Phenology Wheels: Earth Observation Where You Live

Phenology Wheels: Earth Observation Where You Live

Phenology Wheels: Earth Observation Where You Live

earthzineBy Anne Forbes, Partners in Place, LLC
This article originally appeared in Earthzine –


M (Dakota)aking a habit of Earth observation where you live is a fun and fundamental way to practice Earth stewardship. It is often our own observations close to home that keep us inspired to learn more and allow us to remain steady advocates for solutions to today’s daunting problems. Earth observation done whole-heartedly becomes skilled Earth awareness that leads to profound relationships with the plants, animals, and seasonal cycles surrounding us in real time, whether we live in the city, suburbs, or countryside.


Courtesy Anne Forbes.

One way to track Earth observations is an activity called Phenology Wheels, suitable for individuals, families, classrooms, youth programs, and workshops for people of all ages. Phenology is a term that refers to the observation of the life cycles and habits of plants and animals as they respond to the seasons, weather, and climate. A Phenology Wheel is a circular journal or calendar that encourages a routine of Earth observation where you live. Single observations of what is happening in the lives of plants and animals made over time begin to tell a compelling story – your story – about the place on our living planet that you call home.

Why a circle? We usually think of the passing of time as linear, with one event following another in sequence by day, by month, by year. Placing the same events in a circular journal, or wheel shape, helps us discover new patterns (or rediscover known ones). We can use the Phenology Wheel to communicate about what is really important or interesting to us.

Here’s the General Idea

A Phenology Wheel is made up of three rings in a circle, like a target. To become a Wheel-keeper, you select a home place, such as a garden, a “sit spot,” schoolyard, watershed, or landscape that will be represented by a map or image in the center ring, the bull’s eye. Next, you mark units of time – such as the months and seasons of a year, hours of a day, or phases of a lunar month – around the outside ring, like the numbers on the face of a clock. Then, as you make specific observations of what is going on in the lives of plants and animals and the flow of seasons, you record them within the middle ring using words, phrases, images, or a combination.

Here’s How To Get Started

Because the wheel is round, you can begin a Phenology Wheel for Earth observation at any time of year.

Although you can pick among different time scales for the outer ring, let’s begin here with a year of seasons and months.


Courtesy Anne Forbes.


1. Draw a set of nested circles on a large piece of paper. You can do this by tracing around large plates or pizza pans, by using an artist’s compass or by making your own compass out of a pencil, pin, and string. You may also purchase a kit of print Wheels or a set of digital PDF Wheels online.

2. If you are making your own Wheel, write the names of the seasons and months on the outer rings.

3. Select an image for the center to represent the place or theme you have selected and to anchor your practice of observation in time and space.

Maps for the Center: If you choose a map, will it be geographically accurate or symbolic? Will it be traced or cut and pasted from an existing map, or will it be a map of your own creation?

Tip: Use a web-based mapping system such as Google Maps to print a map and use it to trace selected features as a base map for your Wheel.

A Centering Image: If you choose an image other than a map, will you create your own image or use one that you find already in print material? Will you use a photo, make a collage, or choose a found object, like a leaf or feather?

Tip: Children often enjoy a picture of themselves at their “sit spot” or other place they have chosen to track their observations.

4. Establish a Routine: Observe → Investigate and Reflect → Record

OBSERVE: What do I notice in this moment? What is extraordinary about seemingly ordinary things? What surprises me as unexpected or dramatic?


INVESTIGATE: What more do I want to know about what I observe? What questions will I seek to answer through my own continued observation? What information will I search for in books or from mentors or websites?


REFLECT: What does my observation mean to me? How is it changing me? How does it help me explore my values and beliefs?


RECORD: A routine of frequent observation provides the raw material to transform your blank Wheel into a circular journal as you record images, symbols, or words as you observe the passing of the seasons in your home place.

Tip: An interactive diagram of this process can be found under the Observe & Record tab here.

