#2018NatureGoals Report Card

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.

 

The Power of a Name

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.

Join the NAAEE Early Childhood Enviro Ed Group!

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).

BLOG

Read about the latest news in the field, hear perspectives from educators across the continent, and learn about new opportunities to take your learning even deeper.

DISCUSSIONS

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.

LEARNING

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.

JOBS 

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.

Hope to see you in the discussion boards!

When Nature is Not Natural: Supporting Children Who are Uncomfortable with Outdoor Play 

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.

 

How to Add Outdoor Time to a Super-Packed Schedule

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.

Need more ideas? Check out my eBook Teaching Outside: 20 Quick & Easy Outdoor Education Activities for Children 

Combine outdoor time with other activities.

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.

How to Turn Your Students into Activists at Any Age

“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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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…
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Guest Post: 4 Tips For Helping Your Child Connect with Nature (Even If You’re Not A “Nature Person”)

By Emma Huvos, founder of  Riverside Nature School and Wonderkin

As a nature-based early childhood educator, I hear all the time from parents who want their kiddos to be spending more time outdoors, but aren’t quite sure where to begin. And I get it! Unplugging and heading outdoors can feel intimidating. But it doesn’t have to. Here are my top 4 tips for helping your child connect with nature — even if you’re not a “nature person.”

1. Make Time & Space

Research shows that frequent, unstructured experiences in nature are the most common influence on the development of life-long conservation values. If you want your child to love and care for the earth, all you have to do is make time for them to go outdoors and play!  

Too often, though, we overlook close-to-home natural spaces. We think of nature as being synonymous with wilderness, and forget that even city parks and suburban backyards offer fertile ground for fostering a nature connection.

Don’t feel like you have to set aside an entire day or more for a big outdoor adventure. Instead, challenge yourself to go outdoors with your child for just 30 minutes a day for a week. Start getting to know the little patch of nature outside your front door. What changes depending on the weather or the time of day? Don’t worry about having anything planned – just make time and space and let your child lead the way.

2. Learn Together

Can’t tell a maple from an oak tree or an insect from an arachnid? That’s just fine! Let your little one see that you don’t always know everything! Instead, embrace the learning process together.  Modeling curiosity – and good research skills – is more valuable than pretending to have all the answers!

Find children’s books on natural themes at the library, invest in a couple of simple field guides specific to your region, and keep a list of your child’s questions and photos of interesting things you find to research together when you’re back inside.

The more time you spend outdoors, the better you’ll get to know your own local ecosystem, and the more plants and animals you’ll find yourself naturally starting to recognize.

3. Model a Positive Attitude  

When it comes to spending time outdoors, attitude is everything! Disliking the rain or fearing insects isn’t instinctive – kids learn these attitudes from watching adults. It’s alright if you don’t want to touch every creepy-crawly your child discovers under a log, but try to react with enthusiasm and interest rather than “eews” and “eeks!”

Similarly, work on being enthusiastic about heading outdoors, no matter how hot, cold, or wet the weather may be. Building a deep connection with the natural world requires spending time in nature in all conditions. I think Nicolette Sowder of Wilder Child sums up the benefits of this practice best: “Encouraging a child to go outside in all weather builds resilience, but more importantly it saves them from spending their life merely tolerating the “bad” days in favor of a handful of “good” ones – a life of endless expectations and conditions where happiness hinges on sunshine.”

This may seem easier said then done, but there’s a lot of truth to the Scandinavian saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” More often than not, if we’re uncomfortable outdoors it’s our gear (or lack thereof), not the conditions, that are to blame. Sturdy boots, and quality rain gear can make a huge difference in how you and your child experience time out in the elements, and are well worth the investment!

4. Don’t Go It Alone!

Building a habit of getting outdoors regularly with your child is easier if you have support!

That’s why I recently launched Wonderkin, a monthly subscription box that provides parents with everything they need to jumpstart engaging outdoor play and learning, no matter where they live or how crazy their schedule is.

Each box is curated around a different natural theme, like hibernation and pollination, and includes a high-quality children’s book, materials and guidelines for 3-5 hands-on learning and outdoor exploration activities, and a parent “cheat sheet” to help you answer all your little explorer’s questions. Subscribers also receive exclusive discounts on premium children’s gear from our favorite brands, and access to our Insiders Facebook group, where they can connect with a community of like-minded parents. If you’re interested in trying it out, you can get $5 off your first box with promo code “NATURENAT.”

Want additional support? Find another parent to go on regular outdoor playdates with, or check out Free Forest School, an organization that provides free opportunities for young children and their parents and caregivers to explore, play, and connect in public parks across the U.S.

