by Zachary Zimmerman
Bainbridge Island, WA
s an outdoor educator, I often get sucked into the false binary that lessons are either fun or informative, that content must be sweetened with games, stories, and activities like applesauce for children’s medicine. But stories are one of the oldest forms of teaching known to humankind, and games and interactive activities help students interpret and internalize what they learn on trails, in classrooms, and at home. In this article, I invite you to stop apologizing for your content teaching and start weaving it into lesson sequences that include stories, games, writing activities, and more. Sequences can make your teaching practices more effective, more equitable, and yes, more fun.
Recently, I learned that teachers visiting Islandwood with their students were passing on the same feedback week after week: many of the lessons our instructors were teaching on ecosystems fell short because students didn’t fully understand what the word “ecosystem” meant. They might be able to give examples (“rainforest”) or describe them somewhat (“habitat”), but they were missing the definition and significance: communities of different living things that interact with each other and their physical habitats. An ecosystem isn’t just a place; it’s a dynamic arrangement of matter and energy; sunlight, water, and nutrients; life, death, and life again. Of course it needs some scaffolding
Because ecosystems are one of my favorite things to teach 5th graders, I took note immediately. Learning about ecosystems helps students understand the world in which they live, sets the stage for deeper sense-making outdoors, and aligns neatly with NGSS standards and cross-cutting concepts. Ecosystems are also teachers themselves, offering lessons on diversity, interdependence, resilience, and identity. When students see forests and intertidal zones as neighborhoods full of unique and diverse beings supporting each other through their mere existence, they may have an easier time valuing their own identities and thinking more about how they fit into their communities. To restate ecologically, they may discover their own niche.
As heady and enticing as these ideas are to me, I know that teaching for equity means letting go of preconceived notions of how students will use my lessons, and creating space and support for them to connect ideas presented in class to their own lives. It also means ensuring that all students are working from the same baseline of knowledge as they explore those more abstract spaces. In the past, I had equated “baseline” with “lecturing” and “lecturing” with “boring”, leading me to approach core content apologetically and half-heartedly.
To address my reluctance and reimagine content teaching as a part of, not apart from, the immersive fun and exploration that drew me to outdoor education, I started experimenting with lesson sequencing: using stories, activities, and games to bookend and contextualize core concepts. What started as an apologetic approach to content has proven an effective and equitable strategy for outdoor teaching that makes complex ideas like ecosystems meaningful, memorable, and fun. Below I outline a favorite lesson sequence on ecosystems that envelopes content with storytelling and modeling activities. But first, a few tips for developing your own sequences.
Mapping the core concepts you need to scaffold into a larger lesson can reveal where your content time will best be spent. In the ecosystem example below, I use worksheets to get all my students on the same page about producers, consumers, and decomposers: what they are, what they need, and how they relate to each other. Knowing which concepts I need to teach about can also help me select starting lessons that introduce relevant terms or relationships.
Know Your Audience
Are your students quiet or chatty? Do they like individual reflections, pair-shares, or large group discussions? Maybe a combination? Do they ask a lot of questions, or wait for you to give answers? Do any of your students have IEPs or 504 plans? What other accommodations might one or many students need to feel safe, comfortable, and ready to learn and participate? Consider these questions when thinking about your group and reflect on how they might impact your plan. Maybe you need to switch out that starting story for a running game; maybe that running game works equally well walking or sitting.
Find Your Flow
Once you know what information, structure, and supports your students need to reach their learning targets, think about an order of operations that makes sense for the spaces you’ll be teaching, your style, and the energy you expect. Thinking about biorhythms can be a helpful clue here – if you’re starting this module right after lunch, will students be more or less active than if you began your morning with it? There’s no perfect formula here, but Ben Greenwood’s Lesson Arc (Introduction, Exploration, Consolidation) provides helpful inspiration. Personally, I like to start with something engaging that models the ideas we’ll use and end with a game or reflective activity – again, this is where art meets science, so get creative.
Now that you have some ideas for sequencing lessons, let’s look at an example.