5. Share and Celebrate: Use your Wheel to report or tell stories about what you learn from and value about Earth observation in your home place.

Like a wheel on a cart, time turns around the hub of your home place;

the metaphor is a journey taken through a day, a month, a year,

or a lifetime of curiosity and appreciation.

Of course, you don’t have to keep a journal to explore and appreciate your home place on earth and the home place in your heart. What are the dimensions of your home place in this moment? What marks of time’s passing do you observe? The more playful you are with these questions, the more you may feel a part of your home place and committed to co-creating its well-being with others in your community.


Courtesy The Yahara Watershed Journal.

Welcome home.

Example #1: The Yahara Watershed Wheel

About twelve years ago, a group of like-minded friends gathered by my fireside to reflect upon what it means to live in this place we call home in Dane County, Wisconsin, USA. We chose to think of the Yahara Watershed as our common home place, and the series of seasonal events that occur in a typical year as the time scale to track. We put a map of the watershed in the center of a large Wheel of the Year, with units of time going around the outside rim, much like a clock, but using seasons and months instead of hours. We then went around our own circle, each speaking of the defining moments in the natural world and in the lives of people enjoying it throughout the months of a typical year. The artist among us sketched the images onto the Yahara Watershed Wheel that you see here. The detail in the enlarged image represents the unique happenings in March and April: pasque flowers in bloom, the return of redwing blackbirds and sandhill cranes, woodcock mating dances, first dandelions, and spring peepers in chorus.


Courtesy Anne Forbes.

Example #2: Poems of Place

In reporting on this Wheel filled with seasonal poems by 4th and 5th graders about the large school woods, just outside an elementary school “backdoor” in Cambridge, Wisconsin, teacher Georgia Gomez-Ibanez writes, “Because the woods is so accessible, the children spend quite a lot of time there developing a deep sense of place, including keen observational skills and a heightened imagination, all enhanced by the affection they have gained by years of exploring, learning and stewardship.” This selection of student poems illustrates how Phenology Wheels can be used to enhance language arts as well as science curriculum.

Example #3: Local Biodiversity

In another example from Cambridge Elementary School in Wisconsin, teacher Georgia Gomez-Ibanez reports that a classroom studied the biodiversity of the area where they live. Each student picked a different animal or plant from their adjacent woods or prairie for the center of an 11-inch Wheel and then did research to tell the full story of the life cycle in words. The example here shows the work of one student who studied the Jack-in-the-Pulpit wildflower.

The next step would be for the students to combine their information for single species onto one large 32-inch Wheel and use it to explore the dynamics of the ecosystem that appear through food webs, habitat use, seed dispersal mechanisms, and so on.

Frequently Asked Questions


Courtesy Anne Forbes.

1. Where do I get more information?
If you are ready to start a Phenology Wheel for yourself, family, classroom or youth program, or any other interest group:

• Visit the Wheels of Time and Place website for instructions, resources, and a gallery of examples.
• Download a curriculum for youth developed in partnership with Georgia Gomez-Ibanez, an elementary school teacher, and Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, Earth Partnership for Schools, UW-Madison Arboretum.

2. Where do I order pre-made Wheels?
Order the blank Wheel templates as a digital download of PDF files or as a complete toolkit, Wheels of Time and Place: Journals for the Cycles and Seasons of Life. The latter includes a set of print Wheels in 11-inch and 24-inch sizes, a code to download the PDF files, and an instruction booklet – all in a recycled chipboard carrying case.

3. What size should my Wheels be?
Some people prefer 11-inch Wheels because they are compact, portable, and can be easily duplicated in a copy machine on 11 x 17-inch paper. You can trim them down to 11-inch square if you would like.

When people share the 24-inch Wheels, their faces often light up with excitement. This size, or larger, works well if you have a large clip board or a place to keep it posted for frequent use or when people are working on one Wheel in a group.

Of course, if you make your Wheels by hand, you can make them any size you like. If you purchase the PDF files, you can enlarge them up to 32-36 inches at a copy or blueprint shop.

