insects, mammals, birds, etc.). You can make it as simple or complex as you need to, based on the age and curriculum. Include writing, art, science and math.
  • Scavenger hunt. Have kids look for a different theme, such as all things that collect and move the rainwater (What happens to rain drops when they land on the various surfaces?); have the kids find different shapes in the natural elements on campus; etc.
  • Nature journal. Document the changing seasons on your campus. What are the colors for each season? Temperature changes? Weather patterns? Different animals?
  • Art projects. Have kids pick a couple natural elements and sketch them, using a variety of media. Compare and contrast what is different and same about each element.
  • Plant flower bulbs. Seek donations for flower bulbs and have the kids plant them in a landscape bed. Learn about the different bulbs, the depths they need to be planted, what are the types and shapes of bulbs. Have the kids develop plant markers for each type. In the spring, monitor the progress of growth for each type, have them sketch the flowers, investigate the flower shape and talk about the parts of the plant, notice if pollinators visit the plants, create a cut flower vase and share with a classroom or community group that would benefit from fresh flowers (senior living facility).

As your school starts its journey toward a more natural schoolyard, know that these projects can take years. That’s fine! The program will benefit from starting small and building upon small successes as the project grows and changes over time. Think of a protracted timeline as an opportunity to involve more kids and their families.

Lastly, stay true to your goal. Keep the vision in mind and you will be amazed at the sustaining support you will receive to keep moving forward. Every step you take is for the health and well-being of the kids. You’ll get there.


Here are just a few resources that you can check out online.

Children and Nature Network  Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities – Building a National Movement for Green Schoolyards in Every Community.

Green Schoolyards America. Sharon Danks.

Boston Schoolyard Initiative. Active since 1995. Schoolyard and outdoor design guides, as well as planning, maintenance and stewardship resources.

Evergreen Green School Grounds.

National Wildlife Federation. Schoolyard Habitat program.  Attract and support local wildlife.

#. #. #. #

Jane Tesner Kleiner is a registered landscape architect, ecologist and environmental educator with work in Michigan and Washington. She has spent the past 25 years working with schools, parks and ecological restoration organizations to create habitat, trails and play areas. She passionately advocates for outdoor spaces that inspire kids’ curiosity. She wears a few hats in the Vancouver, Washington area, and continues encouraging kids of all ages to get outside and explore. Her goal is to make sure every kid has a stick to play with.





[1] Louv, R., & Lamar, M. (2016, July 07). GROUNDS FOR CHANGE: Green Schoolyards for all Children. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from

[2] Given a full week of school and, we hope, 8 hours of sleep.


The Judgment of the Barnacles

The Judgment of the Barnacles

There’s a song in the sea for those who listen, and messages in the sand for those with far reaching eyes.


By Dr. Gloria Snively and Doug Wonnacott

The morning silently creeps in upon the gray, green waves. Smooth flat rocks that tumbled together for a thousand years moan and groan against the shore. The pale sea is without character of its own — it reflects the sky, follow the moon, and is driven by the wind. On the rocks high above the tide land, the gulls preen their feathers and wait for the tide to drop

Eventually the unmerciful tide ebbs, exposing soggy, wet seaweed covered rocks. The moaning cobbles crowding the beach are littered with the debris of life. Along the tide land that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide, death walks hugely and in many forms. Among the debris are empty snail shells, torn pieces of golden sponge, tattered seaweed holdfasts, decaying crab molts, and nude hermit crabs fumbling for a new home. The tangled masses of up-rooted seaweeds: browns, greens, reds and purples lie strewn like shredded confetti. Shore crabs scramble sideways to hide under rocks, starfish hang with stretched tube feet from boulders, and barnacles withdraw into cone-shaped shell houses. An octopus with glaring yellow eyes lies stranded in a shallow pool of water with its long suction-cup covered arms thrashing in vain to return the victim to the mother sea.

