by Daniel Kreisberg
During college I was a waterfront director at a sleepaway camp and absolutely loved it. When my post college job search led me to residential outdoor education centers I was thrilled. It was summer camp all year round and it allowed me to follow my lifelong passion for the natural world. The perfect job. Twenty-five years later, after being a naturalist, 4th grade teacher, science teacher and environmental education consultant and having seen outdoor environmental education programs from the perspective of a parent and a teacher, I have decided this all makes me an outdoor environmental education elder.
First of all, what you are doing matters; this work matters. Don’t forget, be proud. The world needs outdoor education now more than ever. The world needs citizens with the knowledge, awareness and desire to live with the earth not against it. This is difficult when children are not spending enough time outdoors. Their lives are overscheduled with activities, they have less freedom to explore their neighborhoods and combined with fewer places to be in the “more than human world” they have become a generation indoors. You are the antidote because only by getting outdoors will children gain the appreciation, knowledge and sense of wonder needed to become stewards of the earth. We know from our own experience the rewards of being outdoors. Only by being outdoors will children reap the physical and psychological benefit the research and our own experiences has shown comes from getting out there.
There is a story to tell, so be a story sharer. Let the land, water and sky help you. Let the children help tell the story as well. Ecology is filled with fascinating characters, interrelationships, conflicts, heroes and more. Whatever it is that you are teaching, there should be a theme with the connections that will help children understand and remember. Don’t teach a bunch of random facts or activities. Share your story in the style that suits you. Back in the eighties I used an Indiana Jones adventure to connect lessons on ecology to save an endangered species. Wilderness survival classes began with a plane crash that required learning outdoor living skills to get back to safety. A lesson on forest ecology began with the story of a red eft. Geology is a journey back in time. It might a short story told in a 90 minute lesson or a longer story over 3-4 days. As the stories are shared, there are some things to keep in mind.
Teach local – There is amazing everywhere. The animals and plants living wherever it is you live, teach the same lessons as those in the jungle, desert or artic. Where you live has mind-blowing flora and fauna that inspire wonder. The best part of all, is that once children learn wonder at your nature center they will be more attentive to what is around their homes. They will be having direct experiences. The lessons from catching a frog far outweigh a website, movie or video of even the most amazing wildlife.
Connect to their home places. It helps to know something about the children with whom you are working. Learn about where they live, what animals and plants might they encounter back home. Talk to teachers about the community. Are there parks, forests, lakes or ponds you can refer to in your lessons? By reading their local newspapers you can relate what you are teaching to the environmental issues back home. Don’t prejudge the kids based on where they live as rich and spoiled or rowdy or whatever. Let them introduce themselves. Expectations lead to reality.
Teach love – Let there be no “ecophobia,” first described by David Sobel, this concept is important to those of us who work with children. Ecophobia is a “fear of environmental problems and the natural world.” Fear is not a great motivator. Love works much better. The stories you tell should be about the wonder of the “more than human world.” The stories should teach how it all works by fostering an awareness of our connection and love for the outdoors that comes from learning through play, exploration, guidance, fun and wondering.
Teach wonder – Look for teachable moments – the times when a child’s questions takes you off track but into a good place, or when a warbler lands on a branch just above your head while you are trying to explain how a sedimentary rock is formed, or when a rainstorm gives you a chance to define a watershed while standing in a puddle. These moments can become part of the story that you are telling. Be open and aware of teachable moments by learning about the place you are working. Explore by spending time walking and sitting. Learn by listening to people who know the land. Read. Gain your own sense of being by learning the natural and human history of the place. Then you can be aware of your part in the story. Be open. A sense of wonder is the greatest gift you can give children.
There are two parts to having a well-developed sense of wonder. One part is the ability to see the wonder in the world, the wow, the amazing, the how is that possible? It is also the ability to wonder, to ask questions, to know there is more to know. Let their curiosity guide the story you are sharing. Be sure the students know it is okay to wonder. Celebrate the good questions. When a child’s face lights up in the presence of wonder, you have done your job.
Teach science – Facts matter, a theory is not a guess. Knowledge is collected through experimentation and observation. Then, based on the accumulation of facts, theories are developed to explain what is going on. Decision making should be based on facts. Don’t just tell children how our knowledge was figured out. Have them figure things out for themselves through the activities and lessons you plan. The scientific method is not just for scientists. It is okay to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out.” even if you can’t find out at the moment. By figuring out a way to learn for themselves it can be an opportunity to experience how science works.
Teach hope – There are reasons to be optimistic. The wild is not all gone. There is still much beauty and wonder to be experienced. Human-caused problems have human solutions. Small actions multiplied by millions both cause and can solve problems. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have made a huge difference. The Montreal protocols, an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons has led to the closing of the hole in the ozone layer. Species that were once endangered are now safe from extinction. Yes, there is much to do, but by focusing on what is working you will inspire children more than focusing on what is not working. That just leads to doom, despair and hopelessness.