4. What if I’m already a journal-keeper?

Some people who already keep a written journal use the Wheels to review their journals periodically and pull out observations to further explore and put on a Wheel. It’s amazing what patterns and stories can emerge.

5. Can the Wheels be created from databases?

Frank Nelson of the Missouri Department of Conservation has used wheels called Ring Maps, A Useful Way to Visualize Temporal Data to show trends and reveal patterns in a complex set of data.


Anne Forbes of Partners in Place, LLC is an ecologist who seeks to integrate her scientific and spiritual ways of knowing. For over 35 years, she worked on biodiversity policy as a natural resource manager and supported environmental and community collaborations as a facilitator and consultant. Her years of spiritual practice in varied traditions, most recently the Bon Buddhist tradition of Tibet, inspire her commitment to engaged action on behalf of present and future generations. She failed her first attempt at retirement and instead created the Wheels of Time and Place: Journals for the Cycles and Seasons of Life.

Share your favorite EE activity with us!

Share your favorite EE activity with us!


If you’re a teacher, CLEARING would love to hear from you!

We are compiling anecdotal examples of fun, engaging and successful environmental education activities from teachers around the Pacific Northwest.

We are especially interested in teachable moments that sprang from creativity, inspiration, and special circumstances. If you have ever created, implemented, or participated in an especially wonderful or memorable EE learning activity, we hope you will share your experience through CLEARING.

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
Coquitlam, BC

Please take a moment and write a couple of paragraphs describing what you did, how it happened or how you did it, and what made it special.
Ultimately we’d like to compile examples from across the K-12 spectrum, in formal classrooms as well as non-formal, of those teaching ideas that really came together and created a special learning moment for everyone involved.

Use the reply box below to add your example, along with your name and school/affiliation. We will compile what we receive into our searchable database of the best resources for environmental education.

Earth Day and Beyond: K-12 Activities for Rivers and Streams

Earth Day and Beyond: K-12 Activities for Rivers and Streams


The following activities were submitted by K-12 teachers from around the Pacific Northwest who have participated in watershed education programs in their classrooms. The majority of these teachers were involved in the following coordinated watershed education programs: the Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program, the Bainridge Island Watershed Watch Program, the Nisqually River Education Project, the Budd/Deschutes Project GREEN, and the Lower Hood Canal Watershed Education Network. Each activity lists the teacher’s name and school. Activities were compiled by Karen Clark.

Grades K-2:
Science and Math: Butterfly Math
Social Studies: My Personal Symbol
Language Arts: Pond Journal
Fine Art: Wetland Animal Hats

Grades 3-5
Science: How Do Other Animals Deal with Garbage?
Science: Salmon Life Cycle
Science: Is Trash Really for the Birds?
Social Studies: Cultural Taboos
Language Arts: Pen Pals
Fine Arts: Salmon Mobile

Grades 6-8
Science: What Does Acid Rain Do to Aquatic Animals?
Science: Nature’s Scavenger Hunt
Social Studies: Clean a Stream
Fine Arts/Science: Shape a Watershed

Grades 9-12
Science: Mapping a Watershed
Science: Stepping Into Others’ Shoes
Science: Piecing Together Your Watershed
Social Studies: Regulatory Agencies
Social Studies: Selecting an Issue to Address
Language Arts: My Life’s Journey
Language Arts: Observation
Language Arts/Fine Arts: Collage


Rivers and Streams Activities: Grades 6-8

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What Does Acid Rain Do to Aquatic Animals? (6-8 Science)

Students will be able to discover the effects acid rain can have on aquatic wildlife. Set up two 10 gallon aquariums, each one with a variety of aquatic organisms (snails, caddisfly larva, damselfly larva, algae, etc.). Try to make the numbers and types of organisms similar. Test the pH in both aquariums and record the data.

