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.

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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.


Making Outdoor Education More Accessible

Making Outdoor Education More Accessible

Effective Practices
For Night Hike

By: Grace Werner

The mainstream outdoor industry, as it exists today, is a blanket of whiteness that ignores sacred stories, crucial histories, and traditional knowledge of black and brown people (Brown, 2019). This truth is something I was only partially aware of in my time as an Instructor at Widjiwagan. If there is anything my graduate studies in the field of education have taught me, it is clarity around the many mistakes I have made as an educator. Still, reflection, correction, and reparation is the only way I know to move forward, and thus I’m so excited to analyze the mistakes I made as an instructor and as an employee of an outdoor education organization.

The focus of my “Effective Practices” analysis is on a lack of awareness regarding emotional safety of all students, and particularly black and brown students, on a night hike. In this blog post, I will identify elements of the night hike lesson that could be changed for a more emotionally safe experience for students. Specifically, I will look at the timing of the lesson positioned early in the week/unit, the set-up of community standards/emotional-safety- agreements, and the (lack of) awareness or acknowledgement the instructor is able to bring into their teaching and work community. By analyzing what a night hike looked like as I taught it 3 years ago, I am hoping I can clarify specific changes that may make the overall experience more beneficial for all students.


            I believe that when educators are aware of their positionality, greater safety is maintained. As a white, cis-gender, non-disabled, middle class woman who speaks English as her first language; my positionality holds immense privilege. Specifically as a white outdoor educator, if I do not acknowledge and actively combat the harmful practices ingrained in environmental education, I am not only a part of a history of erasure but also a participant in the perpetuation of racism and injustice. My critical analysis of the night hike is a limited understanding of the industry’s shortcomings, due to my privileged positionality and inherent biases. It is my intention to use this reflection to process my own learning and recognize the changes I hope YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, as well as many organizations like Widji, must make.

Widji’s administration, board of advisors, staff, and summer-participants are predominately white, upper-middle class, non-disabled, and speak English as their first language. From my perspective and collective experiences in the participant, guide, and instructor roles; there is not nearly enough organizational effort given to interrupt or change this cycle of creating a white-centric space. This is extremely important to recognize because of the following participant caveat- Widji’s fall/winter/spring program serves a population of youth who’s demographics much more accurately represent the demographics of MN and much more proportionally include (but are not limited to)- African American, Mexican, Native American, Somali, Ethiopian, Hmong, Salvadoran, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese, students. This detail is important to acknowledge moving forward in my analysis of the “Night Hike” lesson. Schools (both public & private) from across the state of MN, bring entire classes of students to outdoor school at Widji for a week-long sleep away experience. But how is Widji (or the many outdoor ed schools like Widji) able to create a space that mitigates the undertones of colonization, nationalism, and white supremacy culture imbedded and maintained through the industry, organization, and a predominately white as well as affluent staff (Brown, 2019).

Lesson Analysis & Effective Practices:

One of the more important elements to know about Night Hike at Widjiwagan is that it happens on the first night students arrive at camp. Generally, after a long day of travel, busses arrive in Ely, MN around 3-4pm. Students tour camp, unpack quickly in their cabins, eat dinner, and meet their study-groups as well as their instructor. These groups will stay the same for the entire week. Day 1, for students and instructors alike, is exhausting and overwhelming. It is a day filled with nervousness, discomfort, excitement, and newness. This is the night students are asked to bundle up, dig deep for some energy, and place an unreasonable amount of trust in their instructors and peers to brave the dark, cold for a hike in the woods.

Most commonly students will be presented with pre-hike curriculum. As an instructor, I often outlined the anatomy of the human-eye and how it interacts with light. I would draw a diagram on the white board and have students label the cornea, pupil, iris, rods, cones, and a chemical called rhodopsin. We would experiment with our own vision-quality by turning off the lights in the classroom and waiting for our eyes to adjust. I would then ask students to extinguish all phones, flashlights, or head-lamps for the entire walk, as a way to test our own night vision. Looking back, this measure feels entirely unnecessary and insensitive. The point (I think) was to encourage students to step briefly outside their comfort zone in order to practice their recently acquired knowledge of night vision. The night hike generally proceeded into discussions on stars, light-pollution, nocturnal animals, and sometimes even active-listening activities. There is so much incredible science-related and non-science-related content that is relevant to a night hike, and yet I can’t let go of the fact that it is placing students in what could be an incredibly scary, triggering, and uncomfortable situation on their first night at camp. Finally, if students are deeply uncomfortable, they will not be in a mental space that allows learning to take place.