The gulls that earlier sat half asleep on the rocks noisily pick and probe at crabs, worms and fish along the tide line using their long sharp bills. Opportunists, they squabble and fight and harass one another to regurgitate their finds. The hungry gulls scavenge over the wreckage of the beach to clean it of whatever they can find; the living, the dead and the dying. The vulnerable sea creatures cry soundlessly for life — and nothing screams but the gulls.

During such times, on the ebb of tide, I have observed another swarm of vulturine activity. Upon the morn’s fog-blanketed shore, electric flashlights bob along like fireflies to join the gulls. This is the sign of the clam diggers. They stumb‑le along in the fog, over-turning cobbles, digging mercilessly with long handled forks and shovels, and leaving piles of cobbles beside gaping holes in the sand. Tens of hundreds have passed by me, many leading wide-eyed children with wooden spades and plastic pails. Butter clams, horse clams and littlenecks are gathered into overflowing buckets, the smallest and the largest tossed aside. Mothers and children gather into pails brightly colored starfish. They collect bags of beautifully ornamented living shells whose occupants will be carted home and dried in the sun, boiled alive for their shells, or left to suffocate in buckets overnight. Eventually, the unsleeping tide follows the moon and drives both gulls and humans from the tide land.

On one such occasion, I carefully picked my way along a slippery boulder strewn beach. Ahead of me the humans with long wooden spades amused themselves by smashing barnacles with rocks. I hastened through the seaweed jungle, past the slippery cobble stones, to the barnacle bed above the high tide line.

“Don’t harm the barnacles,” I ventured breathlessly. “Please leave them alone.”

The humans pretended not to hear, and continued smashing the barnacle cities.

The barnacles are alive,” I pleaded.

“What?” replied the surprised humans. “Barnacles aren’t alive.”

“The barnacles are very much alive. They simply retreat into their shell houses when the tide is out.”

“You’re crazy,” laughed the humans.

“But you mustn’t kills the barnacles,” I persisted. “They follow the rise and fall of the tide and the revolutions of the moon.”

“Who cares?” came the angry rebuff. “What does it matter, there are millions of these things everywhere.”

And they continued smashing the barnacle cities, prying loose the mussel beds with those long wooden spades, and filling their pockets with beautiful living shells.

I turned and slowly began the treacherous journey back along the slippery beach. Who invented those spades of wood? Who was it that cut them from a tree? High overhead a snow-white gull circled the bay, a large blue mussel dangling from its bill. The gull let the mussel drop to smash the shell open on the hard cobbles, exposing the orange colored flesh. Instantly, the other gulls filled the air with their chorus of frenzied screams. Void of pity, I watched that snow white gull swoop down, rip the soft orange flesh from the mussel shell, and hurriedly fly away.

The tide rises, the tide falls. The mother sea follows the moon. The mob of cobbles crawled the shore; rubbing shoulders — shifting, grinding and moaning their way through centuries. I stroll along the tide line and ponder the many moods of the mother sea; wondering why she moans ever more. “We are not dumb,” whisper the cobbles. “We will be the last ones.”


Song of the Barnacles

I venture to say, though a teacher myself, that I have learned little of consequence from books or from any other extra paraphernalia that we associate with formal education. What I have learned that has meaning or significance in life comes not from books, but from an endless journey along a surf-swept shore.

If there is any truth to what I say, it began for me on the protected rocky shores of Ucluelet, a little village on the exposed western coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. As an elementary teacher, that memorable trip to the sea beach with a class of wide-eyed youngsters was among the first of many such adventures to unknown shores.

It was one of those magnificent sunny days in June, the kind that we on the west coast appreciate deeply after the cold grey days of a long winter. The trip to the beach was a fifteen-minute hike along a wooded trail from the local school.. On the outer shore the view was spectacular. The roaring sea rhythmically sent booming white waves crashing upon the rocky reef. But in the cove, protected by the reef and the bay, the wave action was less fierce. Sleeping haystack rocks and needle-shaped basalt boulders crowded the graceful curvature of the bay.