Keeping one tank as the control, maintain the pH at a constant level by adding new and siphoning off old water if necessary. The second aquarium is the variable. Every two days siphon off some water and add a small amount of dilute sulfurous acid (take the pH down at a rate of 0.5 pH each week) to the second tank. Observe which animals live and die at what pH level each one died. Make a table of pH tolerance for each organism and discuss what happened within each separate aquarium.

— Kent Wilkinson, West Valley Junior High School, Yakima WA

Nature’s Scavenger Hunt (6-8 Science)

Students will be asked to take a close look at the components of the river/pond ecosystem in detail. They will be able to locate and identify clues that help describe the overall ecosystem.

Break the class into small groups, each group receiving a pencil, notebook, field guides, a hand lens, and binoculars. Have one person record the answers and observations in a notebook. Stay on the tril, and don’t collect the items. The following is a scavenger hunt list with things to find, identify, or describe:

Identify or describe: two kinds of birds, three kinds of plants, two types of habitat, two types of leaves or needles from the tree, three colors you see.

Find: signs that animals are in the area, two signs that people have been there, something rough, something smooth, something that changes, something that stays the same, three non-living parts of the ecosystem, an example of Lichen, an example of fungus, something soft and spongy, something tall, a seed.

Describe: three different smells, two different sounds.

Locate: some bird nesting material.

Spend about 20 minutes on the hunt, and then discuss the discoveries. What was easy or difficult to find? Why? Have a discussion on ecosystems and how everything you found is part of an ecosystem.

— Lee Hunsperger, Pace Alternative School, Wapato WA

Clean a Stream (6-8 Social Studies)

After making preparatory arrangements, take the students to a stream where they can collect the litter in the stream (have students use gloves). Keep a tally of the trash collected, and then discuss the results with the students. Ask them what they would do if they saw someone throwing litter into the stream. Chances are, they would do something about it!

— Kent Wilkinson, West Valley Junior High School, Yakima WA

Shape a Watershed (6-8 Fine Arts/Science)

Describe a watershed to your students. Remind them that just as a toolshed has walls, a floor and a roof, so too does a watershed. Compare the parts of a toolshed to those of a watershed. Its walls are the sides of valleys and mountains, its floor bottomlands with streams, rivers, lakes, and its roof a ceiling of clouds.

Each student will create their own watershed. Crmple up a sheet of paper into a loose wad. Uncrumple the paper, leaving it about half bunched up.

Tape the edges of it onto a base sheet of paper, creating a miniature landscape.

Using water-soluable blue markers, gently shade the top of the ridges and divides. Have students guess where streams, rivers and lakes will form by tracing them in with a dark, fine-point marker.

Have students create rain by misting their paper watersheds with a spray bottle. Have them oserve where the water flows as the marker colors run “downslope.”

Did they correctly guess where streams, rivers and lakes would be? Where might they find wetlands on their models?

— Activity from “The Living River: An Educators Guide to the Nisqually River Basin”
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River and Streams Activities: Grades 9-12

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Mapping a Watershed (9-12 Science)

Locate a local stream or river on a map, making sure that your map includes the entire watershed. Select a spot on the map as far downstream as possible for your starting point. Next, locate the upstream ends of all channels that flow into your river above that point. Trace the section of your watershed onto paper (lor draw directly on the map), drawing all of the branches or tributaries of your stream or river. Draw the other significant natural features, and major land uses (industry, agriculture, residential neighborhoods). Discuss some of the following questions with the class: Where does the water in your watershed come from? Are the streams and rivers in the watershed present year round? What are some of the major land uses? How do these uses effect the river?

— from Investigating Streams and Rivers (GREEN)

Stepping Into Others’ Shoes (9-12 Science)

Present two sides of a current environmental issue to the class. Have the students write one letter stating their personal opinions about the issue and why they feel that way. Then have them write a second letter from another perspective. Discuss what students learned and insights that were gained.

