Free Webinar: 8PM, February 21st. Bring your classroom outside, learn to teach outdoors, and build support for nature programming in your schools.
Join veteran outdoor classroom teachers Amy Butler and Natalie Crowley for an interactive webinar to learn the ins and outs of starting an outdoor classroom at any school.
Part 1 will cover the “inside” work that needs to be done before heading outside with your students, including: finding your WHY, building alliances with administration and families, and how to find your space and place in nature.
The webinar will start at 8:00 PM EST/5:00 PM PST. Register at the link below.
This webinar is for teachers, administrators, parents, community members, mentors, and anyone else who is interested in helping connect children to nature.
Learn directly from experienced professionals
Gain knowledge, tools, and resources to start their own outdoor classroom
We are three weeks into the challenge, and just one week away from when we will say sayonara to our landfill bin. Here’s a rundown of where we stand at this juncture.
We have continued to monitor and chart everything that ends up in our landfill bin. By far the most common items continue to be food wrappers. Both foil-lined wrappers and soft plastic wrappers are frequent finds. Another common item has been adhesive backs, which are the slippery little pieces of white shiny paper that come on the back of stickers and adhesives, such as Command hooks and stickers.
A lot of the trash that is being generated is coming from kids’ lunches/snacks, which they don’t have a ton of control over. We have been actively encouraging kids to talk with their families about packing less single-use items in their lunches, AND we understand that this can be a hard sell for families who are already super busy and stressed. Which brings us to….
The Zero Waste Classroom Challenge One Change Pledge
Since we have not seen much reduction in our landfill trash simply from tracking it and charting it daily, we decided to invite kids to make a pledge to change just one small thing that will help us get closer to our goal of being a zero waste classroom. They had some great ideas, including making popcorn at home rather than buying it in individual bags, eating dinner leftovers for lunch the next day, and making art out of foil and plastic wrappers rather than throwing them away. A few well-intentioned kids had the idea of unwrapping their granola bars at home before bringing them to school so they wouldn’t have to throw the wrapper away at school, which led to an interesting discussion about how we are actually trying to eliminate landfill waste everywhere, not just in our classroom.
TBD whether these pledges will make a dent in our numbers. Fingers crossed!
What about the teachers?
We recognize that we have a big role to play in this challenge as well, as we are the ones making all the purchases for classroom supplies and materials. Here are a few of the changes/improvements we have implemented since starting the Zero Waste Classroom Challenge:
Trying to exclusively print on scratch paper, and thinking twice before printing things.
The question we continue to struggle with is: Is it better to replace perfectly usable but non-recyclable/compostable items that we already have with more eco-friendly ones, or wait until we use them up before replacing them? We’ve decided on a hybrid approach. For items that we use all the time, we opted to replace them and to donate our unused supplies to other classrooms or offices. This feels a bit like we’re just passing the buck so it becomes someone else’s problem, but the reality is that most teachers aren’t trying to go zero waste right now and will end up just buying more Elmer’s glue, Scotch tape, etc., so we might as well give them ours to use rather than tossing it out. For items that we use less often, like markers, we are choosing to use them up and then replace them with more earth-friendly alternatives as needed. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but it seems like a decent compromise for now.
The Zero Waste Classroom Challenge is officially launched! My co-teacher, Vicki, and I wanted to have an exciting “hook” for introducing the challenge, so we turned to our old friend Phoebe the Phoenix, a Big Bird-like character who is the mascot of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Phoebe visited our school in the fall to teach the students about recycling and composting, so she was the perfect individual to issue the challenge. We decided to have Phoebe write a letter to the students with all the details.
After reading the letter aloud to the class, more than half the class raised their hands, eager to comment and ask questions. I thought they had grasped the concept pretty well until one boy raised his hand and said, “Wait. I don’t get it.” Oops. Time to backup and explain things a little better!
