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Teaching with Nature

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cites many studies that show how important it is for children to connect with nature. Recent studies show:
  • Children spend an average of 6.5 hours per day with television, computers, and video games. In fact, a child is six times more likely to play a video game than ride a bike.
  • Children in outdoor education settings show improvement in self-esteem, problem solving, and motivation.
  • Children in school yards with both green areas and human-made play areas engage in more creative forms of play and play in groups more cooperatively.
  • Outdoor experiences help reduce negative stress and protect psychological wellbeing.


To include outdoor learning throughout the school year in order to help students appreciate nature while they improve science, math, language arts, and social science skills.


  • Outdoor space
  • Chart paper and markers
  • Construction paper and crayons or markers


Nature is everywhere, even in your own school yard. But if possible, it's great to expand the natural environment with fieldtrips to nearby parks or nature preserves.


  1. Begin your activity indoors to help your students focus on the specific concepts or skills you would like to address in your time outdoors. Students could:
    • Close their eyes and visualize what they might see.
    • Brainstorm a list of items to look for.
    • Read a story about a child exploring nature or about things you’re going to explore outside.
    • Take a bag with them to gather leaves, pebbles, etc.
    • Use a checklist and mark off specific items.
    • Make a construction paper journal to record what they see.
    • Follow a specific handout’s directions for finding, counting, classifying, etc.

  2. Set specific rules of conduct in order to keep everyone safe, together, and on the track to learning specific concepts while outdoors. For example:
    • Stay with your partner.
    • Always listen for direction.
    • Talk and walk quietly so you don't scare away the animals.
    • Ask before you pick up things we haven’t talked about in class.

    Rules will change, depending on the outcomes you want.

  3. Choose what works for you and expand upon the following curriculum concepts and activity suggestions:

    Mathematics and Nature
    Have students:
    • Count and sort natural objects such as rocks, nuts, and pinecones by different characteristics, such as size, shape, and color. Graph the numbers. Or, count the number of trees in the school yard. Are there more or fewer in the park?
    • Measure and compare the length of shadows, the height of grass, or the width of flowers.
    • Find out how many…
      Estimate the number of children holding hands that it takes to reach around the big oak tree; the number of steps it takes to climb to the very top of the hill; the number of cartwheels you can do before you reach the end of the school yard; or, the number of pieces of gravel it takes to cover the bottom of the flower pot. Compare estimates to the actual number. What if the children's arms and legs were longer or the pieces of gravel were larger?
    • What shapes can you find in nature—round leaves, triangular leaves, spherical flowers, umbrella trees? What shapes do we trim our bushes into—ovals, rectangles, squares?
    • Find the patterns in nature—untold pieces of grass in horizontal rows, leaves growing symmetrically on flowers or twigs growing on trees, veins in leaves or petals on flowers.

    Language Arts and Nature
    Have students:
    • Play "I Spy" based on colors of natural objects.
    • Find natural objects that begin with the first letter sound of a child’s name or the first letter sound of each of the letters of the alphabet.
    • Gather natural objects and bring them into the classroom to:
      —Write a rebus-like class story.
      —Look them up in nature books and identify them by matching them to the pictures in the books.
      —Create "rock monsters" or "flower people" and tell stories about these imaginary creatures.
    • Read books about nature, natural objects, or living animals and plants. Then, go outside to find things that were in the book.

    Science and Nature
    Have students:
    • Classify the sounds they hear as natural or human-made.
    • Draw a circle on the ground and list all of the natural or human-made objects within the circle—even the ant that crawls in and out of the circle. Compare these objects from different areas in the school yard. Are there more living things further away from the playground? Are some areas of the school yard wetter than others? How does that change what you find in the circle?
    • Follow animal tracks.
    • Plant a class garden and keep a journal of how things grow. Compare the growth to the weather and/or the amount of water used in the garden.
    • Observe the sky and clouds and track the observations as they track the weather. Discover a pattern—cloudy days may bring rain but warmer temperatures, etc.
    • Put out a bird feeder and monitor the numbers and types of birds the class observes. Create a graph to illustrate the findings.

    Social Studies and Nature
    Have students:
    • Work together to create a class garden. Encourage other classes to plant their own plots.
    • Make a map of the school yard or a natural area, including natural objects and natural features of the land.
    • Complete a population study—every morning at the same time go out to the same place and describe the types and numbers of animals found there. Over time, how do the observations change? What are the differences if you change your area of observation? Why?
    • Take field trips to nearby community green spaces. Make a neighborhood map with these green spaces highlighted.
    • Visit a vegetable garden in the neighborhood and discuss the differences that growing your own food makes. Do you eat better? Does it taste better? Does it help the environment? Can you save money?

    Optional: For Older Students
    • Have the students select and carryout a green project—build a school-yard habitat, plant and maintain a flower garden to beautify the school, lead a school-yard cleanup campaign. Students can create posters to promote their projects and invite other classes to participate.


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Updated on 3/21/2012