Trees as Storytellers

Trees as Storytellers

he thought of talking trees conjures up images of the fantastical. Tolkien’s ents patrol the forest, Baum’s forest of fighting trees throws apples at Dorothy, and Marvel’s Groot guards the galaxy. Or, perhaps, we think of those who speak for the trees that cannot speak for themselves: Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, or the dryads of ancient mythology. But I would argue that all trees have a lot to say, if we are willing to listen.

Like all great storytellers, trees have an impressive hook. Each species, a different author, has different tales to tell. Throughout time, some people have listened to those stories, and translated them to a language we can understand. And trees also give us the stories the trees may not even know they are telling, the way a worn and coffee-stained paperback can tell of a voracious and messy reader. Students, lovers of stories oral, written, and visual, can learn from these giants of the forest.

IslandWood, a residential environmental education school on Bainbridge Island, Washington, markets itself to students as “a school in the woods.” On its surface, this imparts expectations of students while on campus. It is not camp, but a school, with all the implications of learning. But what about the second part? The woods as a term indicate the outdoor status of some classrooms, but also plants the idea very early on of the ubiquity of trees. Wood comes from trees, and woods come from trees. This school is where we learn among the trees. Students should be aware of that upfront.

These trees have a long story to tell our students, and the students are ready to listen. When the glaciers retreated from the Puget Sound area 10,000-12,000 years ago, in moved trees from present-day California. The seeds following the glacier’s retreat met an incredibly moist environment that was perfect for the establishment of gargantuan specimens. Even students with individuals of these giants near their school are unlikely to see them in such abundance, or in such a relatively untamed state, covered in moss and lichen.

Students’ chatter while clambering from buses onto IslandWood property is a good clue in to what familiarity they may have with the woods. Students will disembark the bus and are unable to tear their eyes away from the treetops. Audible oohs and ahhs promise for a week of wonder and exploration. Recently, a student walked through the arrival shelter and turned to a friend to say, “so I guess this is what the woods are.” The trees are our ambassadors to these students, and the story they tell is one of upwards growth.

At IslandWood, we teach of the “Big Five:” western red cedar, red alder, western hemlock, bigleaf maple, and Douglas-fir.

The western red cedar is a favorite of many students. On species reference cards, some of the cultural uses are listed: canoe building and basket weaving feature prominently. This already provides a unique connection to place; on their website, the Suquamish tribe introduce themselves as “expert fisherman, canoe builders and basket weavers” (Suquamish Tribe, 2015). This is the identity they first relay to visitors, and one that many students have already been introduced to. To say “this is what the Suquamish used to make canoes and baskets” taps immediately into their understanding of native traditions.

The idea that people tended this land for livelihood before European settlers arrived is abstract for many students. While they may be taught the names of local tribes and heard some of the stories, touching a tree that contributed so heavily to their way of life provides a new experience. I taught a student that the Suquamish use the cedar bark for making clothing, and then heard them explain to a classmate that you can tell the bark is good for weaving because of the way it is stringy and long. The instructor provides one piece of information, and the student is able to gain a deeper understanding from interactions with the tree. The tree is telling the story of its cultural history by making itself so accessible to our young explorers.

A trend that students visiting IslandWood are quick to notice is that many of the red cedars are turning brown and losing leaves. This does not match well with what they have been taught about the definition of evergreen, and they struggle to reconcile reality and the trees. An investigation into why some red cedars are dying and others aren’t will lead students to the reality of climate change. The trees, so long-lived, cannot adapt the same way that other species can. When confronted with this reality, student groups come up with creative solutions, many offering to water the trees with their own drinking water. The trees, for those who listen, are sending out a plea and tell the story of human excess.

The red cedar also introduces students to the concept of sustainability and giving. Just as a dining hall might teach students to not waste food, the trees can show that wasting other resources is avoidable too. The roots, outer bark, inner bark, needles, and branches of trees all serve varied purposes, ensuring that none is discarded. The characteristic swooping lower branches of the tree, which resemble arms outstretched, relate to tradition. One Coast Salish tradition tells of the appearance of cedar tree at the spot when an incredibly selfless man died. IslandWood’s Great Hall has a cedar statue of Upper Skagit woman Vi Hilbert. The arms of the statue are similarly outstretched in welcome to those who enter the space for learning. The tree that gives its whole self to the people who need it sits with its branches outstretched as a welcome for more users.

When students learn the red cedar and later point it out on the trail, the swooping branches are most often cited as their point of identification. When asked what those branches remind them of, the first answer might be “the letter J,” but given some time, students arms will go out in an open gesture to mimic the tree. “It’s the tree of life,” they say, feeling connected to the history of that species.