Moving the night hike to the final evening at Widji is a practice that I think could significantly improve student-emotional-safety. When someone feels emotionally safe, I believe they feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable and voice their needs. This requires trust and respect in relationships. A closing night hike would allow students the necessary time to build trust and supportive relationships with potentially unfamiliar peers and a new instructor. It would also allow time for establishing, as well as practicing, community safety standards, communication skills, and group agreements. Added time to learn about students- their individual needs and passions as well as group needs and interests- is crucial to a successful week at outdoor camp. Assuming youth will or should be stoked on being outside is rooted in many characteristics of white supremacy. Individuals have varying and sometimes emotionally-loaded feelings of spending time outside. It can bring up memories of vulnerability, insecurity, fear, or even pain. The outdoors is not a safe place for everyone. More specifically, the outdoors has been historically dominated by white men and their exclusive ideas of recreation and stewardship. In my opinion, acknowledgment of the night hike or any other camp experience as potentially scary is a great place to start in naming a dynamic for students. This acknowledgment lets students know that feelings or desires in regards to participation may vary from student to student, and that is ok. I firmly believe that students should not be forced to venture into the darkness without a light, or even to hike at all in the dark if they do not feel safe. Ideally, if presented as an option at the beginning of the week, and slowly worked towards as a team, students may genuinely not want to miss the experience.

The second important teaching practice I believe relevant to night hike is the knowledge that a student’s comfort level is often rooted in their family’s history or upbringing. In “What Does Culture Have To Do With Teaching Science”, Madden (2013) writes, “For educators to engage families, becoming aware of student prior knowledge and beliefs is essential in making science culturally responsive” (p.67). It is the job of instructors to learn about the communities where they work and implement the many incredible narratives and ways of learning present there. Specifically, as a white outdoor educator, making space for adults whose positionality not only differs from my own, but also may better represent student identity, is crucial. In my time instructing at Widji’s fall/winter/spring program, I largely relied on the standard curriculum presented to me in staff training. Still, there was a lot of flexibility given to instructors at Widji, and I wish I would have used that freedom to make space for BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) voices. Madden (2013) discusses gathering stories from parents, community specialists, or even the library as an excellent option for instructors to include a variety of voices, perspectives, and cultural beliefs that may be held by students. For night hike specifically, this could include family or traditional knowledge on any of the topics typically covered such as stars, nocturnal adaptations, light pollution, etc. Another option Madden (2013) presents , if the resources are available, is to invite parents, teachers, or community members into the curriculum building as another way to stray from content reflecting a single story. This could happen through electronic data collection, zoom sharing, or in-person visits.

In outdoor education, the space my body takes up is welcomed and approved by white supremacy, so I must use that privilege to dismantle a system that is centered around whiteness. Night hike at Widjiwagan displays the extensive redesign outdoor curriculum and educational systems must incorporate, rather than relying on assumptions, stereotypes, typical curriculum, and more.

Work Cited:

Brown, S., & *, N. (n.d.). Advice for white environmentalists and nature educators. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from
Brown, S., & *, N. (n.d.). Reclaiming spaces. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from
Madden, L., & Joshi, A. (2013). What does culture have to do with teaching science? Science and Children, 051(01). doi:10.2505/4/sc13_051_01_66

Teacher Favorite Activity Ideas

Teacher Favorite Activity Ideas

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?


naturejournalNature Journal

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.

Complete Citations:
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.



Tracy Mosgrove

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.

Tracy Mosgrove
Skyway Elementary School
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Let Them Eat Cake

Sarah Bidwell

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,

Sarah Bidwell, Administrative Director Alternatives to Growth Oregon

Fish in the Floodlight

Joanne Day

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
Look for it under the title “Salmonids Go to the Ocean.”

web-gameFood Web Game

Joanne Day

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

PacCoastInfo5Pacific Coast Information Cards

Margy Ransford

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
Latin 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)

crumpled-paper-ballCrumple Your Own Watershed

Erica Ritter

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
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.