Teach action – Children need to understand their role in a democracy. This means having knowledge of environmental issues, at local, national and international levels. The knowledge will help them take action and not feel overwhelmed by the attitude there is nothing to be done. Children have the right and responsibility to let their elected officials know how they feel. They will be the ones making decisions in the future as voters and consumers.
Teach effectively – It is okay to expect good behavior, and if that means disciplining your students then do so, it doesn’t mean being mean. I have seen too many times educators talking when children are talking. I admit to having given too many chances and have to remind myself that I am not being fair to the k‑ids that are behaving. Have expectations for their behavior and hold them to it. It’s as simple as waiting until you have their attention before speaking. If needed involve teachers to get support. Do not let one or two students prevent the whole group from having a positive experience. Kids do understand limits, just be fair and consistent, they don’t like hypocrites.
Another way to prevent discipline problems is to build relationships. This can happen by listening and talking while sharing a meal or while walking. Ask questions, make jokes, and connect with some knowledge of popular culture. Be yourself, don’t try to be too cool.
Time is limited so avoiding distractions is key. While it is called outdoor education for a reason and it is true, there is no bad weather, there is only bad gear and lots of children have bad gear. Be aware: wet, cold and tired students are not going to learn. A shorter outdoor lesson with more focus is better than a longer lesson to the point of whining. Location, location, location, it matters where you teach. Think about the places you stop. Is there sun in their eyes? Is it noisy? Are there distractions? Is it wet? Is it safe? Is it safe for the plants and animals that live there?
Don’t be a slave to your agenda, sometimes it will be time to move on before you are ready and other times lessons slow down when children are so engrossed time stops. Whatever material you don’t get to, it will be okay. Don’t worry about not finishing, you are never going to teach everything anyway. Don’t be afraid to admit a lesson is a failure. It is better to cut your losses and move on rather than to plow through. Be aware of what they have already learned and activities they have already done. If you are at a center where more than one instructor will be working with the children be sure to know what the other naturalists are doing. There is too much to do and learn to repeat things. Outdoor education is less about the content and more about the experience. Almost always chose action over talking.
Enjoy, let the children see your passion and if you don’t have it anymore, it is time to do something else. Be the best you can be, don’t settle for mediocrity even if others are. Know why you’re doing what you are doing and do it with passion. ❏
Dan Kriesberg is the author of A Sense of Place, Teaching Children about the Environment with Picture Books and Think Green, Books and Activities for Kids, as well as over 100 articles on environmental education and essays about his personal experiences in the outdoors. He lives on Long Island with his wife, Karen and two sons, Zack and Scott. Dan is a sixth grade science teacher at Friends Academy. Whenever possible he spends his time in wild places backpacking, hiking and hanging out.
Jane Tesner Kleiner is a Registered Landscape Architect (RLA), ecologist and environmental educator with over 25 years of experience in design, project management and program coordination. She loves working with schools and communitiy partners to create spaces and programs to get kids outside, connecting with nature.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started in this field?
I found of a love of working with school kids as a volunteer naturalist for the Ann Arbor Public School’s Environmental Education program. We took kids out on fields trips for all 1st – 5th graders. We were so lucky to have lots of natural areas, including Metro Parks, wetlands, streams and gravel pits. Then I met the amazing Rick Plecha (elementary science teacher) at Field Elementary School in Canton, MI and we started designing green schoolyards in his district. My work in Michigan focused on watershed improvements. When I moved to Washington in 2006, I started volunteering at my son’s school when they wanted to build a garden. The district, knowing my professional background, asked for a master plan to make sure they had a guiding tool for the garden improvements. Over 9 years, we have built 7 phases of projects at that school, including sensory, butterfly, accessible play, nature play, imagination play and outdoor classrooms.
Do you recall anything from your childhood that may have played a role in your becoming an environmental educator? What was your earliest connection to nature?
I was so lucky as a kid to grow up in a huge subdivision that had creeks and forests. My brother and I would roam the forests and floodplains all the time, especially winter in Michigan with snow and ice. We also had a huge hill in the backyard for sledding. We didn’t take many vacations as a kid, but I spent most of my childhood roaming Bell Creek, the forests and floodplains.
What has been a particularly memorable moment in your career?
By combining my landscape architecture skills with my love for ecology, I have been very fortunate to have worked on some great projects! Most of my work has been urban/suburban so there has always be a “people” connection that allowed for interpretive signage, places to explore and sit and observe the wildlife. While the bigger projects, like the Rouge River Oxbox restoration at The Henry Ford museum and the visitor improvements at Salmon-Morgan Creeks nature area are great, it is working with schools on their small gardens, habitats and projects where the kids take ownership and pride that make such a huge difference.