 

Emma Huvos is an early-childhood educator and nature play advocate. She runs Riverside Nature School, a nature-based early childhood program located in Charles Town, West Virginia and is the founder of Wonderkin, a monthly subscription box designed to support early childhood development by getting kids outdoors and connected to nature.

 

Reflections on Another Year in the Forest

As my third year of Forest Fridays comes to a close, I am doing a lot of reflecting on the days gone by as well as a fair amount of dreaming and planning about future days. Here are my top takeaways from the 2017-2018 school year.

Unstructured play is just as valuable as a carefully-planned lesson. (Photo: Alyse Panitz Photography)
  1. Flexibility is good. Yes, I know this sounds obvious, but I am a classic type A personality who thrives on order, plans, and structure. I have spent a lot of time developing and writing lesson plans for my year-long nature immersion curriculum, and thus I am rather invested in seeing these lessons carried out with fidelity. This year, though, on more than one occasion I found myself scrapping my plans for the day and just letting the kids play. A few times I even forgot my plans and materials at school, which was perhaps a subconscious decision to live in the moment.
  2. Teachers want to go outside (but aren’t sure how). In January I had the privilege of leading a professional development session at The Center for Progressive Education’s Winter Institute, and my main takeaway was that teachers clearly understand the importance of connecting children to nature and really want to go outside more, but they lack the resources, knowledge, and support to actually do it. Enter my eBook Teaching Outside: 20 Quick & Easy Outdoor Education Activities for ChildrenThe inspiration for this book was the many conversations I’ve had with educators and parents who asked me if I had any easy activities they could do with their children outside. Why yes, I do! And now they’re all compiled in this handy-dandy book. (P.S. Want it on Kindle?  I’ve got you covered.)
  3. Outdoor time is as good for the adults as it is for the kids. The research is clear: spending time in nature decreases stress, promotes focus, and improves mental health. These benefits are as true for adults as they are for children, and even just a couple hours outside is enough to get the positive boost. The Nature Pyramid recommends everyone spend at least one hour weekly in an intentional nature area, and Forest Fridays provided the perfect built-in opportunity for me to get my weekly fix. I hear over and over again from parents who join us in the forest that they had so much more fun than they had expected, and almost all of them ask when they can come again. Mission: accomplished.
  4. Every day should include outdoor time. I made a conscious effort this year to teach outside multiple times per week rather than saving it all for Fridays. We had Morning Meetings outside every Wednesday, and we experimented with doing Readers Workshop, Guided Reading, Writers Workshop, and math out on the yard at various times. I’ll admit, it takes commitment and there were definitely times when I thought to myself, but it would be so much easier to just do this inside. Never once did I regret the extra effort involved in moving a lesson or activity outdoors, though. (Curious how to do this? Check out my post about how to adapt a mandated curriculum for your outdoor classroom.)
  5. Parents love that their children are regularly getting outside, rain or shine, hot or cold. One of my biggest fears when I started Forest Fridays was that the parents and other teachers would not support the program, or, worse, would actively fight against it. Happily, this fear proved unfounded. (If you are encountering resistance, though, check out these 5 Ways to Get Parent Buy-In). The feedback I’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive, and many parents have raved to me that they love my commitment to getting the kids outside even in the most inclement weather conditions. I’ve also heard many anecdotes of kids taking their families outside on the weekends and teaching them about edible plants and how to track animals. Stories like this not only fill me with warm fuzzies but also give me hope for the future. 

 

3 Ways to Leverage Community Resources for Your Outdoor Education Program

When I first started Forest Fridays, the only resources I had in abundance were enthusiasm and blind optimism. I knew some basic environmental ed principles from my college days in the student sustainability club, but by no means was I an expert or seasoned practitioner in the art of connecting kids with nature. I assumed that I would figure it out as I went, but I quickly realized that I was going to need some help. Since those early days I have learned a lot about how to leverage community resources which are often readily available yet seldom utilized. The kicker? They’re usually free. Here are my top three tips:

Park Ranger Desiree Munoz talks to my students about the Ohlone tribe.

1. Invite experts to visit. If you do not have the requisite knowledge about a particular subject or skill but want your students to learn it, consider seeking out an expert in the field. Most people who are passionate enough about something to become an expert in it will be happy to spend an hour or two talking about it to kids. For example, my class is currently learning about how Native Americans in our area have historically used native plants for eating, cleaning, and healing. We read several books that vaguely touched on this topic, but it wasn’t really coming alive for the students until my co-teacher invited a member of the local Ohlone tribe to come talk to our class. She was so excited about this opportunity that she brought along her sister and a friend as well as a big collection of artifacts and tools made by her tribe. The information and firsthand experiences she was able to share with us were so much richer and more impactful than anything I would ever have been able to teach my students.

Interested in helping your students learn about the Native Americans in your area? Check out Lesson 19: Connecting to First People.