Photo by Stewart Wilson from Cranbrook Guardian

Photo by Stewart Wilson from Cranbrook Guardian

Macroinvertebrate Mayhem
Karen Lippy

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.

writing in nature journalNaturalist’s Journal

Tim Maze

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

earthwrmDancing Up Worms: A Teachable Moment

Laurelei Primeau

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</em?\>

K-12 Activities: Monitoring Biological Diversity

K-12 Activities: Monitoring Biological Diversity

K-12 Activity Ideas:

Monitoring Biological Diversity

by Roxine Hameister

Developing a biodiversity monitoring project at your school can help students develop many skills in an integrated manner. Here are some simple ideas that you can use to get your students started.

Children and teachers are being pulled in many directions. Children want to “learn by doing/’ but because of societal fears for children’s safety, they are very often not allowed to play outdoors and learn at will. Teachers are encouraged to meet the unique learning styles of all students but the classroom reality often means books and pictures rather than hands-on experiences. In addition, children are under considerable pressure to be thinking about their futures and what further, post secondary, education they might be considering.

Sometimes children just like science. Many are of the “naturalist intelligence” and enjoy learning how to classify their world. Activities that meet all these requirements are within schools’ meagre budgets and are indeed possible. These projects are equally possible for the teacher with little science or biology background knowledge. The science skills are readily picked up; being systematic about collecting and recording the data is the main skill needed. The curriculum integration that is possible from these projects range from field studies to computer skills, to art and literature; the entire curriculum is covered in these activities. (more…)

Environmental Education Activities K-12

Environmental Education Activities K-12

Environmental Education Activities K-12
a potpourri of teaching ideas for the classroom




Flannel Beach Life

Cut out pictures of intertidal animals from calendars or a cheap field guide. Laminate pictures and use stick-on velcro to turn them into flannel board creatures. (You can also purchase a set of flannel patterns from the Seattle Aquarium). Use the flannel board to introduce the intertidal animals. If possible, have students act out the movements of each, for example, pretend to be anemones and wave arms as tentacles during high tide, cover up tight at low tide.

Garbage Gardens

Have students bring in an egg carton and empty halved egg shells from six eggs. Pierce the bottom of the egg shells and fill them with composted soil. Place the egg shells in the egg carton to keep upright. Plant various types of seeds in the egg shells. Make sure to label each student’s egg carton with their names and the types of seeds they planted. Extend the learning by creating experiments dealing with the effects of natural environmental variations such as light and water as well as “artificial” variations including the application of household hazardous wastes found in the classroom (check out areas around your sink for these products). — TGP


Social Studies

Nautical Neighbors

If there is a marina area, take the class on a tour of it. Arrange a tour of a fishing boat, and have the skipper explain all the different equipment and the variety of jobs aboard the craft.

Seafood Survey

Many cultures depend heavily on food from the sea for their sustenance. Have students survey family members and friends about the types of seafood they like to eat. This can be graphed on the chalkboard as well. Follow up survey with a visit to a local fish market or grocery to look at varieties of fish and shell fish up close.



Whale Milk Math

A newborn blue whale gains 200 lbs per day (9 lbs. per hour) by drinking up to 50 gallons of milk each day. In one day, a blue whale calf would drink the amount of milk in 800 school-sized milk cartons! Have students rinse and save milk cartons each day. Count the new ones daily and add the total to the previous day’s total until you reach 800.

How Many Legs?

Post pictures of an octopus, a seastar, a crab, and a gull. Review as a class the number of legs each animal has, and discuss the ways each animal’s legs help it to survive. Next challenge students with addition problems, such as: How many legs would there be if we had added the legs of the octopus and the gull? The seastar and the crab?


Language Arts

What Do You See?

Students view several pictures of beach/ocean wildlife, then choose one to study. After examining closely, each student writes a description of his/her animal. Later, teacher reads written description and class guesses which animal picture it was based on.