The Douglas-fir tree, a mainstay of this ecosystem, is another favorite of students. While learning about the tree, students inevitably discover a cone on the ground, and pick it up, many questions having sprung forth in their minds. As trees that can grow over 300 feet tall with few lower branches, the opportunity to have a proxy for what goes on above our heads is incredible. The cones are unique to this tree, and tell a great story.

The cones have a two-tone property, as the seeds protrude beyond the scales of the cone. Tradition would tell that those lighter colored pieces are from a great fire that ravaged the land millennia ago. As the fire raged, animals fled, and the mouse ran to seek shelter. Unfortunately for the mouse, every tree it asked for help was worried for its own survival, unable to help the forest friend. When the mouse came upon the Douglas-fir, it opened up its cones and instructed entry; its lower branches would be above the heat of the fire, and its thick bark would protect it from the heat. The mouse and tree survived the fire, and the cones show a vestige of that encounter, as there appear to be little legs and a tail sticking out from every cone.

After hearing this story, students become experts on Douglas-fir identification. If their eyes are cast downwards, looking for signs of life on the trail, they see the cones and are reminded of the story they learned. If they are up, facing ahead and all around, they will see the thick bark that protected the tree. The stories reflect the nature again, and tree identification by means other than leaf recognition starts to be a possibility for students.

IslandWood property, once seized from the Suquamish, was the site of a major logging operation. Students see many trees and marvel at their size and age, but a hike to the harbor tells a different story of these trees. The trees that they have become familiar with are members of species that may live over one thousand years, but this space in particular is a reflection of its past. Blakely Harbor is the former site of what was “the largest, highest-producing sawmill in the world” (Bainbridge Historical Museum, n.d.).

The site at the harbor is unmistakably the vestiges of a former factory of some sort. Some students come in aware of the logging history of the area, and they are reminded of that history by the remnant logs that stick upright out of the harbor, former supports for the mill infrastructure. Some students surmise that the wood, decaying, waterlogged, and now home to aquatic plants, are a forest that has been cut down. When presented with the uniformity of the timber, especially as compared to the forests at main campus, they are eventually reminded of some man-made structures, and then the history of the logging operation can be explored.

To many of these students, IslandWood is the pinnacle of wild. Yet this adventure shows the proclivity of some humans to extract natural resources past their sustainable harvest. The trees that remind the students to be sustainable and giving are the same species that were extracted, sent into the mill and out to be shipped to other parts of the country and the world for human consumption. The Douglas-firs that protected the mice from the fire were cut down and extracted, providing little habitat for any animals.

The average age of street trees in Seattle is 3 years (Brinkley, 2018). Students may understand trees can live to be hundreds of years old, but learning that Douglas-firs can live to be over one thousand years old makes their eyes light up with wonder. Even the relatively young trees on campus have been present for decades, watching the landscape change with the inhabitants. Coming to an outdoor learning facility where the trees reach hundreds of feet in the sky can instill a feeling no book or photo could. Let the trees greet our students with arms and branches wide open.

Marlie Belle Somers is a graduate student in the Education for Environment and Community program at IslandWood, partnered with the University of Washington.















Remnants of the lumber mill docks at Blakely Harbor. Students use this as a clue while investigating what came before our campus stood on these grounds. Photo by Marlie Belle Somers.












Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. (n.d.). Port Blakely: Portrait of a Mill Town. Retrieved from
Brinkley, W. (2018, November 2). Urban Ecology. Lecture presented in Antioch University, Seattle.
Suquamish Tribe. (2015). History & Culture. Retrieved from

Immersive Storytelling

Immersive Storytelling: A Reminder to Read to Your Students Outside

By Hannah Levy

Sitting amongst towering cedars as the sun treated us to the last bits of golden hour, our final field study day was coming to a close. We had a hard week, for many of my students, this was their first encounter with nature and first time away from home. The group had been struggling to work cohesively and accessing their focused attention had proved incredibly difficult. I wanted so dearly for my students to experience a moment of wonder. To capture a sense of magic and connection to our surroundings, if only fleeting. I had planned to read them a book in a nearby treehouse, but looking around realized I had no better classroom at that moment than the forest floor on which we sat.

“This is the ancient forest. This is the three-hundred-year-old tree, that grows in the ancient forest…” I read softly. Immediately, one of the students looking back and forth from the picture in the book to the tree before them blurts out, “Is that the 300-year-old-tree?” As we make our way through the story, we continue making connections. One student sees the gnarled roots jutting out before them, and asks “Are these roots?” Another recognizes the red cap of the Pileated Woodpecker that graces the page, “That’s the woodpecker I saw!” A Barred Owl winds its way into the story, just like the one we saw together on our first day in the field. A resounding “whoaaa” and “there’s our owl” makes its rounds. And finally, the most captivated question of all as we end the story,“…is this the ancient forest?”