On the shore, the tide was going out, leaving glistening seaweed covered rocks and glassy blue pools of water in holes and crevices. Various belts of life appeared on the rock faces in colored layers, one above the other. Bare rock at the top, then a stained layer of black lichens, a wide band of gray-white barnacle cities, a bed of blue mussels, then bright green sea lettuce, a layer of luxuriant brown kelp, then graceful pale, pink coralline seaweed at the low tide line. Attached to rocks, among the protective curtains of seaweeds, and in the tide pools lived hoards of rocky shore animals.

Many so exquisitely colored and of such fantastic shapes they seemed unreal — orange starfish, purple urchins, giant green anemones, richly ornamented snails and variously decorated crabs.

As we explored the shore, I could hardly keep pace with the activities of the children. Nor could I answer their incessant questions: What’s inside a barnacle? How does the starfish eat the mussel? Why do crabs crawl sideways? Why is the ocean blue? What’s that called? Is that a plant or an animal? Those children, who asked me so many questions, never seemed to hear the ones I asked them. Nonetheless, I did the best I could — carted tons of field guides down to the beach, hauled out microscopes, and had them describe, measure, sort, map and sketch everything in sight.

Several days later, around mid-day, we returned to that very same beach. The intense noon-day sun cast drying rays upon every living creature along the shore. And we humans were no exception. Hot and sticky from our journey and having to wait for the noontide to drop, we sought protection in the shade of those high basalt pillars. We settled down to a bag-lunch of bologna sandwiches and apples and — being full and tired — decided to nap while waiting for the tide to go out. Like the nearby gulls lazily preening their features, we waited patiently for the sea to allow us entry into the tide lands.

It was one of those rare moments in teaching when every child was quiet, every body still. Thus, you can imagine our surprise at being awakened by the sound of gently resonating voices.

They whispered “sssssssh…” Carried by the wind, those tiny, tiny voices grew and grew into a soft, melodious symphony.

One by one, astonished children and a very unbelieving adult rose, and with eyes and ears staring out of our heads, we began searching for the source. Where did those mysterious little voices ring from? We looked all around where we stood, then searched the boulder canyons, but to our great disappointment, we could not find a single clue. All the while those tiny melodic voices continued echoing with magnificent simplicity throughout the canyon walls.

Suddenly, from behind a giant boulder, a very excited Scott shouted, “It’s the barnacles! It’s the barnacles singing!”

“Awe… come on. How could the barnacles sing?” quipped the skeptical Mark. “They don’t even move.”

“But listen!” persisted Scott. “Listen to them sing!”

So we put our ears to the barnacle cities and what do you think…?

We clearly heard the barnacles sing.

Imagine…barnacles singing! It was the most remarkable sound I believe I have ever heard.

“What makes the barnacles sing?” asked one child.

Crystal Cove Conservancy

“What do you think they’re saying?”  added anotherOur curiosities aroused, we instantly set about the find the answers. With intense concentration, we observed those barnacle cities for the rest of the day. Watched the six-cover plates move as the animal inside sealed its shell house shut. “Sssssh.” Watched the seawater evaporate over the boulders and over every living surface. Listened intently as the barnacle song swelled to a crescendo, then just as magically as the seawater vanished, listened as the music faded to silence. Later that day, when the tide returned, we watched those barnacle cities spring to life. Quick as a wink, when the stony cone-shaped barnacle cities spring to life. Quick as a wink, when the stony cone-shaped barnacles were submerged, the barnacles thrust their six long feather legs, like a fisherman’s net, in and out, in and out. We watched those industrious little barnacles sweep the water for microscopic food and kick it down into their mouths. You can be sure we were an exhausted, but jolly band that tripped back to Ucluelet late that afternoon. But we had whistled and sung to the moon and stars, and vowed to remember that lesson.

That lesson was the loveliest and the saddest I have yet learned along an unknown shore. How many times had I walked along a seashore and never noticed the barnacles, never pondered or questioned them at all? But I have drawn this true story to your attention, so that should you venture along a rocky shore and come upon the barnacle cities, do not hurry on. Wait for a time, exactly at the ebb of tide. And be very quiet and still. Then, should the sun be burning bright, you will hear the barnacles sing.