What challenges (professionally) have you had to overcome?
Great question…..as every job has its challenges. I have worked for large and small design firms, as well as local governmental agencies. One of the challenges is educating the budget folks that adding public amenities to some projects make a huge difference for folks visiting the areas. Also, finding a balance with the wonderful grounds and maintenance crews who have a lot on their plate with limited resources, while we add more gardens and natural areas. One great outcome of COVID is that people are really understanding the need and value for nature. Before COVID, green schoolyards could be seen as “Oh, that is nice and all but not mandatory.” We now know that having all types of gardens really make a difference well beyond academics.
What have been your greatest rewards?
Introducing kids to nature! So many kids I have worked with have lots of fears about nature and don’t have a lot of understanding about plants, animals, habitats, etc. My greatest rewards are when they get to see the result of their hard work, flowers blooming, vegetables are ripe enough to harvest, seed collecting, etc. When kids know that I can trust them with tools and then they can go get the job down, they are so excited. When they bring their families on the weekends because they are so excited, that is the added bonus.
What are some of the best resources you’ve found for the work you do?
We are lucky in southwest Washington to have lots of great partners working with schools. We have formed a coalition called the Clark County Nature Network where we meet to understand what the organizations or agencies are doing and how we can partner to make a difference with schools. Some organizations are great for plantings, trees and stewardship so kids get lots of hands on project based learning. Then they get to watch their projects grow. Other partners help with the planning and design of Green Schoolyards and can help get projects in the ground. A local arborist can help salvage trees to be repurposed for nature playgrounds. Our urban forestry can help add shade trees to playgrounds which are usually lacking any nature. We are starting to look at project opportunities to connect high school CTE partners to get gardens in at elementary schools, as they have the green houses and wood shops.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
It has been exciting for our two largest local school districts, Evergreen and Vancouver,which passed capital bonds several years ago. Those funds have provided for lots of improvements at existing schools and over a dozen new and/or replacement schools. I have been incredibly fortunate to work either as the owner’s representative on the projects or lead landscape architect on a few. This has allowed me to bring my knowledge of Green Schoolyards to the table and work with all of the staff and design teams to rethink school campus design. Most of the new schools have working gardens, increased native habitat for lots of species, including birds and butterflies, outdoor classrooms, accessible pathways, nature play areas, rock cycle gardens, meadows and interpretive signage. The projects include lots of natural colors, textures, plant types and features that haven’t been done at local schools. And the response has been great! If teachers want to teach about parts of the plant, they now have lots of different kinds to choose from on campus. There is now a diversity of colors and patterns to study art or writing. And lots of paths to go for walks to support social-emotional learning through the natural areas.
I am also the lead coordinator for the Clark County Nature Network working with local partners to connect our community to nature. Our partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge has stepped up to provide funding to expand our service to the community to reach more families and partners.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
As we know, there have been lots of pros and cons to COVID impacts. As a mom with two school age kids, my time has been more limited for work during the day as I help with school. While I have loved all of the time with my kids, there are also been other opportunities. I have been on some great Zoom calls with partners from around the world, like the BioBlitz program that covers ALL schools in England….so cool. There have been so many great collaborations with Green Schoolyard partnerships. I supported the Green Schoolyard America COVID 19 response to create on-line resources [https://www.greenschoolyards.org/covid-learn-outside]. Many of the resources are now available to schools who want to create and use outdoor classrooms as part of their solutions to getting kids safely back into school.
What inspires you now? What people have inspired you?
The research is so abundant now on the benefits of nature for our overall health, it isn’t hard to make the case to add nature back into our communities. I am inspired by the teachers who can’t wait to add more features, the kids who can’t wait to show you the caterpillar they discovered and the families that spend more time outside now that they know where to go and what to do with their kids. My colleagues are definitely my current inspirations as they have retooled how they deliver their work, due to COVID, to still reach kids with on-line learning and inspire kids to explore their own yards, schools and neighborhoods.
Who are your environmental heroes?
I have always been inspired by Rachel Kaplan, professor from the University of Michigan, who helped guide my graduate school work with schoolyards and her book Design with People in Mind. The writings of Rachel Carson, walking the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and Mardy Murie about her time in Alaska, are my go to readings. I was also inspired by Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. And then there are the biggies, like David Attenborough and Jane Goodall……what can I say….they are amazing.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
I am currently reading David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. It feels so imperative to get kids to know their local landscapes, to understand what birds, insects and plants are here and why they are important. As a parent, I want my kids to know and understand what we see everyday.
Do you have favorite places to go when you need to connect with nature?
Oh yes! I am a big fan of those little known places, like the back trails along the Salmon Creek, the long trails at Vancouver Lake and Lacamas Lake here in Vancouver. My ideal adventures are to the Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier trails, especially up in the alpine meadows. They take your breath away…..I could just sit up there for days!