As an emerging educator, moments like these still feel like unprecedented breakthroughs. I said goodbye to my students that day and reflected on the simple and poignant impact of our storytelling session. All this time, I had been pouring over how to craft lesson plans that inspired authentic connection and here, right under my nose, was one of the simplest and most powerful tools of all: immersive storytelling. In just a few short minutes of read aloud time we had accessed our collective curiosity, practiced information recall, and made connections about an ecological system. In outdoor education, where students are often thrust into an entirely new context, the familiar structure of classroom storytelling time had proved incredibly effective.

Today, a Google search for “immersive storytelling” will return results about the latest VR headset or educational video game. While these resources provide essential access for many students, it is critical we not forget the power of a nearby park, backyard, front porch, or garden bed. In my own lesson planning, I consider immersive stories to be books that reflect the setting, observations, and lived experiences of my students. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being absorbed by a book, as if the world around you has melted away and only you and its characters exist in that moment. This is the intention of incorporating immersive stories into outdoor education, to rouse a sensitive connection to our place, our learning, and our peers.


Here are eight easy strategies to craft an immersive storytelling experience with your own students in an outdoor setting (many of these tips can easily be adapted for classroom learning):

  1. Story selection

Select your stories based on real-life encounters, using primacy of experience to your advantage. Earlier in the week, I had planned to read students a story written from the perspective of a tree. However, after seeing the owl, I decided to select a book that I knew would offer connections to our week. Consider keeping a list of “immersive friendly” stories that reflect the settings in which you teach and the experiences your students may have at your outdoor education program.


  1. Preview the book

Preview the book on your own ahead of time by reading aloud to yourself. This will help you deliver the story more confidently later on and better enable you to use your voice to cue student attention if you know which plot elements are coming. Previewing also ensures the plotline does not contain any content that might be triggering to students with known trauma.


  1. Scaffold student observations

Build up the magic by weaving time for students to notice their surroundings throughout the day, share their wonders, and make claims. Prompt students with questions that you know are later answered in the story. When I plan to read students The Ancient Forest I subtly introduce observations of tree snags with holes from the Pileated Woodpecker, visit with a taxidermy Barred Owl (if we don’t encounter one in real life), and invite students to search for macroinvertebrates in the soil. All of these elements later appear in the story and by scaffolding our week with interactions with real elements from the story I intentionally build a more immersive experience for all students.


  1. Location, location, location

Scope out your location. Meet the needs of your group by scouting a few locations ahead of time. Is the space accessible to all students? Do you need to make any accommodations to ensure everyone is able to engage? If feasible, always allow for free explore time at your location as a strategy to both incite curiosity and ease any fears or unfamiliarities your students may have with the space.


  1. Meeting student needs

Think about context, how have you built up the moment? Are students aware that they will be having quiet listening time? Have they had time to advocate or and meet any needs they might have? If snack, water, or bathroom breaks are even remotely on the horizon consider taking them before you begin in order to mitigate distractions and discomfort. Immersive storying telling is highly dependent on everyone being included and feeling engaged. Design your session to meet any needed accommodations for english language learners or students with accessibility needs.


  1. Use grounding techniques as you begin

Grounding activities prompt reorientation to a present moment, often using sensory awareness strategies to cope with overwhelming feelings, anxiety, or, in the case with many outdoor education students, nervousness in a new place with different educators. Awareness of our sensory experiences are also an avenue for deeper connections with our surrounding environment. There are a few easy grounding prompts as you can use as you prepare to read: practicing mindful breath, feeling the temperature and breeze on our face, running dirt through our fingers, or listening and counting the number of sounds. Allow ample time for students to downcycle and re-regulate their focus. Adapt your grounding prompts to fit the sensory abilities of your students.


  1. Pacing is your friend

While the number of seconds that pass may be just the same, novel experiences seemingly expand our perception of time. Use this to your advantage with students. If possible, pick a book they have not yet encountered. Go slow, do not rush as you read. Set a pace that allows for students to engage in their observational skills as they listen. Model a sensory moment for them, for example, with my students we looked up into the trees, put our ears to the ground to listen for bugs, and felt the roots that surrounded our feet.


  1. Welcome questions and collaboration

Welcome questions from your students. Part of the immersive storytelling experience is to allow students to make. Field questions as you read without delving too deep into tangents. Use the characters and plotline of the story as opportunity for students to make science and real-life connections. If your group is comfortable reading aloud, consider using a pass and read style of read aloud to engage students further.




Booth Church, Ellen. “Teaching Techniques: Reading Aloud Artfully!” Scholastic Teachers, Scholastic, 2018,

“Grounding Techniques.” Prince Edward Island Rape and Sexual Assault Center, PEIRSAC, 2018,

Lindamood, Wesley. “Take Our Playbook: NPR’s Guide to Building Immersive Storytelling Projects.” NPR Training, National Public Radio, 25 June 2018,

Paul, Pamela, and Maria Russo. “How to Raise a Reader.” The New York Times Books, The NY Times,

Reed-Jones, Carol. The Tree in the Ancient Forest. DAWN Publications, 1995.