At the time of publishing, Gloria Snively was a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria in Victoria BC. Doug Wonnocott was a principal at Quadra Island Elementary School in Quadra Island BC. This article originally appeared in Current, the publication of the National Marine Educators Association


Activities related to this article

The purpose of the following activities is to encourage the reader to interact with the article through the language arts (reading, writing, listening and speaking); and through field trip experiences; and to use the knowledge, concepts and attitudes developed through the activities to compare the article with the real world of the barnacle. Above all else, the activities are designed to keep bringing the reader back to the article, to not only gain knowledge, concepts, and positive attitudes; but to experience the author’s style and message.

Some Thoughts About the Language Arts Activities:
1. Be selective in choosing the activities. Decide what you want the reader to gain from the literature. Don’t overdo the activities and don’t hesitate to adjust them to meet your needs.
2. Consider using cooperative learning techniques, including the use of heterogeneous groups (3-5 members). The use of these groups encourages discussion, sharing of skills, peer-to-peer tutoring and expansion of ideas.
3. If you are using the article as motivation for a science-oriented theme, don’t leave it after one reading. Bring the readers back to the text, especially after they have gained new knowledge, concepts and attitudes.

Pre-Reading Activities
1. In order to evaluate the student’s knowledge, do a pre- and post-reading cluster. Before reading the article have the students cluster (brainstorm) all they know about barnacles. Following the teaching of the unit, have the students do another cluster. Compare the pre- and post-results.
2. To encourage the sharing of prior knowledge and to encourage the making of predictions about the meaning of what is to be read, use an anticipation guide. An anticipation guide helps guide the students in acquiring the major concepts to be learned in the article. It activities background knowledge prior to reading and provides useful, diagnostic information for the teacher. Also, it provides students with a purpose for reading the text, provokes thoughtful discussion, and serves as a useful tool for refocusing on the major concepts of the article. Keep the following guidelines in mind when constructing and using an anticipation guide:

      • a. Identify the major concepts to be learned.
        b. Decide how many concepts support or challenge the student’s beliefs.
        c. Create 5-10 statements. Write them well and somewhat conentiously.
        d. Arrange the statements in an appropriate order.
        e. Present the guide to the students before introducing the article.
        f. Students fill in individually, agree or disagree, a reaction to each statement.
        g. Students defend their reactions in discussion. Teacher leads the discussion, but does not volunteer a personal opinion.
        h. After reading the article, students react to statements from the author’s point of view.
        i. Discuss differences in reaction.
        j. Writing: choose one statement and then prove the author’s point.

    You                     Author
    (agree/can’t decide/disagree)
    • Barnacles are living animals.
    ª Barnacles are very delicate creatures and may be easily damaged.
    • Barnacles are important members of a seashore community.
    • Clam diggers should not be allowed to take as many clams as they want.
    • Barnacles sing.

    3. Use guided imagery to help develop the setting of the article prior to the reading. Through imagery the teacher can take the students on an “imaginary trip” to the beach. By generating discussion about colors, sounds, textures, sights, patterns, feelings, etc., the teacher can help the students connect when they “see” to what they will read.

    Reading and Writing Activities
    4. Consider orally reading the article to the students, especially Part 1. Help to set the mood and the flow of the language — then allow the students to read the rest.
    5. Encourage the students to identify their favorite passages and to orally read to each other in pairs or small group. By practicing reading passages over and over again until fluent within these groups, weaker students may improve their reading comprehension.
    6. From the article, have the students identify those factors that help the barnacles survive in its environment. Once they have their lists, allow the students to refer to additional learning resources to confirm their lists and to add to them.
    7. Again, use the guided imagery strategy to help the students write a piece from the point of view of the barnacle. The piece may focus on one aspect of the life of the barnacle — feeding, survival, the effect of human intervention, etc., and should be creative, while conveying factual information. Students may share these pieces in small group.
    8. Write a true story telling about life at the seashore: what barnacles eat, what they do at high tide and at low tide (or when covered or uncovered with seawater), how they protect themselves from predators, how they keep from drying out when the tide goes out to sea.
    9. From the article, have the students identify the author’s writing style and message. For example, in small groups discuss the statement “That lesson was the loveliest and the saddest I haveyet learned along an unknown shore.”
    10. Have students complete each of these ideas with material growing out of the article and discussion. This article made me wish that…, realize that…, describe that…, wonder about…, see that…, believe that…, feel that…, and hope that… (Good for small cooperative groups to generate discussion and expand on ideas.
    11. Design a poster which celebrates our caring for all life on this watery planet, and inspires action, leading to the healing of our planet and ourselves. For example, a poster might encourage “prevention of cruelty to barnacles.”