Are you hopeful about the future?
Oh yes! There are so many talented people working on the Greening of Schoolyard front, that I know we are making a difference and this work matters! So many partners are rethinking their approach for diversity, equity and inclusion, I have faith in their ability to connect with even more families. And our local schools have put their efforts behind sustainable landscapes that are more natural. Growing up in nature, I had the joy of wandering the woods for hours and sitting in meadows in the fall opening milkweed seed pods, just to watch the seeds float away. Robert Michael Pyle said at the UERC conference last March, that kids are facing the extinction of experience. This really stuck with me. My job is to help recreate spaces to allow kids the experiences that I had everyday. At one local school, we were able to create a 1-acre meadow…..a first for the district. I can’t wait for students to have the opportunity to just sit in the middle and listen to the wind blowing through the grasses and the endless parade of cirtters calling that space home.
K-12 Environmental Education Activities
Here are some ideas, separated into grade levels and subject areas, that you can use to instill environmental learning when you are looking for something to fill a gap in your activity plan.
Explore how animal use materials from the environment in building homes. Start by looking at a bird’s nest. Examine the nest carefully. Use a hand lens. List all the materials you find in the nest. How is it held together?
Make a “Careers Notebook” of environmentally-related careers. You can start with a fisherperson, mechanic, newpaper reporter, and a fish and game officer. Keep going from there.
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.
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?
Geometric Shapes in Nature
Geometric shapes can be found in twigs, rocks, leaves, insects, and feathers. Look for cubes, cylinders, pyramids, cones, ovals, spheres, spirals, etc. have students put specimens in like piles. Variation: Human-made shapes. Triangles, squares, dcircles, rectangles, etc., can be found at school in sidewalks, buildings, clothing.
Appropriate Stories About Nature
Storytelling about nature, the outdoors, and the environment is fun. School and public libraries can be of great help in selecting books. Build a story repertoire as you would with songs.
Give each child a small piece of paper with one or more adjectives that describe something in nature (e.g., smooth, slimy, triangular, expanded, cool, soft and green, round and gooey). Have students explore a natural area to find items that meet these descriptions. Let students take turns sharing what they found. —JOD
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
Make a Refracting Telescope
Use two small convext lenses, a toilet paper tube, cardboard, rubber cember, and paper.
1. Find the focal length of one of the lenses.
2. Cut a lens-size hole in the cardboard
3. Glue the lens over the hole.
4. Trace around the toilet paper tube with a pencil over the spot in the cardboard where the lens is located.
5. Cut on this line, and glue the cardboard-mounted lens in the end of the tube.
6. Wrap a sheet of paper around the tube.
7. Tape it in place.
8. Mount the other lens in the end of the paper tube.
9. Slide the tubes back and forth.
Collect natural materials, or have students collect them. Suspend them with string under a crossbar of two sticks. Driftwood, acorns, and pine cones are among materials that are effectively used. Hang these in the classroom to brighten the scenery.
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
Discuss as a group the items a city has and make a list. Suggestions include people, factories, subways, cemetery, apartments, treffic, plumbing, stores, garbage collectors, streets, etc.
Divide the group into smaller ones of 3 to 4 each. Send each group out in a forest or wooded area and have them try and identify the natural item that corresponds to the ones on the list. —ECO
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
Water, Water Everywhere…NOT!
Point out that last year water was rationed in parts of California. It was shut off altogether in parts of Rhode Island when a leaking gas station tank polluted it. Our carelessness can hurt the water supply. Also, it is important not to waste water if we want to be sure of having enough for our needs. Have students name some ways each of us can help protect our water supply. (Ideas include using less water, not running water needlessly, not littering near bodies of water. Also some environmentalists suggest eating less meat to save water. A vegetarian diet requires much less water in its production than is used in the raising of cattle, for example.) —KT
Shoot the Moon
Knowing that the moon returns to a given position every 29 1/2 days, have students figure out the dates that will have full moons for the coming calendar year. From this they can make their own calendars and check up on themselves. —JOD
Get Your Story Straight!
Invent or find a story that conveys an environmental message you wish to have your students think about. Divide the story into individual events that have ideas or words that allow the student to sequence them in a particular order.
As a group, or individually, have the students read the passages. Have the students number the passages so that the story can be read in the correct order. Read the story aloud in the correct sequential order.
Use discussion and questioning to strengthen the story’s message. —IEEIC
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.
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
Use artistic talents to create blocks symbolizing rainforest creatures. Build a pyramid, putting the prey species such as insects at the bottom – building up until the top predators like the jaguar and harpy eagle are at the top. Show what happens when prey species are taken away – such as if insects are killed by pesticides, or small rodents are killed as pests. The same activity can be done for temperate forests of the Northwest as well, or any other particular ecosystem. —RC
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.
