When I was in high school, my biology teacher, Mr. Johnson, had us sit outside in the middle of a meadow by a creek that ran by our classroom. He made us listen in silence, observe with our senses, and challenged us to expand our consciousness. I still remember the overcast day, the sounds of the birds, and the presence of everything around me. Then, Mr. Johnson talked about appreciating all the details that made up the big picture. I experienced being connected as a small component of the world — something that you can’t be told — only felt.
Nature walks are interactive experiences that help connect students to their world beyond their classrooms and homes in mindful ways that connect to the science and engineering practices of investigation and communication. These walks don’t necessarily have to be out in nature — they can be done just around your school to get students to pay attention to the environment around them, which sharpens their skills for observation and awareness.
Autumn is a perfect time for a nature walk, and we’re giving nature walks a STEM makeover! In this blog, you’ll find supply lists and activity ideas based on grade levels, so you can adapt them to your classroom. We’ll also share a free PDF reference sheet that you can use to align your nature walk with the Next Generation Science Standards.
You may want to wait until the leaves have started to change and fallen to the ground if the leaves change in your area. Or, you can do two nature walks — one before the leaves change, and one after. This will give students the chance to compare and contrast the difference between two seasons, and to collect a variety of scientific “samples,” including leaves that have fully changed colors, some that may still be green, and some that may have partially changed.
- Clipboard (optional, but helpful) for note-taking
- 1 sandwich bag for each student
2nd-5th Grade Supplies
- Small Notepads or clipboard and T-chart for each student
- Pens/Pencils for each student
- 1-3 snack/sandwich size baggies for each student
Before the Nature Walk – Go Over Procedures
Tell students that they will be going on a nature walk to make observations around nature and their environment. As scientists, they will be studying nature, the weather, and the environment around them. Do not mention the seasons, components in nature, ecological vocabulary, etc. Instead, tell them where you are walking, and what they should (and should not) be doing on the walk. As an exploratory activity, you want to listen for what students already know (learning about their prior experiences) without giving them too much — let them teach each other!
Here’s an example of what you could say before the nature walk:
Scientists study the world around them by gathering information through their senses and combining it with what they already know. Today, we’re going on a nature walk around the school (or wherever you are going). I want you to observe with your eyes, ears, nose, and touch. Talk with people around you about what you’re seeing and noticing in your environment. Think about these questions:
- What do you see?
- What do you hear?
- What do you smell?
- What do you feel?
- What are you thinking?
You will collect samples from your walk to take back to class. However, don’t pull anything off the trees, plants, or flowers. These are living things, and we don’t want to hurt them. As scientists, we do our best to improve the environment we live it, or at least, do no harm. If you are not sure whether you can take something, please ask.
Give each child a baggie so that they can collect samples on their walk. Since many students in Kindergarten and 1st grade cannot write down their observations yet, you can show them that you are bringing out a clipboard or notebook to write down their observations.
Give each student their “kit” for the walk: A notepad and/or clipboard with paper, pencil, and baggies for collecting samples. Explain beforehand that you would like your students to write down their observations during the nature walk and collect samples.
During the Nature Walk
Ask open-ended questions to get students thinking about the weather and seasonal changes around them. Use these questions to get them to say more about what they’re seeing and thinking, while encouraging them to add details to their observations. Here are some examples:
- Tell me about the weather today?
- What does the weather feel like, to you?
- What does it look like to you?
- Is the weather always like this? Why or why not?
- Can you tell me more about the tree?
- What colors do you see?
- What color do you think leaves usually are? Are the leaves around us that color?
- What do you think this (point to whatever object they are seeing) is?
- Can you describe what you’re seeing? What do you notice?
- What do you hear?
For kindergarten and 1st grade, write down the observations your students make about the weather, changes in season, animals and insects that they see, etc. For 2nd to 5th grade, encourage students to write down their observations on their T-charts or notebooks.
As the teacher, pay attention to the words that they already know and are using. You’ll want to build on these words by bringing in the people who mentioned them. For instance, “Sami, you said that the leaf is orange. Is orange the only color you see? Are all the leaves orange? Does this tree always have leaves this color?”
On the nature walk, ask guiding questions rather than telling your students. Then use your students’ answers as stems for discussion.
Have students collect leaves, grass clippings, rocks and sticks in their bags.
Back in the Classroom
Once you’ve returned to the classroom, write all of your students’ observations on the board and discuss them as a class. Have students share their comments on the observations by raising their hand, and additional notes depending on what the students share.
Then have your students show and talk about their field samples. If you have a class that is still working on sorting, you may want to pre-determine what categories you have (plants/rocks/other/etc). If you have a class that is good at sorting, discuss the differences between some of the samples they collected and have them create different sorting categories.
Also, have students take pictures or draw pictures of the nature they saw during their walk.
Afterward, have students reflect on their experience with questions like:
- What did you learn during your nature walk?
- How is this walk different from some of your outside experiences during the summer?
- Do you think that things will look the same later on in the year? Why or why not?
Once you’ve returned to the classroom, there are several ways to have students discuss their observations:
- Discuss as a whole group by having the students share one observation they’ve made, and compile these observations on the board or a poster
- Do a Think-Pair-Share, by having students divide into pairs to discuss and share their individual observations, then each pair shares an observation with the class.
- Have students sort and categorize the samples they’ve collected. Then discuss the different categories they used for categorizing the samples (living things, minerals, etc.) This could be done either as a whole class, in pairs, or as individual students.
- Discuss how the change of the seasons impacts humans and animals in their area, and what they observed. Ask things like:
- Do animals in your area hibernate? …and how do they know?
- Do animals in the area migrate? How do they know? (Encourage students to draw from different sources — including their own experiences and prior knowledge).
- Do humans change their patterns in the fall/winter? In what ways? What kind of clothing do people wear as the seasons change in their area?
See suggestions for 2nd and 3rd grade. Then take this lesson even further:
- Discussing plant life cycles
- Use guides to identify different plants in their area
- Have students think about why plants appear to hibernate and lose their foliage during the winter.
- If you live in a place with evergreen trees, discuss why some plants lose their leaves and why some remain green throughout the year. (Note: These discussions don’t mean you have to find the answer or know the answer. Suggest to students to do their own research, then present their answers in class)
Have students research what the weather is like in other parts of the country/world. If you are in an area where you cannot have a nature walk, have students visit different virtual nature walks on sites like Youtube, and have students note the differences between different nature walks and/or different areas of the world. Have students share these investigations as a class.
Send home a sheet with students that asks their parents/guardians if they have friends/relatives who live in other parts of the country/world. Use those locations to show the difference in climate and weather in those areas (encourage students to call or Skype people to ask about the weather, environment, etc.). This will help students develop personal connections to other locations.
Free Downloadable Lesson Guide
You can sign up for our newsletter below to grab the free PDF of our Lesson Guide. This guide includes the basic steps for the nature walk lesson AND information about how you can connect this lesson to the three dimensions of the NGSS (DCIs, SEPs, and CCCs). If you are already subscribed to our newsletter, the direct download link will be in the newsletter this week.
[et_bloom_locked optin_id=”optin_9″] https://app.box.com/s/csq4mga8h3e235l5qv6f17fxftjx34a1 [/et_bloom_locked]