    Field Trip Activities
    For students to understand the concept of preservation at the seashore, they must have understanding, at least in part, of the related concepts of habitat, tidal cycle, desiccation, predator-prey, protection, interdependence and survival. The best way of attempting to sensitize children to such complex abstract concepts is through field trip experiences. For example, you can lead the students to understand why barnacles should be protected by observing how barnacles survive at the seashore.
    Have the students separate and find a comfortable sitting position as close to the “barnacle cities” as possible. Have them close their eyes and be very quiest and still. Tell them to concentrate on hearing and identifying the sounds around them.
    Then, have fun watching live acorn barnacles under water. Find a small rock covered with barnacles and drop it into a jar of seawater. What happens? What kid of food does the barnacle eat? How does the barnacle get its food? Draw a picture of a barnacle out of seawater. Draw a picture of a barnacle under seawater.
    After the field trip, compare the article to the reality of the field trip. Have students identify those aspects of the article that are true for the environment being studied. Include specific aspects that could be added to the article given the specific environment.

  • —G.S and D.W.

Learning in an authentic, meaningful, interdisciplinary environment

Learning in an authentic, meaningful, interdisciplinary environment

A Year in the Watershed

There is no doubt that if you want to get students truly excited about what they are learning, ask them to tackle a real-world question or problem — ask them to solve something that is relevant to their lives.

by Jean M. Wallace

It is no surprise that children learn best by doing. And, when they seamlessly integrate across subjects and spend ample time working to find solutions to real problems that will improve lives, fulfill needs, and make our world a better place, their learning reaches a much deeper level. During my 20 years in a leadership role in experiential education, establishing partnerships and supporting hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in authentic learning, I witnessed this success first hand. There is also no doubt that if you want to get students truly excited about what they are learning, ask them to tackle a real-world question or problem — ask them to solve something that is relevant to their lives. In using this approach, students come to realize that what they are doing in school really does have meaning.

Whether describing this learning process with terminology such as STEM, STEAM, Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, or EIC (Environment as an Integrating Context — the process used by my former team as outlined below), it is the alignment of the content (the “what”) and the process (the “how”) that drives these successful learning models. Integration is critical, as it is the bonding of content and process that strengthens the structure of learning for students. Rather than teach in isolation, teachers and schools should model the 21st century skills we want our students to acquire by collaborating, cooperating, and communicating across disciplines to make learning more meaningful in all subjects. The effectiveness of using the environment as the foundation for interdisciplinary learning is not new to education and is supported by research.

Founded in 1995, the State Environment and Education Roundtable (SEER) worked with 16 state departments of education to develop Environment-Based Education (EBE) as a standards-based instructional strategy to engage students in “real-world” learning experiences. Over 40 schools took part in this national study, which resulted in the 1998 publication of Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998). As was the case with the national EIC research study, our own EIC program was extremely successful and proven to close the achievement gap.

Environment = Authentic Learning

Moving from teaching in isolation to teaching across disciplines can be challenging, but my firm belief was (and still is) that a powerful and deep understanding of content coupled with a meaningful and authentic process of student engagement results in deeper learning for children.