We then proceeded to spend a good amount of time breaking down the term “zero waste,” which led to a discussion of what exactly happens to our trash after we throw it in the bins in our classroom. It was a question that many students seemed to have never considered–most seemed to think it simply vanishes into thin air! Next thing I knew we were deep into a conversation about what exactly a landfill is. Pictures were shown. Terms such as “biodegrade,” “leeching,” and “toxic gas” were bandied about. Some kids still didn’t get it. Maybe we should take a field trip to the local dump?
Despite their shaky understanding of trash’s final resting place, the students did seem quite concerned about how much trash goes to landfills (in San Francisco alone, 1200 tons of garbage is carted off to landfill each day– that’s 800 Toyota Priuses!). They were overflowing (like the landfill!) with ideas about how to avoid sending trash to landfill. One student suggested she could just take her granola bar wrappers home and put them in a box (for future art projects) instead of throwing them away. Now this is the kind of innovative thinking we need! And I’m sure her parents will be thrilled by their new home decor. In all seriousness, though, they did have many great ideas, including not taking plastic produce bags at the grocery store (try reusable ones instead!).
We also started monitoring and tracking our class’s landfill waste at the end of each day. This week we just kept a tally of all the different items we found in there each day, and next week we plan to turn this data into a more visually-appealing graph. This week’s biggest offender was…..food wrappers! Yes, those kings-of-convenience (I’m looking at you, seaweed pouches!) stop looking so convenient when they are destined to spend the next 5,000-odd years festering in a landfill.
A theme that came up again and again throughout this first week was the idea of better vs. best alternatives. For example, recycling a plastic water bottle is better than throwing it in the landfill, but the best option is to forgo the plastic bottle altogether and use a reusable one instead. Similarly, using a paper bag is better than using a plastic one, but the best option is to use a reusable cloth bag. Which brings us to an important zero waste philosophy: Going zero waste is not about perfection. It’s about getting better compared to ourselves. It is nearly impossible to truly eliminate ALL non-compostable/non-recyclable/non-reusable materials from your life. The goal is simply to become more conscious of the decisions we make on a daily basis and to make changes and improvements wherever we can. In the wise words of Dr. Seuss, Progress is progress, no matter how small (OK fine, I may have taken some artistic liberties, there… apologies to Horton).
So, where to next? Well, as Phoebe instructed, we will take the month of January to learn more about zero waste and really start paying attention to our class’s waste stream. We will continue to do daily landfill inventories, and, once trends start to emerge, we will work on brainstorming reusable alternatives for our most pesky landfill items. Come February, the challenge really begins as we will bid farewell to our classroom landfill bin. All items that can’t be reused, recycled, or composted will be placed in a clear jar and kept until the end of the school year. The goal is to keep that jar as empty as possible! As classroom supplies run out, we will replace them with the least-wasteful alternatives we can find.
Around mid-May we plan to wrap things up with a big Zero Waste Celebration. Will we succeed in limiting our landfill trash to one single jar? Will we make Phoebe proud? Only time will tell. Whatever happens, you can read about it here: the good, the bad, and the toxic gas. ‘Til next week!
I pride myself on living a pretty “green” life and having a relatively low carbon footprint. I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, I am a member of a local CSA, I drive a Prius, and I always bring my reusable produce bags and shopping bags to the farmers market or store. I even purchase carbon offsets for long distance travel and recently bought a GuppyFriend bag to stop microplastics from entering the oceans when I wash my clothes. So when I started reading Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, I was expecting to feel pretty smug, and I wasn’t expecting to make many major changes to my daily life. It didn’t take long for me to realize, though, that there is MUCH more I can do to reduce my impact on the planet. Specifically, there is a lot of room for improvement in my work life, aka in my classroom. So, with this in mind, I will be engaging my students in a Zero Waste Classroom Challenge in 2019.
Why do it?
Better for the planet
Modeling sustainable behavior for kids, which they will hopefully then pass on to their families and spheres of influence
Can eventually eliminate large bulky trash can, thus creating more space in our classroom
What we’re already doing:
Using cloth dish towels instead of paper towels to dry hands
Using scratch paper for art, drawing, book marks, tests, worksheets, etc.