What Is Sensory Awareness. Sensory Awareness Foundation, 2018,


Hannah Levy is a graduate student at the University of Washington, completing her Certificate in Education for Environment and Community at Islandwood.

EE Research: Storytelling as a Tool for Young Learners

EE Research: Storytelling as a Tool for Young Learners

Using storytelling is the best way to engage very young students

from EE Research Bulletin
Nicole Ardoin, Editor

Research suggests that lasting attitudes toward nature and the environment form in the first few years of a child’s life; thus, instilling environmental awareness in very young children represents a key challenge and an exciting opportunity for environmental educators. Although firsthand experiences in nature in early childhood have been shown to contribute to environmental awareness, educators working in urban areas may find it difficult to arrange such experiences. In these circumstances, fictional or non-fictional narratives about nature and the environment may offer an alternate means of exposing young children to environmental subjects.

To investigate the effectiveness of storytelling as an environmental education tool, the authors of this study developed a short, fictional, preschool-level story about deforestation. The authors structured the story around the “binary opposite” concepts of security and insecurity (i.e., trees provide security, while deforestation leads to insecurity). Prior research has shown that this type of simple dichotomy, especially when paired with other narrative tools such as mystery, imagery, morals, and metaphor, can effectively capture the attention of very young children and help them construct meaning from new experiences.

In addition to the story, the authors designed a second lesson to present the same ideas in a more traditional expository format. Both the story and the expository lesson included information about important environmental regulation functions that trees perform, such as oxygen production, flood control, and air filtration.

The study took place in Southeastern Europe, a region heavily affected by deforestation. A total of 79 students from eight urban preschools with attendance from predominantly middle-class families, participated in the story-based lesson, while a control group of 80 students from the same schools received the expository lesson. Researchers assessed all students’ ideas about the importance of trees, and level of interest in tree planting as a free-time activity, prior to the lessons. A second assessment took place one week after the lessons, and a third followed about two months later.

In reviewing the assessment results, the authors found that students in the storytelling group demonstrated significantly better recall of key ideas from the lesson. One week after the lessons, when asked to explain why trees are important to humans, students in the story group focused almost exclusively on environmental regulation functions. Students in the expository group mentioned fewer regulation functions, and many students also mentioned raw material functions such as making furniture or paper. The differences between the two groups became even more pronounced eight weeks after the lesson, suggesting that the storytelling approach also improved long-term retention of the lesson material.

Both lessons increased students’ interest in tree planting as a free-time activity. Prior to the lessons, only a few students in each group chose planting trees in their hometown when asked to select two free-time activities from a list of seven options. In post-lesson assessments, over half of the students in the storytelling group and about one-third of those in the expository group selected tree planting. The authors surmise that the students gained new interest in planting trees as a result of learning about trees’ ecosystem functions and role in supporting human life. Students in the story group, who demonstrated a more significant knowledge benefit from the lesson, also exhibited a greater awareness of deforestation as a problem and a stronger motivation to act.

Despite the effectiveness of the storytelling approach, presenting very young children with vivid narratives about environmental problems does raise ethical issues.
As the authors note, stories that evoke powerful anxiety are usually inappropriate for young children. Children exposed to these narratives could develop negative feelings about the environment in general, and a desire to disengage from the natural world.

However, shielding children from environmental problems is both inappropriate and impractical. Societies will need long-term engagement from their youngest members to address these issues. And in many parts of the world, even the youngest children already have firsthand experience with the consequences of environmental degradation.
Given these observations, the authors conclude that stories designed to communicate both knowledge and hope can give young children a healthy awareness of environmental problems and help them contribute to long-term solutions.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Presenting information about an environmental problem in the form of narrative (fiction or non-fiction) may help raise environmental awareness among very young students. In this empirical study, students who participated in a story-based lesson about deforestation retained more key ideas about the problem, and demonstrated higher motivation to contribute to solutions, than did students who participated in a content-equivalent expository lesson. Stories aimed at young students should be structured around “binary opposite” concepts (such as security in a healthy environment versus insecurity in an unhealthy environment) and should include vivid imagery as well as elements of mystery and wonder. For young students in particular stories abut environmental problems should emphasize solutions and hope.

Earth Tales and Activities

Earth Tales and Activities

The Power of Storytelling:

Earth Tales and Activities


Clearing Ad @ Reviews

Show the Way for Living in Balance

by Michael J. Caduto
©2014 All Rights Reserved

From Siberia to the tip of South America, and from Africa to Polynesia, stories have grown from the very Earth upon which they were first told. Through these tales, the natural world speaks to the people who walk upon it and who use it to stay alive. But stories have wings, too, which loft them upon the winds of our imaginations.