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.
How Did They Do It?
Have students investigate the lifestyles of Native Americans on the prairie or along the coasts or in your local area. How were their needs met by these different environments?
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
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).
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
Students can write a paper that expresses their feelings about going to outdoor schooll. By knowing their anxieties, fears, and excitement, you may be able to better understand their individual needs. It is always fun for students to reread their own papers upon returning home. —JOD
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.
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.
To begin this activity, tell your class they are going to try an experiment dealing with classroom arrangements. Don’t mention the idea of overpopulation or limited resources. These concepts will surface as the outcome of the activity.
Select an area of the classroom to be used in this overpopulation experiment. an area approximately 10’x10’ should be marked with masking tape on the floor and two desks should be placed inside the area. Also provide a “Resources Box” with 4 pencils, 2 pens, 6 sheets of paper and 1 pair of scissors.
Select two volunteers to work in the square. They should take with them only the books they will need. One half hour later, select two more students to work in the square and add their desks to the other two. (Make sure to remove all “resource” from the desks first).
Continue to add students to the area in shorter intervals of time similar to the way population grows rapidly. When the area can no longer hold additional desks, add students and have them share desks. Make sure the tasks the children are involved in will require the use of resources in the “Resources Box.”
When the limited resources and overcrowded conditions lead to bedlam, bring the class together for discussion. How is this like the real world? What “resources” are in short supply? —LLC
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
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…
Have students write an imaginary story using one of the following titles: a) The Life of a Pencil; b)An Autobiography of a Tree from Seed to Lumber.
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.
Students begin by brainstorming a list of all the ways they are dependent on the Earth. From that list should come some ideas for presenting that information to others. They may decide to have teams of students work on representing different items on the list. They may want to expres their relationship to the land written in story format, in poetry, verbally on tape, through photographs, drawings, paintings, or soft sculpture. They should come up with a theme uch as Native American philosophy, or a celebration of life-giving qualities of the Earth, or getting involved with conservation, and work from there. Ask for volunteers to write letters to local organizations requesting space to set up their display for others to view.
Encourage your students to express their feelings about our responsibility to live in harmony with the land. Is it our responsibility? Can the actions of one person make a difference? What kinds of actions does living in harmony with the Earth require? —LLC
Sources of activities:
CCN — Carrying Capacity Network Clearinghouse Bulletin, June 1992.
KT — Kind Teacher, Natl. Association for Humane and Environmental Education
IEEIC — Inegrating Environmental Education Into the Curriculum… Painlessly. National Educational Service, 1992.
RC — Rainforest Conservation, Rainforest Awareness Info. Network, 1992.
ECO — Eco-Acts: A Manual of Ecological Activities, Phyllis Ford, ed.
JOD — Just Open the Door, by Rich Gerston, Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1983.
LLC — Living Lightly in the City, Schlitz Audubon Center, 1984.
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.
PEI Offers Food Waste and Climate Change Storyline Workshop for Teachers
Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States is also one of the most wasteful. America holds the dubious distinction of throwing away more food than every other nation except Australia, an average of a pound per person each day. In total, 150,000 tons of food gets dumped daily in the U.S., the equivalent of a third of the calories we consume.</p style>
What many may not realize is how those actions contribute to the climate crisis. Now, thanks to an innovative workshop through the Pacific Education Institute (PEI), that may change. In December, 5th-grade teachers and high school teachers from Clark County and surrounding areas explored PEI’s food waste and climate change lesson plans and storyline through a free two-day professional development workshop. PEI is an award-winning statewide organization that helps teachers, schools and districts integrate place-based STEM education into their curriculum.
Funding for the workshop was provided through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (OSPI) ClimeTime initiative.
The training offered teachers an opportunity to explore the science using data, hands-on activities, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), according to PEI’s Lower Columbia Regional Coordinator Chad Mullen. “We spend a good part of the time building teacher capacity,” he explains. “We don’t assume that teachers will arrive having background knowledge of why food waste is worth focusing on or the science behind decomposition and we don’t assume that they’ll come with a diverse background of cultural values around food and waste.”
Participants learned about the tremendous resources that go into food production through seeds, water, energy and land and how to calculate the greenhouse emissions from the food that is thrown away. “Wasted food is a big part of the climactic impact,” says Mullen. “We are providing students an opportunity to understand how individuals, classrooms, and schools can be part of the climate solution.”
Food waste ends up in one of two places: the compost bin or the landfill, both of which are problematic. “If it goes into the compost, the carbon that plant pulled out of the air to make food is all going to decompose and turn back into atmospheric carbon or carbon that’s being held in the soil,” says Mullen. The decomposition process releases CO2, a recognized greenhouse gas.