Therefore, when building an curriculum focused on authentic learning, it made perfect sense to use Pennsylvania Environment & Ecology (E&E) Standards as a foundation on which to build an integrated and student-centered curriculum: one that would shape the framework for active, authentic, community-based science teaching and learning. Along with cross-curricular, real-world, rigorous content, an E&E-based program offers students the opportunity to engage in service learning and civic action, creating responsible and caring global citizens. This is evidenced in the introduction to the E&E standards, which reads as follows:

“Environment and Ecology is grounded in the complexity of the world we live in and our impact on its sustainability. The human interactions with the ecosystem and the results of human decisions are the main components of this academic area. Environment and Ecology examines the world with respect to the economic, cultural, political, and social structure as well as natural processes and systems. This integration across systems is what sets this academic area apart from all others.” (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2001)

Starting in Kindergarten, content outlined in the E&E standards also became the foundation for literacy acquisition and was used to generate enthusiasm in our youngest readers. As they were learning how to read, they were connecting what they were reading to the real world around them. The content outlined in these standards formulated a rich vocabulary upon which students could build as they progressed through the curriculum. One example that comes to mind is the topic of Agriculture, which was introduced in Kindergarten and then reinforced in 3rd grade in a multi-disciplinary, multi-week unit of study. Classroom libraries were stocked with vocabulary-rich books, and learning was enriched by field studies to area farms, nature centers, streams, rivers, and museums.

The June 2014 Progress of Education Reform Report issued by the Education Commission of the States, reaffirms the success of applying this early science literacy approach in an authentic learning environment: “Science interactions support vocabulary development by exposing children to new words in meaningful context. Exposure to rich vocabulary words predicts vocabulary development, which predicts reading achievement.” The importance of early science literacy acquisition is summed up nicely in this same publication: “Education leaders should turn a critical eye on the science teaching and learning expected for early education in their school, district or state, then determine whether there is any evidence that children and their teachers are receiving the instructional opportunities they need and deserve.”

Creating the EIC Curriculum

But how and where do you begin when creating an integrated curriculum? For our team, utilizing the E&E standards for content; the interdisciplinary, student-centered process of the EIC Model; a strong emphasis on 21st century skills; and backwards mapping became the perfect collective starting point. Our guide was Dr. Patricia Vathis of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, who is an expert in standards, interdisciplinary learning, and Understanding by Design. As a K–8 team, we began the curriculum-building process by going through each E&E standard statement and unpacking and understanding its content. After completing this, we moved on to Science and Technology, and then to Social Studies, which included History, Geography, and Civics and Government. We identified the content that “anchored” each standard statement and how each grade would be responsible for either introducing that content (I), reinforcing it (R), or bringing the content to proficiency (P).

As we were completing each matrix and assigning a color code to each grade, we were also looking for opportunities to connect content across disciplines to create big ideas for comprehensive, interdisciplinary units of study. Once our team completed a matrix for each of the content area standards, time was allocated for teachers to meet and plan with their grade level partners and teachers from different grade levels and disciplines. Everyone worked from the matrices they, themselves, created. Schedules were designed so that team-teaching could occur several times each week, allowing teachers to see and hear how each overarching topic was being presented through the lens of another discipline.


EIC in Middle School

In some ways, the 5–8 team had a more difficult challenge than the K–4 team, since our middle school students in 5–8 rotated through different teachers and subjects. The teachers effectively met this challenge by working together to design units of study that spanned several months, with each content area well represented. For example, one unit was titled “Disease and its Impact on Philadelphia,” and was taught over a three-month period. In Science class, students investigated how vector species transmit diseases, while in Language Arts the students were reading the book Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000), a historical fiction novel documenting the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that plagued Philadelphia. In Social Studies, the students were mapping out historic Philadelphia and reading and writing about a time in local history when this epidemic took many lives. In Technology, students created their own newspaper and documented the impact of the disease outbreak by writing obituaries and providing information to their imaginary community. Finally, in Art, students designed a 2-D protist from which they created a 3-D model. As students were learning across disciplines, teachers were actively teaching across disciplines. Amazing!

EIC in Elementary School

Just one example of authentic, interdisciplinary learning that was so successful during my years in school leadership was “A Watershed Year,” when each year our 4th grade students were immersed in a year-long, interdisciplinary study of the Delaware River Watershed. Students were challenged to answer the overarching question: Where does your drinking water come from and where does your wastewater go? They began by investigating the history, geography, geology, science, chemistry, and ecology of our local freshwater streams and the surrounding watershed. During their downstream journey, students interacted with experts in local history, drafted a “Water Bill of Rights,” debated ecology versus economy, conducted field studies with the Philadelphia Water Department, mapped out their local watershed, and learned from the Army Corp of Engineers how to effectively engineer a dam.