Traditional tales contain the wisdom that countless generations have harvested by living close to the land, growing their own food and making the things they needed with their own hands. In order to live, they had to take care of the soil, the water, the plants and the animals. As the stories show, people eventually learned that the harm they caused the world around them would one day come knocking on their own door. The care they showed would be returned in kind with food, clean air and water, and materials with which to fashion tools and other necessities. In this way, stories are a kind of medicine, a way of healing the wounds of life.

In many stories it is clear that traditional cultures believe that all of nature is alive: those things that move, and those that do not. There is a breath of life in a tree, a hawk and the long wind that blows across open places and gently bends blades of grass. A spirit lives in the shadow that grows between the hills as the sun sets, in the rocks of the hills themselves, in the moon that rises into a starry sky, in the sweet smell of a flower and in the joy of a newborn fawn. Over and over in the old tales we read of the common faith in a benevolent, unseen Creator of the wonders that surround us. Like the natural world, stories are sacred and are treated with respect and reverence.

We All Have Native Roots

No matter what culture, or cultures, our ancestors come from, traditional stories can help us trace our roots back to their source. We all have ancestral ties to Native peoples who lived close to Earth. Their wisdom lies deep in our memories. One common thread that runs through the stories is the belief that we are a part of nature, and that the community of people and the natural world depends upon a mutual, respectful relationship. Although we cannot help but change our environment as we live in it and use its resources to keep us alive, we can do everything possible to have a positive impact and nurture the natural world.

Besides entertaining and helping to teach moral lessons, stories help to explain the natural world; they carry on our spiritual beliefs, our artistic traditions and the particular ways we use language. The wisdom of Earth stories is both a link to our past, and a lifeline to the beautiful, healthy Earth we want to leave as a legacy for future generations.

Earth Tales and Activities

In this section I present “The Wisdom of Nature,” an original retelling of a traditional Swahili story from Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar in eastern Africa. The story is adapted from my book Earth Tales from Around the World and it appears on my storytelling CD, The Wisdom of Nature and Other Earth Tales. The accompanying activities are designed for children of ages 5 to 12. As with all stories in Earth Tales, the activities suggested in the back of the book can be created and adapted to suit the home environment of the intended audience. These particular activities are oriented to the plants and animals of North America and are adapted from the book Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children.

Transition design

This introduction and story, “The Wisdom of Nature,” are used with permission from Earth Tales from Around the World, ©1997 by Michael J. Caduto (Golden Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing). The story also appears with permission from the storytelling CD: The Wisdom of Nature and Other Earth Tales, ©2014 by Michael J. Caduto (Luna Blu®). The activities, ©1991 by Michael J. Caduto, are adapted with permission from Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children, by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac (Fulcrum Publishing). The illustration by Adelaide Murphy Tyrol is used with permission. Activities may be used only as needed for normal classroom use. Written permission is required from the author to copy this story and introduction in any form from: Michael Caduto, P.O. Box 1052, Norwich, VT 05055, USA. Phone: (802) 649-1815. Copies of these books and information on related books, music and programs can be obtained at the P.E.A.C.E.® website:


The Wisdom of Nature
Swahili (Tanzania)

©2014 by Michael J. Caduto
All Rights Reserved


Wisdom of Nature illustration by Adelaide TyrolIn the thick brush at the edge of the hill country lived a magnificent snake. Its eyes blazed and the scales that covered its skin were as hard and strong as any shield. Venom flowed from its long, curved fangs. In the moment of its hunger, this huge, powerful snake devoured any wild animal it desired.

One day, the snake sat sunning itself in a small clearing. Being close to the ground, the snake sensed a roar in the distance. Its tongue picked up a strong scent. Upwind, some young hunters were burning the brush to drive the game animals into the open. Crackling flames rushed toward the snake

As it searched for refuge, the snake slithered out of the low brush and into the open along the border of a farmer’s fields.

“Please help me hide,” asked the snake. “The hunters are coming. They will kill me.”

When he saw the snake, the farmer was afraid.

“Do not fear me,” the snake called out to the farmer. “I will not harm you.”

The kindhearted farmer took pity on the snake, as he did on all animals that were in need of help.

“Quickly,” said the farmer as he opened the mouth of a large, empty grain bag, “crawl into this sack. The hunters will never think to look for you here.”

As soon as the tip of the snake’s tail disappeared into the mouth of the bag, some hunters approached. They were following the faint trail left by the snake’s belly as it slid along the ground.

“Have you seen a large snake come this way?” they asked the farmer.

“No,” he replied. “I have been working here all morning and have seen no sign of a snake. You must be reading an old trail.”

“Thank you,” said the hunters, and they walked on. When they were a safe distance away, the farmer opened the grain bag and whispered, “Come out, the danger has passed.”

The snake crept out of the sack, threw its coils around the farmer and held him fast.