But that’s not nearly as bad as what happens when food goes into a landfill. In the absence of oxygen, as it breaks down it gets converted into methane, which in the atmosphere is 104 times more destructive than CO2 over a twenty-year time span.
At the workshop, teachers gained tools to help students understand the issue by applying math and science. For example, in one activity they measured how much energy, water and land goes into one pound of milk in a school lunch and how much atmospheric CO2 will be produced if it’s thrown out. “We help teachers understand the tools we’ve gathered for them to use with their students,” says Mullen.
Another central aspect of the workshop is incorporating indigenous perspectives about food and waste. Cinnamon Bear served as PEI’s Tribal Liaison for the western Puget Sound region during the first year they offered the training. “Food waste is a prime example of how we have disconnected from our local environments and the ecosystems that provide the gifts of food and medicines that sustain us,” she says. “It’s something we can all have a very real and important impact on.”
This is the fifth food waste workshop PEI has offered and whenever possible, they include a local tribal elder or leader who can speak to the issue. When that’s not an option, participants view TEDtalks from indigenous leaders and teachers who share their perspectives. Bear says that expanding teachers’ ideas of what constitutes science has been an important first step.
“Giving hands-on, specific experiences is the method I’ve found most successful,” she says. “Having teachers make cordage from nettle, enjoy a traditional meal so they can experience how indigenous communities view food as a gift, or make a salve from cedar during a TEK lesson, all of that makes this knowledge personally relevant and motivating to the teachers who have such important work to do with our youth.”
The workshop also included collaborations with several community partners. Staff from the Clark County Green School shared their work in diverting food out of the waste stream and participants toured the Clark County Food Bank to learn about their strategies to redirect food waste toward those who need it most. Finally, they heard from Josh Hechtman, a 17-year-old high school senior who started Reproduce 81, a club at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane to send food that would normally be wasted at school home with students who would otherwise go hungry.
The collaborative approach is typical of PEI’s educational model, which brings together schools and districts with conservation groups, resource management companies, and other community leaders to deliver real-world, outdoor-based STEM education rooted in local ecosystems and the industries that have grown around them. Previous workshops have yielded extraordinary results; in Chewelah, after fifth-grade students saw all the food waste they were producing, they produced a breakdown of how much it was costing the district per person – roughly the salary of one full-time teacher.
The class ended up meeting with representatives from the Spokane Tribe and managers from their local Safeway before presenting their findings to Governor Inslee. They also shared their discoveries with an international audience at the annual North American Association for Environmental Education conference.
Mullen and Bear anticipate inspiring results once Clark County teachers begin implementing what they learn in December. “I hope to see teachers and their students come out of this experience with a better understanding of some cultural values that might be different from theirs,” says Mullen, “and for our students from indigenous backgrounds to see themselves represented in the curriculum.”
Bear sees strong potential for young people to take the lead. “I want them to know they were born for this time and have a direct impact in the world we are creating and leaving for our future descendants,” she says. “I hope they realize their power and engage with the world around them with respect and reciprocity.”
Aldo Leopold famously wrote,”One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” As environmental educators, we must ask ourselves what we are giving our students that equips them to deal with this harsh reality.
by Nick Engelfried (2017)
It hurts to love nature in the twenty-first century. Climate change, species extinctions, toxic forms of resource extraction like fracking, all will inevitably be encountered by our students in headlines and the evening news. Again and again, they will be confronted with news of harm being done to the world they have grown to love. What tools can we give students to defend themselves against despair and cynicism?
The solution, I believe, is for students to see environmental issues not as a serious of hopeless problems, but as a set of challenges with solutions they can take action to implement. By “taking action,” I don’t mean changing light bulbs, turning off the faucet, or reducing one’s meat consumption.
Making environmentally friendly lifestyle choices may provide a temporary sense of relief for some students. However, those who think critically about it will quickly realize that much larger forces than their individual footprints are at play in creating the climate crisis.
If we want to help students thrive in Leopold’s “world of wounds,” we must guide them far beyond the realm of personal consumption choices. We must help them see opportunities for collective, not just individual action. This is especially important for students of high school age and up, who are both developmentally ready to think about social change and increasingly likely to be exposed to environmental news as their awareness of the world around them expands.
I recently had the opportunity to experiment with teaching students about collective action and climate change, while co-leading a group of high school juniors and seniors on a 12-day backpacking trip for the North Cascades Institute (NCI) Youth Leadership Adventures program. NCI is a nonprofit that has been helping people connect with nature in and around the majestic mountains of North Cascades National Park for over three decades. NCI’s Youth Leadership Adventures program gets high school students out into the backcountry to learn about natural history, sustainability, and leadership.