Lesson Sequence: Ecosystems and Interdependence
- Ecosystem worksheets (Islandwood journal is used in this example)
- Ecosystem cards (make your own or find publicly available regional sets like this one from Sierra Club British Columbia)
- Ball of string or twine
- Writing untensils
This is the story of a young boy who brings home a salamander to live in his room. As his mother continues to inquire about how the boy will care for the salamander (and eventually, to care for everything else he has added to his room in the process), students begin to see not only how different living things rely on each other, but the impacts of removing a more-than-human friend from its chosen home.
Additional discussion questions:
- How did the room change throughout the story?
- What else would you have changed?
- What relationships did you notice?
(Of course, any storybook of your choosing that describes habitats, food webs, nutrient/energy cycles, and interconnectivity will work – I just like this one!).
Lesson 2: Ecosystem Components and Definitions
Transitioning into the content component, begin by asking students if they have ever heard of the word “ecosystem” and what it means. While assessing answers, ask whether they saw an ecosystem in the story they heard. These discussions can help decenter the instructor as the holder of knowledge and assess potential leaders in your group.
Next, pass out worksheets/journals and give students 5-10 minutes to complete the assigned pages, encouraging them to quietly work alone or in small groups. Set clear expectations that they should do their best to fill out whatever they know, and that we’ll fill them out together as a group afterward.
Drawings from a student’s Islandwood journal. Mushrooms are depicted as decomposers, trees as producers, and squirrels as consumers. On the next page, sentence and word starters help students decode core definitions.
When students indicate that they are done, invite them back to a large group. Ask if anyone can give definitions of producers, consumers, and decomposers, or share examples that they drew or wrote in their journals. This helps individual students confirm or correct their answers without judgment and add test their knowledge by adding their own examples to the discussion. Talking through producer growth, animal consumption, and decomposition a few times helps reinforce how different inputs and outputs relate to the process and emphasizes its cyclical nature.
When students have completed their worksheets and all questions have been answered, move on to Lesson 3.
Lesson 3: Web of Life (adapted from Sierra Club British Columbia)
Because a full lesson plan is linked above, I focus here on ways that I consolidate knowledge from the above lessons, assess content learning, and prepare students to apply these new ideas to future exploration.
Pass out Web of Life cards to your students and save one for yourself. If you plan to introduce a new element later (e.g. birds migrating from habitat loss or new trees planted by conservationists), hold onto those cards.
As you pass out cards, ask students to take a moment and acquaint themselves with their element. Some questions you might ask:
- Are they a producer, decomposer, consumer, or something abiotic?
- What do they know about this element?
- What does this element need to thrive?
- What threatens it?
When students are ready, begin the lesson as described in the linked plan. Empower students to help correct or add to others’ ideas. For example, if a student assigned “worm” passes to “soil” and says, “I relat to soil because I eat it,” invite the group to discuss what they know about how worms relate to soil or how they get their energy (i.e. decomposition, which makes soil).
Once the web is fully developed, you can take this lesson in many directions, inviting students to consider what happens when one part of the web is removed or changed. When they can see that everything is connected, even indirectly, you’re ready to explore ecosystems!
Zachary Zimmerman (he/him) is an outdoor educator, teacher training facilitator, and insatiable problem-solver residing on the traditional Suquamish/Coast Salish land currently known as Bainbridge Island
5-LS2-1 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics | Next Generation Science Standards. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2023, from https://www.nextgenscience.org/pe/5-ls2-1-ecosystems-interactions-energy-and-dynamics
Greenwood, B. (n.d.). What is Lesson Sequencing and How Can it Save You Time? Retrieved May 25, 2023, from https://blog.teamsatchel.com/what-is-lesson-sequencing-and-how-can-it-save-you-time
Mazer, Anne., & Johnson, S. (1994). The Salamander Room (1st Dragonfly Books ed.). Knopf
Sierra Club BC. (n.d.). Web of Life. Sierra Club BC. Retrieved May 25, 2023, from https://sierraclub.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/Web-of-Life-Game.pdf