“Let me go!” screamed the farmer. “I have just saved your life!”

“That is true,” replied the snake. “But I have not eaten for many days. You will make a good meal.”

“Then you will not let me go?” asked the farmer.

“No, I am starving.”

“Before you eat me,” said the farmer, “you could at least repay me for saving your life.”

“That is only fair,” said the snake. “I agree. Now what do you desire?”

“Let us have others decide whether you should eat me.”

“If that is your wish, so be it,” agreed the snake.

The snake followed the farmer to the edge of the field where a coconut palm tree had been planted. The tree listened carefully as each of them told his side of the story.

“Well,” replied the coconut palm, “I know the nature of human beings. They eat my nuts and drink the sweet milk inside. Some even use my leaves to thatch their roofs. Why should I save a human being? I say the snake should have its meal.”

“Let us ask the bee,” said the farmer.

“As you wish,” replied the snake.

“You must be joking!” replied the bee. “Human beings smoke us out of our homes and steal our honey. They never give us thanks. I have no compassion for the farmer.”

“Perhaps the mango tree down by the road will understand my plight,” thought the farmer. “Snake, let us go ask the mango to give us its judgment.”

“Lead on,” replied the snake.

Once it had listened to their stories, the mango tree spoke. “Year after year I stand here as generations of human beings pass by. They cool themselves in the shade of my branches and eat my fruit when they are hungry. Some break off my branches for firewood or to use as the shafts of spears for hunting the wild animals. Not once has a human being thanked me. Farmer, I see no reason why the snake should not eat you.”

“How could this be?” exclaimed the farmer. “Why should my life be such a trifle in the eyes of nature?”

At that moment, the farmer spotted a gazelle grazing along the riverbank. To the gazelle the farmer now pleaded his case.

In response to his story, the gazelle told a tale of its own. “I am often the difference between life and death for the human beings. Without my meat, they would starve and perish. Because I am so generous, people take me for granted. Your life, farmer, belongs to the snake.”

A baboon was listening from where it sat on the branch of a nearby tree.

“Every creature does what it must in order to survive,” said the baboon. That is the way of nature.”

“But what of the snake?” asked the farmer.

“One cannot blame the snake for its hunger,” replied the baboon. “Like you, the snake is part of the balance that exists in the world.”


                                                A snake is meant to eat its prey,

                                                it catches as it can.

                                                Its food will try to get away,

                                                escape’s the way of man.


“What, then, do you have to say about whether or not I should eat the farmer?” asked the snake.

“First, you must show me exactly how it happened,” said the baboon. “That sack does not look big enough to hold a snake as magnificent as yourself.”

The farmer then opened the bag and the snake crawled in.

“Are you able to close bag with the snake inside?” asked the baboon.

“Yes,” replied the farmer as he drew the cord tight and tied it securely.

“Now, farmer, we will see what you have learned,” said the baboon. “Once again, the fate of the snake is in your hands. Now what are you going to do about it, hmmm?”



Prey, Tell Me

            “Every creature does what it must in order to survive,” said the baboon in this story. “That is the way of nature.” Indeed, each plant and animal has specific adaptations, physical (genetic) traits and behaviors that better enable it to survive and reproduce in its particular environment. Among animals, many survival adaptations relate to eating or being eaten.

Activity: Solve some riddles that describe the survival adaptations of some prey animals by guessing the animal’s identity.

Goals: Understand what a survival adaptation is and learn some defenses of certain prey animals.

Level: Ages 5 to 12

Materials: Riddles and kids.

Procedure: Discuss the meaning of interrelationships and give examples of different kinds of animal relationships. Be sure to include examples of animals that have both positive and negative effects on each other. Ask the children to think of their own examples.

Define and discuss the concept of survival adaptation with the children. Have them call out some examples of offensive adaptation of predators and defensive adaptations of prey animals.

Now tell them they are going to hear some riddles which describe some adaptations of animals that are often hunted as prey. With older children, have them come up and take turns reading the riddles. You will need to do the reading for young children. The riddles vary from easy to challenging.



  • My home is a burrow in the ground. I only come out at night when it is cool and damp and when I am not likely to be seen. Lots of animals, especially early birds, love to eat me, but I can scoot down my burrow quickly if someone tries to grab me, and I am very sensitive to vibrations in the ground. Don’t fish around too long for the answers?

I am a (worm).


  • I am a great swimmer from the minute I am born, I float almost as well as a cork. If something comes after me I use my webbed feet and tiny wings to skate quickly away over the water. The predators who spot me and try to attack from below see down when they look up. You may see me eating plants or fish.

I am a (duckling).


  • My long ears, keen hearing and sensitive nose help me to detect danger from far off. I can make a fast getaway if spotted. Still, I come out from sunset to sunrise with darkness as my cover. I have a habit of twitching my nose. My tail is short and my feet are lucky.

I am a (rabbit).


