Five Ways to Celebrate the Summer Solstice with Kids

It’s the longest day of the year, and that means it’s also the official start of summer! Take advantage of the extra sunlight by spending time in nature today.

Encourage kids to get their hands dirty today!
Photo by Alyse Panitz Photography
  1. Take a walk outside. Go for a stroll around the block, through a park, or on a trail. Notice the colors, smells, and sounds. Stop to smell those beautiful flowers and take a closer look at those fascinating insects. Bonus points if you bring a picnic lunch!
  2. Go on a nature scavenger hunt. Choose a few categories or items for kids to look for outside. Keep things loose by instructing children to find 3 things bigger than their hand, or get specific by asking them to look for a certain type of plant or insect. I like this 5 Senses Scavenger Hunt from Childhood 101.
  3. Press flowers. Channel your inner Martha Stewart and create beautiful keepsakes that will remind you of summer for months to come. Here are step-by-step instructions for how to press flowers in a book.
  4. Make a mud kitchen. If it’s hot where you are, cool kids off by getting out the hose and making some good old fashioned mud. Pull out some old kitchen tools (think muffin tins, measuring cups, bowls, etc.) and let them go to town creating delectable mud confections.
  5. Plant a pollinator garden. Did you know that today marks the end of Pollinator Week 2019? Help our hardworking insect friends by sowing some seeds in your garden. Check out these Pollinator Facts for information about what kinds of plants are best for attracting animal pollinators.

Free Webinar 2/21: How to Start an Outdoor Classroom at Any School

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. 

Participants will:

  • Learn directly from experienced professionals
  • Gain knowledge, tools, and resources to start their own outdoor classroom 
  • Ask questions 
  • Share their own experiences and resources
  • Network with other like-minded individuals 

Join the conversation! Submit questions ahead of time on this discussion thread.

Join us March 21 for Part 2: The “Outside” Work! 

How to Register:

Please follow the instructions on this link to register:

Can’t make it live? Register to receive a recording of the webinar!

Zero Waste Classroom Challenge

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
  • Saves money
  • 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!)
  • Recycling dried out markers through the Crayola Color Cycle program
  • 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!).
  • Replace plastic markers with crayon, then recycle the unusable remnants with the Crayon Initiative
  • Use compostable unpainted pencils like these
  • 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!

#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.

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 Children. The 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.