World Music

You and your students can listen to, discuss, learn the lyrics and sing along with international artists of world music. Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Raffi, Peter Gabriel, Midnight Oil, Sting (song composed in the video, Spaceship Earth), Julian Lennon (“Salt Water Tear”) and Paul Simon (“Boy in the Bubble”) are only a few. Kid’s Eye View of the Environment, presented by Michael Mish, is a delightful audio cassette with clever lyrics and catchy melodies that will make everyone want to sing and dance. — TPE


Fine Arts

Be a Tree

Have students identify characteristics of trees. Visit trees in a back yard, in an orchard, in a park, or in the school year.

Have the students do tree dramatizations, using their arms as the branches and their legs as the trunk. How does the tree look during a storm? How does a fruit tree look in the spring? How does a young tree look in comparison with an old tree? What would happen to change the tree in different kinds of weather or during the different seasons?

After feeling what it might be like to be a tree, have the students paint pictures of them. — EGO




Evaluating Growth

Growing plants in crowded and uncrowded situations will show the effects of overpopulation. Fill milk cartons about three-fourths full of soil. Plant several cartons with seeds — some with two or three seeds, several cartons with a small handful and several cartons with a large handful. Varying the amounts of seed in the different cartons creates different conditions under which the plants will grow. After the seeds have become seedlings, measure and record their heights on a piece of paper and draw a line graph on graph paper to represent each group of seedlings. Evaluate the plants’ growth periods in terms of the number of plants under the different conditions. —CTE


Social Studies

Pick a Package, Any Package

Visit a supermarket and find the following products: cereal, laundry soap, milk, fruit juice, vegetables, soup, cake mixes, spices, candy, and toothpaste. In what different kinds of packages can they be bought? Are they available in the bulk food section? Why are products available in so many different packages? Which packages have the least amount of throw-away packaging? Which packages cost the least for each product? Which one does your family usually buy? Back in class, make a wall chart. Can some of the packages be reduced or avoided, reused or recycled? Circle in green all the reusable items, in yellow all the recyclable items, and in red all the disposables. -NTW

Non-Pointing the Finger

Take a walking tour of the neighborhood. List possible examples of non-point source pollution, both natural and human-caused. Back in the classroom, compile a class list to see how many sources were pin- “pointed.” Use magazine or newspaper pictures to make an informational display of possible sources of non-point water pollution. — FSS



Milk Carton Madness

In an attempt to determine how much potential space milk cartons take up in a landfill, students measure and calculate the volume of one milk carton. Students also determine the volume of their classroom. Using the milk carton volume figures, have the students determine how many cartons it would take to fill up their classroom. Then determine how many milk cartons are generated by the entire school in one day. Determine how long it would take to fill up their classroom. Extend these computations to a volume the size of the school. Follow this by discussing the importance of diversion of materials from the landfill and by exploring the feasibility of milk carton recycling at your school. — TGP


Language Arts

Wet Words

How important is water to our society? Just think how many different words we have to express it. Have students brainstorm words that mean water or a form of water (e.g., splash, drip, etc.) while the teacher lists them on a large sheet of butcher paper. Can your class reach one hundred? Save the list and use it later for creative writing activities.


Fine Arts

Water Drop Necklaces

Give each student a sheet of paper onto which a large water drop has already been drawn on both sides. On one side of the paper, printed inside the water drop are the words, “I’M TOXIC, DON’T FLUSH ME.” On the reverse side of the paper, inside the water drop are written the words, “WATER IS PRECIOUS, AS PRECIOUS AS…” Instruct students to draw one or several toxic items that should not be flushed down the toilet (e.g., paint, oil, chemicals) inside the water drop on the “toxic” side of the paper. On the other side instruct them to draw pictures of one or more persons or items that are precious to them (e.g., grandma, grandpa, a pet, a bicycle).

Once the drawings are completed, have the students cut out the water drop, then punch a hold near the top of the drop using a paper punch and finally thread a string of yarn through the hole to create a necklace. The necklace has a positive “precious” side and a negative “toxic” side depicted by the students’ drawings. — CON


Torn Paper Art

To help the students understand the fibrous make up of paper, tear a scrap of paper and hold one of the torn edges up to the light. Along that edge will appear a slight fuzz. Here and there tiny strands will project separately, like fine hairs. These strands are cellulose fibers.

Discuss with the children all the different materials from which fibers can be harvested to make paper. Show them fibers from a small piece of cloth to illustrate the point.