Investing in higher quality materials (e.g. folders, book boxes, supply bags) and reusing them every year rather than buying new sets for each class
Sourcing used items for flexible seating (thank you Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and Nextdoor!)
Encouraging students to bring snack/lunch in reusable containers
Book hospital- repairing broken/torn books rather than replacing them
Thinking twice before printing (Can I submit a form electronically? Can I take a picture of it on my phone instead of printing it?)
Using old Tupperware/food containers for math manipulatives, science projects, etc. rather than buying new
Donating old materials/rugs/furniture instead of throwing them out (offer first to other teachers in the building, then to the public) and the opposite: asking others for something we need before buying it
Laminating posters I will reuse every year, writing on both sides of chart paper, and only tearing off the exact size I need from a new sheet of chart paper
Using the library as much as possible to avoid buying new books
Opening curtains and shades to maximize natural light and avoid turning on the overhead lights (this has the added benefit of lowering stress and keeping kids calm)
What I want to do in the future:
Not buy a class set of math workbooks each year. Instead, I will buy one master copy and make copies of the pages we actually need/will use (also helps with storage/resource management!).
Eliminate (or reduce as much as possible) Amazon or online deliveries– buy local and without packaging
Stop getting Scholastic Book Order fliers– shop online only
Over the next 6 months, I will be documenting our Zero Waste Classroom journey here on the blog. Be sure to subscribe to receive all the latest news and updates and to follow along on our journey.
And, of course, I want to hear from you! Have you tried reducing your classroom’s waste stream? What has worked and what hasn’t? Any words of wisdom? Let me know on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or email!
A little less than one year ago I set forth my #2018NatureGoals right here on this very blog. As 2018 comes to a close, it’s time for me to check-in on my progress and see how I did.
Goal #1: Improve my houseplant game.
Grade: A. See this Instagram post for proof. Moving to a new home in the Spring served as an excellent impetus for significantly increasing my cred as a plant parent. In addition to the many plants I received as housewarming gifts, I also adopted many new supposedly “unkillable” plants, such as this snake plant pictured here. Unfortunately, I also did manage to kill a couple plants, but nobody’s perfect, right?
Goal #2: On weeks when I don’t get to visit the forest with my students, I will make a point of taking a short walk or hike in nature either after work one day or on the weekend.
Grade: B+. I was not nearly as intentional about this one as I had hoped to be, but the good news is that I think I ended up doing this by default most weeks. There has been a significant uptick in my nature walking since the arrival of our furbaby, Bernie, in July. If you’re wanting to do more walking, I definitely recommend getting a dog. Just make sure you’re also wanting to do more vacuuming.
Goal #3: Take at least one longer hike or outdoor adventure each month (bonus points if I can convince my husband or friends to join me).
Grade: B. I can’t say for certain that I achieved this every month, but definitely most months! Some notable adventures included visiting the Hoover Dam, having a beach picnic in Carmel, hiking at Mt. Diablo, visiting the Norwegian fjords, and walking around the cliffs of Mendocino. Now that our puppy is a little older and has more stamina, I am declaring 2019 the year of the weekend hike.
Goal #4: Go on a backpacking trip (for the first time since high school!).
Grade: A. In April my husband and I went on a 1-night backpacking trip to Henry Coe State Park with
another couple friend of ours. It was a very short trip, but we all survived (for the most part– one of my friend’stoenails sadly did not come out so well), and we had a lot of fun! We learned quite a bit about what kind of gear we need, so I am (somewhat hesitantly) ready to commit to a multi-day backpacking trip in 2019.
Overall Grade: A-. As an upholder, it definitely helped me to lay out these goals for myself and to share them with you all as an accountability measure. Will I do it again? Probably. Do I think you should try it? Definitely.