Students also documented their journey and presented their findings to various audiences. Utilizing digital technology, they even created an interactive, informational walking tour for visitors along the trails at the local historical society. The students’ Watershed Year ended with an exploration of the Delaware Estuary and Atlantic Ocean ecosystems where they discovered the ecological diversity of aquatic life in these brackish and saltwater environments. Their final real-life adventure in learning was a three-hour voyage aboard a trawling vessel out of Cape May, New Jersey where they cast nets into the ocean and hauled in their catch, while working side-by-side with a team of marine ecologists.

Ongoing Improvements and Growth

Professional development for teachers was meaningful, focused, and ongoing. In-service days during the school year were dedicated to curriculum development, and each summer our teachers would attend the Pennsylvania Governor’s Institute for Environment and Ecology. This Institute offered a week-long, residential learning experience that took place both indoors and outdoors. Enhancing the knowledge and skills of teachers through deep-rooted learning experiences inspired our teachers to become even better at creating and implementing authentic learning experiences for their students.

While standards dictated “what” would be taught, the process of learning was designed and reinforced by our teachers. They used content — E&E standards-based content — and the EIC practices to drive instruction. These experiences not only resulted in strong academic achievement, but they ensured outcomes of global citizenship through student empowerment and environmental civic action. Our K–8 EIC framework became the solid academic foundation on which we grew our program from 150 students to over 700 allowing us the financial and community support to build a 20 million dollar school and campus designed for outdoor learning. An amazing accomplishment that many said could never be done!

Positive Impacts

In the end, our state standardized test scores reflected the success of our EIC Model and its interdisciplinary framework. More importantly, these scores represented how immersing students in deep-dive, long-term, interdisciplinary research projects can be a successful approach for all students. As just one example, 90%–96% of our 4th Grade students achieved, on average, the highest level in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Science test. Our special education students and historically underperforming students thrived in this atmosphere of real-world, interdisciplinary learning. Our school was rated as a top performing school locally and state-wide, and ranked internationally with schools in Finland.

Throughout my years working with an incredible team, our EIC curriculum continued to evolve and was revised by our teachers. Success was contagious! Teachers were motivated and students were energized as we immersed ourselves in the study of the environment. We came to realize that doing meaningful work in an authentic environment to conserve our basic needs — the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat — was a bond that we shared and something that is relevant to us all.


Jean Wallace was the CEO of the award-winning Green Woods Charter School, a K–8 public charter school in Philadelphia, PA. During her tenure as CEO, Green Woods was recognized locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally for its innovative approach to learning as well as its academic achievement. She is now consulting for schools and organizations who want to take learning outside.

Prior to her work at Green Woods, Jean served as the regional Director of Education for Earth Force, Inc. ( As the Director of Education for Earth Force, Jean supported hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in service learning and civic action projects focusing on local and regional environmental issues. 

Education is a second career for Jean. As a parent, Jean was an active volunteer in her daughter’s private school setting and came to recognize the vast differences between some public and private school learning environments. She sought out a second career in education to offer public school students authentic, real-world learning opportunities similar to those her own daughter experienced.

This article is dedicated with gratitude to Dr. Patricia Vathis, retired Environment and Ecology Coordinator for the PA Department of Education, and the incredible teachers and staff who made the impossible, possible.


 Anderson, Laurie Halse. (2000). Fever, 1793. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Education Commission of the States (June, 2014). Progress Report for Education 18 (2). Denver, CO: ECS.

Lieberman, G., & Hoody, L. (1998). Closing the achievement gap. State Education and Environment Roundtable Report. Poway, CA: Science Wizards.

Pennsylvania Department of Education (2001). Introduction to the Pennsylvania academic Standards for environment and ecology. Retrieval from URL