Using scraps of construction paper, tear and glue different colors to represent the forest and creatures who depend on the forest for survival. Display these pictures throughout the school to heighten awareness of the need to conserve and protect natural resources. – CON





Adopt a Part of Nature

Adopt part of a stream, creek, river, lake or ocean. Clean up the beaches or shores and spend time there as a class enjoying these special places.

Shorebird Safari

After introducing the class to common shorebirds and the field marks used to identify them, take your class to a beach. Shorebirds are visible year round, especially as the tide goes out. Students should try to identify special adaptations the birds have and predict the type of food they are seeking.


Social Studies

Nature’s Tool Box

Pass out to individuals or small groups of students an assortment of simple tools: paper clips, sewing needle, letter opener, hair brush, straight pin, comb, and so on. Have students examine the tools carefully and decide what kinds of natural objects could be used or modified to make them. After students hike through an outdoor setting and collect materials, have them use the materials to make specific tools. —EGO

Travel Log

Design a travel log to show the travelling you do for two weeks. Include the date, where you went, how you travelled, who went with you, how long it took and how many kilometres you travelled round trip. After two weeks, add up how many trips you took by car, transit, bicycle, foot, taxi or other modes. How many kilometres did you travel all together? Which transportation mode is the fastest? The cheapest? Which is you preferred transportation mode for each type of trip? Why?

Now analyze your information and make suggestions as to how you could have reduced the number of trips you made. How many times could you have used transportation other than a car? Compare your results with those of your friends. —LCA



Graph the Tide

Purchase a tide table wherever fishing supplies are sold. Enlarge and photocopy each month’s chart on a separate page. Make enough copies so that each student will have one month to chart on graph paper. Post the papers in a line along the wall to see the rise and fall of the tide for the year. Teacher may want to designate a place on the paper for the base point (0.0).


Language Arts

Opposites Attract

Here is a thought-provoking idea: Collect photographs, illustrations and/or paintings from magazines — some that graphically portray a healthy, balanced environment and others that depict a damaged, unhealthy Earth. Hang these on opposite walls in the classroom to stimulate discussion and inspire writing. How does each set of images make students feel? Encourage them to think about how the healthy can be changed into the damaged and how they can help to change the damaged back into the healthy. As students learn about environmental problems and the solutions, they may go to the appropriate sides of the room to record their thoughts and ideas in two separate notebooks. For example, if a student is studying about an extinct animal, that student may record his/her concerns in a notebook located next to the unhealthy Earth artwork.   If he/she knows of possible solutions and actions that can be done to help, they may be recorded on the other side of the room next to the healthy Earth artwork. Eventually, your class will have two useful notebooks filled with concerns and solutions to many environmental problems. Prioritize these and use your computer to record the top ten items that can be posted in the room for reference and distributed to family members. – TPE


Fine Arts

Touch of Color

While visiting a wooded area, pass out paper to the class and have each student, using natural materials (soil, berries, flowers, leaves, moss), draw a picture of the forest setting. Give the class an opportunity to display their work and describe their feelings about the surroundings. Encourage the students to discuss what materials were used to add color. —EGO






Working with a partner, students research symbiotic relationships amongst intertidal and ocean organisms and choose one to report on. One example would be the anemone and the clownfish.

Human-created Habitats

Assign one water-dwelling animal to each student or team. Students then must design (on paper) an artificial habitat which would suite the living requirements of the animal. To do so, they must investigate and establish the characteristics of the animal’s natural habitat, including food, water, shelter, space, climate, etc. This assignment could be followed by creating models of artificial habitats.


Social Studies

Environmental Careers

Plan an Environmental Careers Day. Research various careers associated with the environment and invite people in to speak about their jobs. Try to get a variety of speakers to reflect the diversity of careers and educational requirements. Prepare an outline for the speakers to they will address the questions you are most interested in.

Both Sides Now

A forest management specialist, touring a watershed area, notes that in one part of the forest many diseased trees have fallen and are covering the ground. This is a serious fire hazard for the forest. The specialist recommends logging this area and replanting with young, healthy seedlings. A concerned citizen’s group protests the logging, saying that clearcutting the area will erode the soil, which will make our drinking water unclean.