2. Borrow materials and equipment. How many times have you gotten super excited about doing an activity or project with your students only to discover that it requires a specific piece of equipment that you either can’t get or don’t want to spend the money to buy? I found myself in this situation a couple years ago when I wanted to teach my students how to bird watch. While they of course could’ve just looked for birds with their naked eyes, I knew the experience would be so much richer if they had binoculars. I balked at the thought of paying hundreds of dollars for a class set of binoculars, though. I decided to contact the Presidio Trust, the non-profit organization that works out of the Presidio National Park, to see if they had any birding equipment we could borrow. Sure enough they did, and a few weeks later a naturalist from the Trust came to meet us at Forest Friday with a class set of binoculars in tow. It turned out that several of my students didn’t like using the binoculars and preferred looking without them, which made me extra glad that I hadn’t busted our budget to buy brand new sets. The icing on the cake? I didn’t have to find a place in my already-crowded classroom to store them.

Check out Lesson 18: Bird Watching

Resources vary by city, but a good first stop is your local parks and recreation department. Many public library systems also have tool-lending programs. Local birding organizations or hiking clubs may also be a good resource.

3. Partner with other teachers/schools/programs. Perhaps the best and most valuable resources we have are our peers. If you have an idea for an activity but aren’t quiet sure how to flesh it out or put it into action, then talking to another teacher can be just the ticket.

Alternatively, kids can learn so much from visiting other children’s schools, parks, and neighborhoods. The possibilities for collaboration are limitless: compare and contrast plant or animal species, teach each other about the local flora and fauna, engage in neighborhood clean-ups or planting projects, and so much more. If leaving your school feels like too much, consider partnering with another class on your campus. My first grade class recently partnered with the sixth graders to do some research about water pollution. Having the older students present allowed us to do more sophisticated work than we otherwise would have, and the sixth graders got authentic practice conducting research.

Take the networking one step further by partnering with a local organization or group. The Presidio Trust frequently needs volunteers to help with their native plant restoration projects, so we now have an annual planting day where my first graders are put to work replanting entire hillsides at a time. The relationship is mutually beneficial, as the Trust gets much-needed manual labor and my students gain firsthand knowledge about what plants need to survive and thrive.

Organizations like Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and Lions Club often have good volunteer opportunities.

No matter which community resources you decide to leverage, remember it never hurts to ask. The worst that can happen is they say no, but in my experience the answer is most often yes. Happy networking!

The Magic of Mud: How Nature Promotes Non-Gendered Play

It was a beautiful sunny spring day with not a cloud in sight, but half of my class showed up to school on a recent Friday in rain boots. No, they had not been misled by the weather forecast: they were mud-puddle ready.

One of the best features of our outdoor classroom in the Presidio National Park is that every winter, after a few heavy rainstorms, a giant, muddy swamp forms in one corner. The water typically gets up to the kids’ knees during the height of the wet season, and it stays terrifically muddy well into the spring. Hence the rain boots on the otherwise warm and sunny day.

For more fun with water, try Lesson 16: Fort Building. 

On a typical afternoon, the activity of choice for the swamp area is to splash and stomp around, seeing how high you can wade before you get water inside your shoes. Some children also enjoy poking sticks in the mud to see what lurks beneath. But on this particular Friday, a new activity emerged: submerging hands (and, in a few cases, arms) in the mud, then chasing other non-muddied children (mostly girls) who feigned horror at the idea of getting mud on themselves.

Learn how to prepare for a messy day in nature: Your Outdoor Education Day Pack

The original mud-bathers was a group of boys. A cluster of girls stood by, watching closely but staying a safe distance away from the mud. Shrieks of “ew!” and “gross!” were heard at regular intervals. And then one of the girls broke from the pack, walked into the swamp, and dipped her hands right into the muck. “This feels so good!” she called back to her friends. They exchanged looks with each other, equal parts shocked and amazed at the boldness of their fellow female. Mere seconds later, the whole group was elbows-deep in the mud, laughing uproariously and chasing after all their classmates. So quickly had this activity transformed from a “boys only” game with the boys pitting themselves against the girls, to one where gender was inconsequential and the jubilation of the experience overshadowed any previous notions of how boys and girls “should” play.

Although this was certainly not the first example of how nature play breaks down gender barriers and stereotypes, it was striking to me how visceral and visual it was. The very act of being in and with nature seems to empower children to act more freely and without the hangups and encumbrances they grapple with in the classroom and on the school yard. Girls who would never join the boys-only soccer game at school are happy to build a dam in the river with a co-ed group of children. Boys who insist that the only acceptable recess activity is playing tag will be the first to initiate a game of “family” in the forest. Nature makes children freer and allows them to bring their full, authentic selves to the proverbial table. For this, I am grateful.