One of my favorite nature quotations comes from the Japanese conservationist Tanaka Shozu who said, “The question of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”

I wanted to touch the hearts of my middle school students with the beauty of nature as well as inspire them to take care of the local environment. I found the perfect spot for a nature experience less than an hour away from our school campus in the Sierra Nevada.

First stop was a shady woodland nature trail. The path twisted and turned as it followed Rock Creek through the pines, oaks, and big leaf maples. I had the students spread out along the trail, leaving about 10-12 feet between one another. They sat in silence for 10 minutes (a long time for some 13-year-olds!) and then wrote a one sentence description of their surroundings. Some wrote about what they saw—green leaves, sparkling sunlight, giant trees reaching into the sky. Others wrote about what they heard—singing birds, and the bubbling creek rushing over rocks, while others focused on how they felt—peaceful, quiet, and calm.

I collected the papers, and we took a short hike to totally different part of the forest—an area that had been recently clearcut of all trees. Tree stumps dotted a barren hillside. Without a canopy of leaves providing shade, the sun blazed down on us. Once again I had the kids spread out, sit by themselves, and write one sentence about the area. Words like desolate, destroyed, dead, sad, emptiness filled their papers.

Gathering in a circle, I collected these papers and read them aloud as if each sentence was a line in a poem. Then I read aloud the “poem” they had written from the nature trail. What a stark contrast in words and feelings!

I didn’t need to give a lecture on the importance of taking care of the forest. The kids “got it” through their direct experience in nature. Their hearts were touched. Their minds were opened. Back in the classroom we explored the hows and whys of forest management, but nothing they learned from our studies came close to having the impact of their personal experience. Experience truly is the BEST teacher.

I was fortunate in that I was able to arrange an all-day field trip. But you can create a high-impact nature experience without traveling far—just step outside the classroom door and try out one of these ideas:

Suggestions from Earth Heroes: Champions of the Wilderness:

  • Play “Ten Treasures” by going on a walk around the school grounds and finding ten different plants, insects, birds, or other critters. Use field guides to identify the treasures. This is a great team activity.
  • Have each student choose a nearby tree and visit it weekly. Encourage the student to get to know “their” tree in a variety of ways: making bark rubbings, creating a collage of leaves, measuring their tree’s circumference, calculating it’s height, or writing a detailed description of their tree and asking someone find it.
  • Place pieces of scrap wood on bare dirt or under bushes around the school. Wait two days and have students work in small groups to lift the boards and count the creatures they find hiding there. Use field guides to identify them.

Play the outdoor game “I am aware of…” from a Teacher’s Guide for How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate:

  • Divide the class into small groups of 5-8 students. Go outside and have groups form into a circle.
  • Going around the circle, each person completes the sentence “I am aware of…” by saying a word or phrase about something they see, hear, smell, or feel. For example, “I am aware of the sunlight sparkling on the pine needles of the tree.” “I am aware of the wind blowing across the grass.” “I am aware of how hot the sun is on my shoulders.” Students continue for several times around the circle. As each student takes a turn, the others pause for a moment to become more aware of what was just mentioned.
  • Encourage students to stretch their powers of observation by using all of your senses. To keep everyone’s attention focused, students do not talk unless it’s their turn.
  • After playing the game for several minutes, ask each student to choose one of the objects they observed and work independently to write 10 or more descriptive words or phrases about it. If there’s time, they can also sketch their object. When back in the classroom, have students share their descriptions and sketches.

Birds are everywhere. Just look up! Practice these birding tips from The BLUES Go Birding Across America:

  • Use binoculars to help you see birds more clearly.
  • Observe a bird’s size, shape, and color.
  • A field guide’s pictures and descriptions can help you lean about the birds you see.
  • The best time to see birds is when they are most active. That’s usually when they are eating.
  • Listen to birds’ calls and songs.
  • Male birds may be easier to identify than females because they are often brightly colored.
  • Don’t disturb birds by getting too close, especially if they have babies.
  • Attract birds to the area by putting up a bird feeder and birdbath.

Also I recommend that you look at Sharing Nature with Children and Sharing Nature with Children II by Joseph Cornell. Both of these pioneering books have well-proven activities designed to awaken the enthusiasm of children for nature, focus their attention on some aspect and to experience it directly, as well as to share their inspiration with others.

As an educator for more than 20 years, Carol L. Malnor taught elementary, junior high and high school. She helped found two alternative high schools and created specialty educational programs. She is now a writer. Her books include The BLUES Go Birding Series and Earth Heroes: Champions of the Wilderness and Earth Heroes: Champions of Wild Animals as well as numerous Teacher’s Guides to books published by Dawn Publications. She is also co-author of Molly’s Organic Farm available March, 2012.