Your group has been asked to list the pros and cons of logging that area of the watershed. Consider the environmental, economic and social arguments. Can you find a compromise to the problem? How do personal opinions affect your decision? —FSS

Litter Lifelines

Students collect litter in an outdoor setting — school parking lot, playground, camp, or business district. Then each student selects a piece of trash – soda can, chewing gum wrapper, potato chip bag —and makes a life line of the litter, from the origin of its natural materials to its present state. — TGP



Food Chain Figuring

Use the following information to create math problems. A medium-sized whale needs four hundred billion diatoms to sustain it for a few hours! The whale eats a ton of herring, about 5,000 of them. Each herring may have about 6,500 small crustaceans in its stomach, and each crustacean may contain 130,000 diatoms…


Language Arts

Legends of the Sea

Many cultures have legends about the way the ocean and its life forms were created. Read some of these to the class, then encourage them to create their own legends about how somethings came to be. It would be helpful to have some pictures of marine life forms for the students to view. Some ideas: How the Eel Became Electric; Why Octopi Have Only Eight Arms; Before Whales could Swim; How the Hermit Crab Lost His Shell.


Fine Arts

Environmental Art

Visit a natural history museum. Or, have students look through books with photographs of paintings depicting the environment. They may analyze, discuss, compare, contrast art works and give critiques. Pupils may be inspired to write poems or stories about ideas generated from the special works and they may then create their own works of art.


Sources of Activities:

EGO- Education Goes Outdoors, Addison-Wesley 1986.

CON – Connections: Life Cycle Kinesthetic Learning. The Energy Office, Grand Junction, CO 1993.

CTE – Consider the Earth by Julie M. Gates, Teacher Ideas Press, 1989.

FSS – From Source to Sea, Greater Vancouver Regional District 1993.

GGC – Growing Greener Cities and Environmental Education Guide

American Forests, Washington DC 1992

LCA – Let’s Clean the Air, Greater Vancouver Regional District 1993.

NTW – No Time to Waste, Greater Vancouver Regional District 1993.

TPE – The Private Eye, Kerry Ruef, The Private Eye Project, Seattle, 1992.

My Favorite EE Activity – Margie B. Klein

By Margie Klein
Retired Interpretive Naturalist
Now doing environmental ed. and nature interpretation part-time at local public lands sites. She is also a writer and author of many articles in national magazines; co-author of a nation-wide curriculum; recipient of an award from a national professional society.




– Animal totem cards
– Note paper, pens or pencils
– Construction paper, scissors
– Markers or crayons
– Tape and glue
– Craft sticks and decorations
– Long sheet of butcher paper
– Ball of yarn

An Introduction to Totems

A totem is any being which watches over or assists a group of people. The concept is not limited
to Native American Culture, and can be found in cultures around the world, including Africa and China. Usually an animal is chosen as a totem for a clan. The totem has been used to identify tribes, for group pride, and for protection. In more recent times, individual totemism has become popular – that is, “adopting” an animal that a person believes to represent favorable traits of their own, either in behavior or appearance.

Totem animals show us how humans relate to nature. They are usually chosen for the qualities they represent. When choosing one, the individual has to become introspective, and look at all their behavior tendencies. Sometimes an animal is chosen for qualities that the individual would like to have. Totem animals can also be chosen for the way they look, or the place that they live.

Once a totem is chosen, it is used as a symbol of self. The purpose is to visualize the animal and its place in the environment in order to connect to a higher level of consciousness. The individual may ponder how the animal would react in a certain situation, similar to one that they are experiencing. In this way, the totem animal provides assistance.

A totem may be displayed at home, work, or school, as a reminder to quiet the mind and acknowledge self-confidence. Totems can be combined to show the diversity of community. This works especially well in classroom settings. Students will be able to discuss the relationships in both natural and human communities. It’s an ancient wisdom that important life lessons can be learned for nature. And through totem activities, respect for nature is achieved. Making a totem
is also a great artistic outlet. Children’s’ imaginations can fuel the creative representation of totems. More than anything else, the making of a totem is useful as a teaching tool, getting the children to inquire and think.