One of our beginning-of-the-year rituals at Forest Friday is the endowment of Nature Names. Each child picks a Nature Name (an animal that is native to our immediate environment) from a bag, and we talk about how that animal chose them, and not the other way around. There is a very special reason that the animal chose them, and it is the child’s job to determine why they were chosen by that particular animal. Perhaps they share a physical characteristic or a behavior trait. Perhaps they have something to teach other.
In most cases, the children are thrilled with whatever animal they draw from the bag, but on rare occasions the responses are more negative. This was the case with one of my students this year, who I will call Sasha. Sasha’s Nature Name is Spotted Tussock Moth Caterpillar, and when she first read the name, her first reaction was a loud, “EW!” followed by a 20-minute pouting session. She was convinced that this animal was gross and had absolutely nothing of value to share with her. She was jealous of her friends, who had received cute, cuddly Nature Names like Pocket Gopher and Deer Mouse.
For the next couple weeks, Sasha did everything she could to distance herself from her Nature Name, even going so far as to claim she had forgotten it and rebranding herself as Slug. Yesterday, however, everything changed. I was wandering around our outdoor classroom, watching children attempt to make a dam in the creek with large rocks, when suddenly I heard shrieking coming from the old stone well across the way. I quickly moved towards the sound, and when I arrived I found Sasha jumping around and squealing with delight, accompanied by a small crowd of her peers.
“I found my Nature Name! I found it! Look, look!” she cried.
Sure enough, crawling around on the well was a teeny tiny, very cute, very fuzzy Spotted Tussock Moth Caterpillar. I came to find out that Sasha had spotted the caterpillar crawling on another child’s head a few moments earlier. Her earlier distaste for this hard-to-pronounce little creature had instantly transformed into glee, pride, and extreme loyalty. She spent the rest of Forest Friday utterly entranced by the caterpillar, regularly exclaiming how adorable and cute it was, and standing guard so no harm would befall it.
It’s too soon to say whether Sasha’s devotion to the Spotted Tussock Moth Caterpillar will last, but for now it’s safe to say, a Spotted Tussock Moth Caterpillar by any other name would not be so beloved.
I recently became one of the co-moderators of the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) Early Childhood Environmental Education Group, an online community of like-minded educators, parents, researchers, and more who are passionate about connecting our youngest children to nature. The group is a goldmine of resources, opportunities, and fellowship, and I encourage anyone and everyone with an interest in this topic to join the group (it’s free!). Here’s a snapshot of some of the great features of the group (and the larger eePRO community).
Pose or answer a question from a fellow group mate, and do some fantastic networking in the process. This is the most lively and interactive portion of the site and you are sure to come away with great new ideas.
Find out about upcoming learning opportunities, such as webinars, online courses, conferences, trainings, and more. Successful completion of a learning opportunity earns you Learning Hours, which are noted on your eePRO profile.
If you’re looking for a new job in the field of environmental education, you might want to peruse the curated job postings on the site. They are sorted by location and you can also search by a variety of other criteria.
Not all kids are born loving the great outdoors. For some, “nature” is synonymous with dirty, scary, and unpleasant. How can we help these children change their associations with the natural world and learn to see it as an exciting, fun, and comforting place?
A few years ago I had a student (I’ll call her Tanya) who absolutely hated Forest Fridays because she didn’t want to get her clothes dirty–until she did. Fast forward to the last day of school when we went to the beach and Tanya had a meltdown at the end of the day because she did not want to put her shoes back on after being in the sand and water virtually all day. I considered this meltdown a sign of a successful transformation from a nature-fearing to a nature-loving child.
The key to Tanya’s transformation was quite simple: I mostly ignored her. I know I know, I’m a terribly negligent teacher. But hear me out. The first few days in the forest I tried everything I could think of to encourage Tanya to participate and get comfortable being in the dirt. For every argument I made in favor of why it was OK for her to sit on the ground, she was prepared with six counterarguments. While 21 children sat, Tanya stood. When it came time to play and explore, Tanya held back and tried to convince her friends to draw with her or do anything that didn’t involve actually touching dirt or bugs. They guiltily told her thanks but no thanks.