— GREEN Cross Cultural Partners Activity Manual

Piecing Together Your Watershed (9-12 Science)

Laminate a copy of your watershed map, then cut into jigsaw puzzle-like pieces The number of pieces will be determined by the number of student learning groups formed by students working in groups of two or three. Give each group of students one piece of the map puzzle and a large piece of butcher paper with colored pencils and markers. Have the students reproduce/enlarge their section of the basin map (each 6″ of the puzzle should be enlarged to 1′ on the butcher paper). Have the students include all features (roads, towns, tributaries, railroads, etc.) Have each student present their enlargement to the entire class, describing its location and features. Have the other students try and locate the section being talked about on the basin map. Challenge them to identify it by using the map’s marginal coordinates.

Using tape, assemble the new large scale map. Have students create a key for their map featuring symbols and scale. Hang it on a wall in the school with a project banner hanging over the map to identify the class that worked on the project.

— Activity from “The Living River: An Educator’s Guide to the Nisqually River Basin.”

Regulatory Agencies (9-12 Social Studies)

The students should in groups choose a regulatory agency to investigate. Through library research, determine the laws, standards, enforcement, and penalties for which water resource agencies are responsible. Obtain the address and phone number of a regulatory agency’s nearest office and the name of someone to contact concerning its water resources work.

Have the students take the role of the lawmakers and write five regulations to protect water quality or public health and safety associated with water resources. Have the group discuss some of the following questions: What are the names and responsibilities of the international, national, regional and local agencies with primary resource responsibilities? Why are regulations necessary? What measures other than regulations may be used to maintain the health and safety of water resources? What are some difficulties encountered by water resources staff in creating and enforcing regulations?

Have the students make an appointment with agency staff members to present questions or observations. Invite the agency representative to come to the class to address the questions.

— Adapted from Aspen Global Change GREEN Cross Culturall Partners Activity Manual

Selecting an Issue to Address (9-12 Social Studies)

After investigating a local waterway, have the class brainstorm a list of problems that affect the stream. The students pick one problem to act upon based on a list of selection criteria they generate. Students then deelop a prrecise statement of the problem they have selected. Then, together a decision should be made about what action could be taken to solve the problem after brainstorming a list of options. After a successful outcome is decided upon, the students begin to take action.

— Investigating Rivers and Streams, GREEN

My Life’s Journey (9-12 Language Arts)

Thinking and writing about your life using the river as a metaphor.

To reinforce the elements of river formation and drainage, students in Language Arts class compare their own life’s journey (from birth to present) to that of a river. Students will have already learned about a river’s physical features from their science class and know the terminology associated with it.

On a poster, have the students draw a river with illustrations or photos depicting each element of the river (origin, oxbow, rapids, waterfalls, confluence, dam, calm deep pools, eddy, riffle, mouth). In addition to the illustration or photo of the physical feature, have the students describe how the element of the river relates to their life. Along with the poster, the students should write a narrative describing each element of their personal journey. Emphasize that the students delve into their lives only as deeply as they feel comfortable.

— Debra Nickerson, Yelm Community Schools, Yelm WA

Observation (9-12 Language Arts)

The students should first read “Walking” by Linda Hogan to put them in an observation mind-frame, and then they should closely observe an object in nature: a leaf, an insect, a tree, a cloud. Describe the object in detailed notes in a journal, emphasizing the description with imagery trying to appeal to all of the senses. What feelings or emotions does the object evoke in the student? Is the object part of a larger whole? Does the description cause the student to think about the other parts or aspets of nature? Have the students write a well-developed, thoughtful paragraph describing the item they chose.

— Lisa Hornyak, North Mason High School, Belfair WA

Collage (9-12 Language Arts/Fine Arts)

The students should read “Drama on a Wooden Fence” by Mary Leister and choose at least three specific scenes from the story. In small groups, the students can draw, or cut and paste from a magazine, three scenes onto paper. The resulting collage should give the page number, the specific text from the story near the copied scene, and the names of your group members.

— Lisa Hornyak, North Mason High School, Belfair WA
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