Totem cards can be obtained from a number of different sources. Some card decks come with a book on totem animals (see references below). Or you can check Native American or alternative gift shops for “medicine cards.” You can also obtain cards with animal depictions from most
nature – oriented retailers.

How do you find your totem?

Have the students answer these questions, and jot down their answers on their notepad.
1. What animal are you attracted to or interested in? Why? (Color, fur, scales, etc.)
2. Have you seen a TV show or movie about an animal that you liked?
3. When you go to the zoo, what animals are you most interested in seeing?
4. What animals do you see most often outside?
5. What animal do you hope to see when out in nature?
6. Do you ever have dreams about certain animals?
7. Have you ever tried to be friends with an animal?
8. What animal frightens you?
9. What animal traits do you like in certain animals? What traits are similar to your own?
10. How do you wish that you could be similar to an animal?
11. Is there an animal that you like to draw, write about, or talk about?

You may wish to take the children on a field trip to a nature center, a park, or even an art museum. Inspiration can be found in many places, from real-life animal sightings to taxidermy specimens or beautiful paintings. Don’t forget that animals can be mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects.

The children should be able to come up with an animal that they can relate to. Then ask the students to make a drawing of their favorite / totem animal. Ask them to draw the things that would usually be around that animal.

Examples of animal attributes

For reference, listed below are some of the better known animals that could be used for a totem project, along with the traits that are most commonly associated with them.

– Bear – strength, contemplation
– Beaver – busyness, working with others
– Buffalo – abundance, thankfulness for gifts
– Cougar – leadership, confidence
– Deer – gentleness, love, caring
– Dog – loyalty, a protector
– Eagle – spirit, healing
– Hawk – power of observation, informing others
– Horse – power, achievement
– Owl – wisdom, truth
– Squirrel – planning, gathering
– Swan – change, grace
– Turtle – nature, creativity
– Whale – rhythm, history
– Wolf – teaching, sharing knowledge

Making your totem

Have the children draw their totem animal on construction paper and cut it out. They should choose a color that is appropriate for the animal, then draw with markers or crayons to add detail to their animal. They can put their name on it, and things about the animal that they like, or the way the animal makes them feel. They can also be decorated with any number of craft decorations to give them more character.

Wrapping it up

Go around the room and ask each child to tell about their totem. Some children may have more than one totem animal. Ask them how the animals could work together.

As a class project, construct a totem pole made out of all the children’s’ totem animals. Paste it on the wall for all to see.

A variation for younger children is to make totem face masks out of construction paper, then glue a craft stick to the bottom for a handle. Instruct the children to have a “procession of animals,” acting out how the animal would behave.

Another project could be to lay out a long piece of butcher paper and have the children make simple drawings of their animals for a “petroglyph wall.” They would be so proud to have their artwork displayed in a school hallway!

Taking it one step further: Science and ecology

Create a wildlife food web, utilizing the totem animals that the children have chosen. Hopefully, you will have animals that show predator – prey relationships. You may even have a scavenger animal, better called a recycler! Of course you will have to add the elements: light, air, soil and water, as well as a few plants. The teacher could represent any or all of these last items. With a large ball of yarn, connect the elements and the plants to the animals that are herbivores or are prey to other animals. These animals then need to be connected to the predatory animals. Finally, if you have one present, connect the predators to a recycler. Now, “remove” one animal
from the web by having the child sit down. The pull that everyone feels on the yarn shows how all things in nature are connected. What happens if many of the animals are removed?

Taking it one step further: language and fine arts

Ask each child to come up with a short story about their totem animal. Have them write it down, and then find a way to demonstrate it. This could be with a painting, or a theatrical presentation. Let them be creative.

Taking it one step further: civics

Have older students contrast and compare the animals that they have chosen as their totems. Are there similarities? Differences? Why might this be?
How could all the totem animals make up a community? How would they work together, using their individual traits? Would it be beneficial to have these animals all together in a small community? What problems might be seen?
Finally, ask the students to use their totem community as an example for the real community they live in. How are all people the same? How are they different? How can everyone work together to make a better place?


Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals (book + cards)
by Jamie Sams, David Carson, Angela C. Werneke

Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children (book)
by Michael J. Caduto, Joseph Bruchac

Celtic Totem Animals (book + cards)
by John Matthews

Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small (book)
by Ted Andrews