Eventually I gave up trying to persuade Tanya to do things my way, and I just let her sit back and watch everyone else have fun. I stopped fighting her and let her stand instead of sit. (This was a hard one for me, because I am a firm believer in everyone following the “group plan.”) Slowly but surely, Tanya found her way into the group.
The real turning point came with the first rain. As I have mentioned in previous posts, our forest site has a natural swamp that forms once a significant amount of rain falls. It is a scientific fact that no child (and most adults) cannot resist the temptation to jump in a mud puddle. Sure enough, one day I watched with amazement as Tanya dipped first just a toe, then a whole foot, into the swamp. Next thing I knew she was knee-deep in the mucky, squishy mud and squealing with delight.
In the weeks that followed, Tanya was spotted painting her face with charcoal, bushwhacking her way through thick bramble to reach a secret hideout, and, most notably, letting a garter snake slither over her hands. I could hardly believe this was the same child who, only months earlier, had steadfastly refused to let her her clothes come in contact with dirt.
Not all kids who are hesitant about playing in nature will undergo such thorough transformations as Tanya did, and that’s OK. Meet them where they are. Let them take the lead. Never force a child to do something that scares them or makes them uncomfortable, for that is the fastest way to ensure they will never do it again. Be their guide on the side and their biggest chearleader. Encourage, comfort, and engage. Above all, lead by example.
It’s the end of summer. You are filled with excitement and optimism for the upcoming school year, and you are overflowing with ideas and plans for how to make this the BEST. YEAR. EVER! Then, you receive your schedule and suddenly all your hopes and dreams are crushed into a million pieces and your excitement and optimism are instantly replaced with anxiety and panic about how on earth you will ever find time to teach reading, let alone take your students outside on a regular basis. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there!
A crammed schedule does not need to mean deleting nature education from your schedule. Here are some creative ways to make sure you are meeting the demands of your school’s curriculum AND still giving your students the gift of outdoor time.
Find natural areas of crossover in your curriculum.
If you take a close look at the standards/benchmarks/objectives that you are expected to teach, you will likely find many that seamlessly translate to outdoor learning. Here are a few examples:
Standard: Count to 10
Outdoor activity: Students search for 10 pebbles in the school yard.
Standard: Retell a story
Outdoor activity: Read a book to children while sitting outside, then have them reenact the story in small groups.
Standard: Compare weight and length of various objects
Outdoor activity: Students find 3 sticks of various lengths and line them up in order from shortest to tallest.
Standard: Read and spell words with vowel-consonant-e spellings
Outdoor activity: Students write spelling words in sand/dirt or “paint” them with water on concrete.
Most any part of your regular school day can be done outside with a few modifications: Morning Meeting, snack, Calendar Math, Closing Circle, sharing time, etc.
Many schools schedule time for non-academic activities, such as cross-grade buddies, family groups, and assemblies. These community-building times are excellent opportunities to get students outside. Check in with other adults and staff members to see if they’d be willing to do activities outdoors during these times. For example, buddy classes could go on a neighborhood cleanup, weed the school garden, or go on a nature scavenger hunt together.
Specialist classes such as music and PE also may be able to be held outdoors. If all else fails, try to get your students eating lunch or snack outside at least once or twice a week.
Think outside the schedule.
Sometimes there really and truly is not enough time during a school day to regularly take your students outside. In that case, consider organizing a before or after-school club. Students who are interested in and able to come early or stay late can have a dedicated outdoor time to look forward to each week. If you are not able or willing to lead the club yourself, see if you can wrangle a couple parent volunteers to help. The club can be as structured or loose as you like. Many schools have minimum or early-release days once a week for staff meetings, and these days can be a great time for an outdoor club to meet under the supervision of parent volunteers.
“Most first graders don’t get to go to City Hall, do they?” quipped one of my first grade students last week. She was referring to our field trip the day before to San Francisco City Hall, where our class of nineteen 7-and 8-year-olds successfully lobbied our elected officials to ban plastic straws in San Francisco. The trip was the culmination of our year-long journey towards becoming Giraffe Heroes, brave and caring people who stick their necks out for others and don’t give up even when it’s hard or scary. In other words, they were learning how to be activists.