  • I sing my song when summertime is aging and autumn is on the way. I don’t sing with my voice though. Some people know I wing it. My long antennae help me to sense when danger is around. Still, my kind often become lunch for birds, shrews and even tiny snakes. I might live under a rock or spend my time in a clump of grass.

I am a (cricket).


  • You know me well around your garden. My skin is bumpy and bad to taste. I eat ants and flies with a long, sticky tongue. When you pick me up I release the contents of my bladder to startle you into putting me down.

I am a (toad)?


  • My skin of scales is a good hint. I am small and quick with a colorful tail. When a predator comes and grabs at the tip, I snap it off like the flick of a whip.

I am a (skink).


Adapt and Survive

Adapting is not simply a matter of following a pre-determined program of adaptations like a robot. Many times, like the human being in this story, the animal that survives is one that can learn from its environment and make choices based on individual situations. For animals, threats can come from both the natural world and from the actions of human beings.

Activity: Play a game of choices to see if you are as adaptable as the coyote—to see if you can adapt to survive in a changing world.

Goals: Understand that change—both natural and human-made—is a normal part of an animal’s existence, and that adapting to change is necessary to survive.

Level: Ages 9 to 12

Materials: Copy or copies of “Coyote’s Choice: Adapt and Survive,” other materials as needed depending upon the format you use for this activity, such as a game for each child to play individually (one copy for each child), or a course that children will walk through while making the decisions (index cards, each with one of the numbered situations set up as separate stations and any props you may want to add to create a more life-like course for the children to experience).

Procedure: Discuss the adaptability of coyotes, how they have expanded their range in recent years and the many changes which are constantly occurring around them to threaten their existence. These changes can be natural, such as floods, fire created by lightning, drought or a food shortage. Change can also be caused by people, for example, clear cutting a forest, damming a river or setting out traps or poisoned bait to kill animals. Coyotes are experts at adapting to change, moving to a new habitat when they need to or sensing danger when it is near and avoiding it, even if it means turning away from food that looks suspicious when they are hungry. They do not always make the right choice, however, and cannot always adapt successfully. Sometimes they survive, sometimes they do not.

Have each child read the following story, making choices along the way as they think a coyote might make. Even if a child makes the wrong survival choice at a certain point in the story, he or she is to continue on to the next station, and so on, until reaching the end of the story. When all of the children are through, have them share their choices, adaptations and experiences. How many of them honestly made all of the right choices and were able to make the necessary changes to survive each time? Which choices made it most difficult to make the right survival decisions? Which choices were the easiest?

Note: This activity can also be set up as a fun series of stations in which the initial situation is described and illustrated and children must choose one course or another by turning over a card or lifting up a flap to reveal the consequences of their decision. Then they can move on to the next station to test their wits there.



  1. You are a tiny coyote pup and your mother has gone off to hunt for food. While you wait in the burrow a strange piece of thin wire on the end of a stick is pushed toward you from the door of your den. You see it coming and are afraid of it so you:

a.      cower back against the wall of the burrow to escape.

b.      attack the wire by biting it.


•      If you chose (a) you survived.

•      If you chose (b) you were snared and taken away by a hunter.


  1. You are now old enough to do some hunting on your own. There, up ahead, you see a dead animal that looks like it is more than big enough for a whole meal. When you get closer you see some strange tracks in the soil and smell an animal you have never smelled before. You are very hungry, but afraid to go closer to the dead animal. After watching a while and looking for signs of danger you decide to:

a.      eat the meat of the animal.

b.      turn away and search for another meal.


•      If you chose (a) the meat was a poisoned trap set by a farmer and you are a goner.

•      If you chose (b) you survived.


  1. It has not rained for a long time, the plants are dying and animals are becoming scarce. You are very weak, yet you feel an urge to travel to look for food. You begin to walk away from your burrow but you find it hard to walk. You decide to

a.      push ahead and look for water and food elsewhere even though it means risking using up your last energy.

b.      return to the burrow and wait for the rain and food to return.


•      If you chose (a) you survived.

•      If you chose (b) starvation set in and you became too weak to leave your burrow. You did not survive.


  1. You come to a place where people are living because you know there is usually some food nearby. There is a place up ahead where the smell of food is strong, yet danger is very near and threatening. As night slowly advances with the setting sun, you decide to

a.      sneak in and eat as much of the food as you can under the cover of darkness.

b.      turn around and seek food elsewhere.


•      If you chose (a) you were able to eat safely while protected by the darkness. You survived.

•      If you chose (b) your last strength was used when searching for food in another spot. You did not survive.


  1. With your strength restored you travel a short distance seeking shelter—a place to sleep and digest your meal. There is a strange burrow above ground up ahead. It is large and the morning sun shines off the strange smooth skin into your eyes. You climb up into it and try walking through the place that looks like the entrance, but you bump into something you cannot see. Finally you find an opening in the skin on the side and walk in, only to find many strange smells meet your nostrils. You sniff a few times and suddenly feel very tired. You decide to:

a.      lie down and sleep here.

b.      move on to look for a safer place.