In the lessons my two co-instructors and I taught while leading our students through North Cascades National Park, we made a point of emphasizing climate change solutions that involve collective organizing. The successes and challenges we encountered may, I hope, be useful to educators in similar positions who wish to help their students become effective agents of environmental change.
On the third day of the trip, one of my co-instructor colleagues led a lesson which introduced concepts like how the greenhouse effect works. We felt it was important to give students this grounding in basic climate science as a way to set the stage for future lessons.
Two days later, we introduced students to some specific impacts of climate change on people around the world. Another of my fellow instructors led a “Climate Change Mixer” activity taken from Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart’s excellent book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. Students participated in a role play in which they took on the roles of real people whose lives are affected by climate change or energy extraction. Afterwards, several students expressed surprise at the severity of climate change impacts on people like members of the Gwich’in nation in the Arctic, whose way of life is threatened by melting ice and the die-off of caribou.
Having acquainted students with the science of climate change and some of its effects, we were ready to talk about action. The day after the mixer activity, I led a lesson on social change designed to get students thinking about how they could have a positive influence on climate issues. I opened the lesson by introducing a concept none of the students had heard of before: theory of change.
A person’s theory of change is their mental conceptualization of how change occurs in society. If you believe the solution to environmental problems is for each of us, one by one, to decide to change our lightbulbs and reduce our meat intake, that’s your theory of change. This is also the theory promoted by many mainstream environmental education materials, which emphasize individual lifestyle changes above all else.
Another, equally problematic theory of change most high schoolers have encountered is that major societal changes are mostly triggered by charismatic individuals and “super-people,” who inspire the masses with exceptional acts of daring or wisdom. The way history is taught at the elementary and high school levels tends to reinforce this theory. Traditional historical narratives focus on charismatic leaders—the George Washingtons, Abraham Lincolns, and Martin Luther Kings—to the virtual exclusion of thousands of other ordinary people who contributed to making change happen.
To get students thinking critically about developing their own theory of change, I had us analyze one of the most famous accounts of personal bravery from US history: the Rosa Parks story. I asked a student volunteer to recount the story the way they’d learned it in school. The traditional narrative goes something like this: Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, decided one day that she would not put up with racist segregation laws any longer. She refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and this act of personal bravery inspired the city-wide Montgomery Bus Boycott. This in turn gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement.
I next introduced some additional facts usually left out of the Rosa Parks story (these particular bits of background information were drawn from Paul Schmitz’s article for Huffington Post, “How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott”). They include:
• Rosa Parks had a long history of challenging segregation. In 1943, she was elected Secretary of the local NAACP chapter.
• Prior to her arrest, Parks had received training in nonviolent civil disobedience practices at the Highlander Folk School.
• When Parks was arrested in 1955, Alabama NAACP President E. D. Nixon was already searching for a good plaintiff to challenge segregation laws.
• Organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a major undertaking involving many people. Jo Ann Robinson, a local leader in the Women’s Political Council, spearheaded an effort to print and post 15,000 fliers supporting the boycott.
None of these details diminishes the significance of Rosa Parks or the heroic nature of her actions. However, the picture they paint is quite different from the traditional Rosa Parks story. Rather than an act of individual bravery spontaneously triggering change, this more accurate narrative becomes one about a community of people coming together to challenge an unjust system.
It was now time to get students thinking about social change in an age of climate crisis. To do this, I introduced a role play centered around a current issue in Washington State: the controversy over a proposed new oil export terminal on the Columbia River in Vancouver, WA.
I first gave students some context. Tesoro-Savage, an oil infrastructure company, is seeking permits from the State of Washington to build the country’s largest oil export facility at the Port of Vancouver. If built, the terminal would further the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, and would be serviced by four oil trains per day passing through many towns and cities in the Columbia River Gorge. A train derailment in any of these communities could cause a disaster involving a massive explosion and thousands of gallons of spilled oil.
Given that most students in our group came from Washington or northern Oregon, the Vancouver oil export debate is unfolding in their backyards. Despite this, not one student had heard about the issue before I introduced it to them. This says something about the state of environmental education in our schools.
Having given students basic facts about the oil export proposal, I next introduced a fictional scenario set in a hypothetical community called Columbia Village. I asked students to imagine that Washington Governor Jay Inslee had given the oil project its final permit (in fact, Governor Inslee is expected to make a decision later this year). Oil trains would soon begin rolling through Columbia Village, which is situated in the Gorge along the rail line. For the role play, students would take on the personas of people from a variety of backgrounds meeting at the Columbia Village Community Hall to discuss a response to this environmental and public safety threat.
Unlike the roles assigned to students in the Climate Change Mixer, those I created for this activity were not based on real people. However, as someone who has attended dozens of meetings where members of a community came together to challenge fossil fuel projects, I carefully modeled each role around a different point of view that one frequently encounters at such gatherings. Specific characters included a mother concerned about dangers to her children, an activist advocating mass civil disobedience, and a member of the Yakama Tribe concerned about the oil project’s impact on fishing rights.