Student activism is a hot topic at the moment, thanks in large part to the national spotlight on brave young people like Emma Gonzalez and the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. But how exactly does one become an activist? What if you’re shy? What if you’re only in first grade? Can you really make a difference? I certainly don’t profess to have all the answers, but I do have my own experiences as a teacher helping my students find their inner activist. Here is what I have learned.
Connect the action to issues THEY care about. A common stumbling block for teachers hoping to turn their students into activists is apathy or lack of investment on the students’ part. I think we can all agree there’s nothing worse than trying to force students to care about an issue about which they are unmoved. The solution? Let the students choose the issue. Sometimes issues arise organically based on current events, and sometimes the process is more intentional and involves lots of brainstorming and discussion. It’s unlikely that you’ll find an issue about which all of your students are equally passionate, but, by using some of your teacher-magic-finesse, you can usually find a way to combine ideas and settle on an issue that the majority of your class will buy into.
Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. Handing over the reins to students dramatically increases their levels of investment and engagement in any project. Keep their ideas and interests front and center throughout all stages of your project, and let them do the majority of the work. As the teacher, your role is to provide structure and parameters within which the students can be creative and generative, and to help them refine their vision to something that is actually possible and doable. For example, my students this year wanted to attend a Board of Supervisors meeting and speak during the public comment portion, but once we learned that the meetings started at 7pm and typically lasted 4-5 hours, I helped them refine that goal to asking for a meeting with one Supervisor instead. They will likely need your help with working out some of the nitty gritty logistics of whatever action they decide to take, but leave the big-picture planning and vision-setting to the kids. As an added bonus, keeping the project kid-focused goes a long way towards getting parent buy-in (and reducing push-back). Which brings me to…
Invite families to participate. Another common barrier for teachers hoping to bring out the inner activist in their students is resistance from parents and guardians. Sometimes families don’t agree with the cause the students have chosen, and sometimes they are concerned about risk and student safety. I find that inviting families to join in the process alongside students is very effective and helps ease their minds. I have a suspicion that much of the push-back stems from fear of the unknown, so I try to make our process as transparent as possible for all involved. For example, I invited all families to join my students in their rally at City Hall last week. A good number of parents and siblings showed up, and once they saw how excited and engaged their children were, they soon picked up signs of their own and joined in chanting, “Go away plastic straws!” Additionally, when families know that the project is based on students’ own ideas, and not imposed from above, they tend to be much more open-minded.
Talk about activism early and often. In my classroom, activism is a lens through which I plan all my other curriculum. It is not a discrete unit or subject, but rather I do my best to infuse it into my lessons and activities throughout the year. For example, each year my students participate in a project-based learning unit called Adapt Your Hobbies where they learn about physical disabilities and then use the design engineering process to build an adaptation for one of their favorite hobbies so someone with a physical disability could participate in the hobby. This year, one group created a prosthetic arm with a special hook at the end to allow someone without an arm to rock climb. Throughout the year I share examples of activists of all types and forms through read alouds, videos, current events, and more. I especially try to provide examples of activists my students can relate to, such as other young children. We spend the year laying the groundwork for how to be an activist so that when spring comes around, my students are ready to engage in direct social action on a larger scale.
Leverage resources. I have finally learned after almost ten years in the classroom that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it is the sign of a good teacher! I lean heavily on resources like Giraffe Heroes Project and Teaching Tolerance, as well as individual people with whom I have built relationships. For example, a parent of one of my students this year has connections to City Hall, and she was able to use those connections to set up meetings for my students with Supervisor Katy Tang and Acting Mayor Mark Farrell, a feat which otherwise would have been extremely challenging if not impossible. At the risk of sound trite and cliche, we truly are stronger together, and reinventing the wheel does not make you smart– it just makes you tired.