Outdoor Education Cookbook: A school community is more than people (Identifying ALL LIFE on campus)

Recently someone reached out to me and asked me for ideas on how they could connect outdoor learning with a community-based unit of inquiry. Many schools start year off by working towards building community within a class of school.

Across early years and through elementary and even older grades, there are fairly standard activities teachers do in order to instill a sense of community within the school. 

Years ago, as a second grade teacher, I remember having my students interview non-teaching staff at our school and then present them to their classmates. That way they could understand that a school is a lot more than teachers and students. There are other important people in the building who we depend on every day.

For those of you who may be new to the concepts of outdoor learning or education, you need to start thinking a little bit differently than you may have in the past. You need to take the time to not only look at the natural world outside the building, but soak it in and think in a new way. 

Put on your Nature GOOGLES think about the natural areas around your school. These are places that children naturally gravitate towards. These are areas where inquiry happens more naturally than in any other place in the school. 

What kid doesn’t love watching ants crawl up a tree? Who doesn’t love watching a butterfly flutter on some flowers next to the playground? This is part of the school community.

The way I see it is that the school community is not teachers, students, support staff or administrators. 

Your school community should include all life. The maple trees around the campus. The bees that forage on the school flowerbed. The dandelions that appear in Spring and the cosmos that bloom, signaling the beginning of Autumn. 

Give your students the opportunity to learn about this wider community.

A great way to do that is by using quadrats. That is a way that researchers map out the different forms of life in a spot outdoors. 

Have your students brainstorm all of the forms of life they think are outdoors. Next, have them record their ideas.

Then using something as simple as a hula hoop or a one meter, by one meter square using string or sticks, mark off areas of the school yard. Have small groups of students really look at what is on the inside of that square or circle. 

Ask students to document every living thing within that area. Record their information using paper to write names of plants and animals, draw pictures and more. 

Of course, most of us are not biologists or ecologists so the students and teachers may not know what they are looking at.This is where technology comes into play. 

Before starting this project, make a class iNaturalist account. This is a brilliant citizen science app that catalogues and identifies bugs, birds, plants, flowers, etc. Then, bring some class iPads or your own phone and take photos of all the different flowers, plants, insects and birds you see. Later on, load them into iNaturalist. The app will help identify the various forms of life and the list can begin. 

How many forms of life are there in the outdoor spaces of your school community? What kind of diversity did you find? What can we do to attract more biodiversity? 

A thousand other projects and ideas can be generated from this stage! The only thing limiting you is your imagination. 

Deeper connections will be made between your students and their understanding of what a community can look like. They will also be happy to be outdoors doing all of this cool science. 

Outdoor learning can be connected to basically anything you can do in the classroom.

Get outdoors today!

About the Podcaster/Writer:

Kevin O’Shea is a PYP/Nature/Outdoor educator currently based in Shenzhen, China (currently in Japan). He is a father, husband, and avid naturalist. Kevin is an advocate for outdoor play and nature education.  He was the host of the long-running Just Japan Podcastand the  Making Better Teachers Podcast!

Twitter: @MadForMaple

Instagram: @shizenwildlife

Facebook: Making Better Teachers

Email: makingbetterteachers@gmail.com

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