At this point in the lesson we took a break for dinner, and to let students familiarize themselves with their roles. I explained that students’ job at the community meeting would be to advocate for their character’s point of view about an acceptable course of action. Students would be allowed to “change their minds,” but only if they felt this was realistic and that the concerns of their character had been adequately addressed.
My hope for this activity was students would realize that many characters in the role play represented very different theories of change—and that their job at the meeting must be to reconcile these diverse points of view into a plan that could realistically achieve the desired result. I myself participated in the role play when we reconvened, acting as the meeting facilitator whose only goal was to ensure a consensus was reached without advocating any particular point of view.
The role play that unfolded over the next forty minutes or so at least partly satisfied my hopes for the activity. Unsurprisingly, one of the most contentious issues was that of using civil disobedience to confront the oil trains. One character in the role play advocated people blockading the oil trains with their bodies—and several others responded negatively to this idea, arguing that it was too dangerous. It was not unlike actual debates over civil disobedience, which I have listened to at many real-life meetings.
As an alternative to civil disobedience, another student suggested organizing a massive but legal protest near the rail line. I was surprised that the students seemed to think getting a permit for such an event would be a much longer and more arduous process than would probably really be the case. More predictably, many students were a bit naïve about how many people they could get to show up at a protest, envisioning a crowd of 100,000. The Dalles, one of the larger towns in the Columbia Gorge, has a population of only some 14,000, and most Gorge communities are much smaller.
Another character in the role play suggested everyone work on reducing their individual carbon footprints so as to make oil infrastructure irrelevant. I had added this point of view hoping it would force students to grapple with whether individual lifestyle changes are really enough. As it turned out, many students seemed genuinely torn about this. Some were understandably drawn to the idea that individual changes might inspire larger community-wide actions. Others pointed out that even if an entire town’s population switched to energy efficient light bulbs, this wouldn’t have much impact on global economic forces that made the oil export project viable. While students never addressed the lifestyle issue in quite the direct way I hoped they might, I felt satisfied they were coming to realize that individual changes are necessary but not sufficient.
In the end the students, through their role play characters, arrived at a consensus for a compromise course of action: to move forward with a march and a petition-gathering effort, while also embarking on a public education campaign to encourage sustainable lifestyles, and preserving the option of civil disobedience for those who wished to engage in it. In real life, such a wide-ranging, ambitious plan of action would probably seem unrealistic for a new community group’s first meeting. However, I feel this is far less important than the fact that students were able to recognize the value of different theories of change as well as some of their defects, and to come up with a plan not unlike the strategies some real climate activist organizations have developed.
After the social change lesson, I realized in my eagerness to get students thinking about collective action, I had neglected to fully bring the lesson back to students’ own experience and concrete actions they themselves could take. Fortunately there was time to rectify this. Later in the trip, one of my colleagues led an activity in which students made a pledge to themselves to take a climate-related action of their own choosing within the next year. Some students’ pledges centered around lifestyle changes like using less plastic or water. But I was pleased to note others chose collective actions like getting involved in activist groups or starting a climate-focused club at their schools.
The climate change lessons my colleagues and I taught during this 12-day trip represented an experiment in getting students to think about how environmental change actually happens. There are things I plan to do differently next time I teach a similar curriculum. At the beginning of the social change lesson, I wish I had spent more time illustrating the theory of change concept with specific examples. In designing the oil trains role play, I also could have done more to flesh out the characters assigned to each student, which perhaps would have led to deeper conversations about diverse perspectives.
These lessons learned aside, I feel the curriculum my colleagues and I devised for this backpacking trip successfully helped students take the first tentative steps toward envisioning how they might play a role in confronting climate chaos—and not just by participating in Meatless Mondays. I hope they came away with at least a few tools for fighting back against the sense of hopelessness despair that can come from living in a “world of wounds.” ❏
Bigelow, Bill and Tim Swineheart. A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2014. 410 pages. ISBN number: 978-0-942961-57-7. The “Climate Change Mixer” activity described on pages 92-101 is referenced for this article.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, With Essays on Conservation From Round River. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 1970. Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1949 and 1953. 295 pages. ISBN number: 0-345-34505-3. The quote used in this article, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” appears on page 197.
Schmitz, Paul (December 1, 2014). “How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Huffington Post. Retrieve August 7, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-schmitz/how-change-happens-the-re_b_6237544.html. This piece was used as the main source for background information about the Rosa Story.
Nick Engelfried is an environmental educator and activist, currently working on his M.Ed. in Environmental Education through Western Washington University. As part of his work for the degree program, he is participating in a year-long residency working with the North Cascades Institute.