•      If you chose (a) you slept in an old abandoned car and made it your temporary shelter. You survived.

•      If you chose (b) you found a large hollow tree to rest in and slept safely all day. You survived.


  1. When you wake up the sun is setting and you are hungry again, but not starving like before. You leave your burrow and walk until you come to the edge of the woods. You see a field with some furry animals in it eating the plants, but you are not sure it is safe to enter the field or whether those animals are food or not. As you move closer you notice a freshly-killed rabbit in front of you. There are those strange tracks around it, like the ones you saw near that dead animal with the strange smell some time ago. But this meat smells good as you approach it and your hunger deepens. Then, as you move even closer, you notice something sticking out of the ground near the rabbit. It looks like it has large teeth and is made of the strange skin of that burrow with the smooth shiny skin. You look all around one more time to make sure that none of the dangerous animals who walk on two feet are around, then you

a.      pounce on the rabbit.

b.      run off into the underbrush, sensing danger.


  • If you chose (a) you felt a sharp, cold pain climb up your leg from one of your feet. Your foot is in a steel trap and there is no way out.

You did not survive.

  • If you chose (b) you survived.


  1. If you have successfully survived by making all of the right choices so far, you will now raise a new coyote family. On the way back to your burrow you meet a coyote and decide to take her or him as a mate. Soon, the next generation of coyotes is born and you have pups of your own to feed.


Living In Balance: The Circle of Giving and Receiving

In “The Wisdom of Nature” the bee and the mango tree complain that the human beings take what they need but never give thanks. The gazelle says that its meat keeps the human beings alive, but that the human beings take it for granted. Many Native peoples see reciprocity—the Circle of Giving and Receiving—as essential to living in balance with nature.

Activity:(A) Make a list of all the gifts we receive from plants and animals. Practice

using only what is needed and giving thanks when receiving each of these gifts. (B) Create a special gift to return the generosity of the plants and animals.

Goals: Understand how numerous and varied are the gifts we receive from plants and animals. Realize that living in balance involves using only what is needed, not being wasteful and giving thanks to complete the circle of giving and receiving.

Level: Ages 5 to 12

Materials: (A) chalkboard and chalk or felt-tipped markers and newsprint, masking tape. (B) same materials as in (A) plus: pencils, paper, crayons, construction paper, scissors, glue, tape, very large sheet of paper such as brown postal wrapping paper, pictures or photographs of plants and animals as models for the children’s drawings, other materials as needed to complete children’s own, original projects.

Procedure A: Opening the Circle—Receiving. Use the children’s ideas and your own thoughts to make a list of the gifts we receive from plants and animals. Brainstorm a list of plants and animals that help to bring the gifts to us. Have the children go through an entire day by saying “thank you” to a plant or animal, or plants and animals in general, each time one of these gifts is used, eaten, worn, etc. An example is “Thank you honeybee” for honey and beeswax (a common ingredient in lip balm).

Encourage the children to be especially careful to use these gifts wisely—to take only what they need and not be wasteful.

Procedure B: Completing the Circle—Giving Back. Now tell the children how this story of “The Wisdom of Nature” reminds us that the plants and animals give us many wonderful gifts, and that living in balance means, in part, to return the gifts we receive by giving something of ourselves back. Ask the children to call out ways they may do this and write them down for all to see. Save them for use later.

Have each of the children write, in his or her own words, a poem or other form of saying “thank you” to the plants and animals. Children may draw a picture to depict a feeling of gratitude. Very young children may need pictures or photographs of the plants and animals to help them visualize the images for their drawings.

Create, on a large sheet of paper, an outline of a coconut palm, mango or other chosen tree, such as an apple tree. Have each child write or place her or his form of

“thank you” inside this outline. Pictures may be cut out and glued or taped on. The tree could even be entirely filled with pictures or illustrations to form a collage.

Follow through by having the children add other ways of giving thanks to the plants and animals as they think of them.



Michael J. Caduto is the creator and co-author (with Joseph Bruchac) of the best-selling Keepers of the Earth® series of books and resources. He recently released two new storytelling CD’s of stories from around the world: The Rainbow Garden—Tales of Wisdom (ages 5-10) and The Wisdom of Nature and other Earth Tales (ages 11 and up). Michael travels widely as an award-winning author, master storyteller, ecologist, educator, poet and musician. His work draws from the global well of Earth wisdom and he has worked closely with many Native peoples. His most recent books, Catch the Wind, Harness the Sun: 22 Super-Charged Science Projects for Kids and Riparia’s River received the Teacher’s Choice Award and Green Earth Honor Book Award.