Author Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder shifted my entire teaching paradigm. As classrooms continue to move toward technology-based learning, Louv’s nature-deficit disorder continues to explain why children no longer enjoy spending time outside. “If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature,” he writes. For 80 percent of children living in urban areas, exposure to nature is often overlooked or limited. In these three picture books, distinct urban settings and unique storylines remind city-dwelling children that there is beauty and purpose to be found in interacting with the natural world.
When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree by Jamie L.B. Deenihan and Lorraine Rocha
What do you do when your birthday wish-list reads, “robot dog, drone, computer, phone, remote control car, and headphones,” but Grandma shows up with a lemon tree? In Jamie L.B. Deenihan’s picture book, the little girl’s initial disappointment is palpable. After reading a few care instructions for the tree, the girl begins to take an interest. Bright illustrations from Lorraine Rocha show the young girl nurturing the tree throughout the course of a year. Finally, the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” adage is made literal as the girl finds great joy in setting up a lemonade stand outside of her urban apartment building. In a twist ending, her lemonade stand profits are used to purchase more plants which add color and beauty around her apartment building. The celebration of community and nature, spunky set of characters and colorful illustrations make for a cheery read-aloud that shows students the gratification that follows patience and hard work.
- Classroom Lemon Tree—As a class, research lemon trees. Show students how to use climate and growing zone maps to determine if a lemon tree can survive in your area. (The answer is yes, lemon trees can be grown anywhere in the country.) Hold a discussion about the things the class needs in order to get a classroom lemon tree. Make a list of the students’ questions and then allow time for individual research. Knowing how to research for the purpose of answering questions is a valuable skill. These two lemon tree sites were informative and perfect for my second and third graders. Invite students to use their lemon tree research to write a letter explaining why the class needs a lemon tree and their plans for taking care of it.
- Entrepreneurship—An old-fashioned lemonade stand is a crash course in economics and marketing. With your students, discuss the concepts of advertising, supply and demand, capital resources and profit margins. Lemonade in Winter by Emily Jenkins and G. Brian Karas is an excellent read-aloud for budding entrepreneurs. Have students decide on a good or service to “sell” to their classmates. Spend a few weeks guiding students as they make a marketing plan (including a brand name and logo) and create a budget. After the planning is complete, celebrate their work with a Class Market Day.
- Further Reading—Create an entire unit by reading more books that celebrate children bringing beauty to an urban community. Write the question, “How Can We Bring Beauty to Our Neighborhood?” on the board. Tell students that over the next three weeks, they will be hearing stories of children who improve their community. Read The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and David Small, Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isobel, Teresa Howell and Rafael López, The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham and City Green by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan. These stories have young protagonists who see a need in their urban neighborhood community, create a plan and take action. After reading each book, record students’ own community improvement ideas.
The Chickens Are Coming! by Barbara Samuels
Siblings Winston and Sophie live in a big city apartment building with a small backyard. Walking home one day, they spot a lamppost sign advertising five hens. “You don’t need to live in the country to raise chickens,” their Mommy declares. Just a few days later, “THE CHICKENS ARE HERE!” Initially, the chickens and children are unsure of each other. Sophie and Winston are worried when the chickens don’t immediately lay eggs, and their various attempts to persuade them into laying eggs (performing a skit about Easter eggs, playing music, reading them a bedtime story) are unsuccessful. However, the children soon learn the habits and personalities of their unconventional family pets. Based on real families who raise chickens in Brooklyn, Samuels’ lively story and expressive illustrations celebrate the possibility of bringing a small piece of the country to the city.
- Hatch a Plan—In her author’s note, Samuels, a New York City resident, shares that chickens are the “cheapest and easiest farm animals to raise in a backyard.” Tell students to pretend that grocery stores have decided to stop selling eggs and so their family (or your classroom) will need to start raising chickens. They will need to decide which breed is best for their needs and neighborhood. Ask them questions: How many chickens? What type of cage is best? What will they feed their chickens? What type of eggs will their chickens lay? How much of a starting budget will be needed? Students are extra motivated when presented with projects that connect to the real-world. Create guidelines for final presentations and invite students to create visuals with photographs and their gathered information. Backyard Chicken Project and Backyard Chickens have a wealth of information for budding urban farmers.
- Animal Breed Chart—On the back endpapers is “Sophie’s Chicken Chart,” a five-column chart with information about each chicken’s breed, weight, country of origin and egg size/color. Let children choose an animal (dogs, horses, cats, lizards, etc.) and create a similar breed comparison chart.
Noah Builds an Ark by Kate Banks and John Rocco
In this nonreligious retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark, a young boy named Noah peeks over his backyard fence toward the city and sees a storm on the horizon. “It’s going to be a beauty,” his dad says as he boards up the windows on the house. But Noah looks at the creatures in their garden and devises his own plan. Using his tool caddy and planks of wood, Noah repurposes his old red wagon and makes it into a makeshift ark. While his mother and sister fill water jugs and gather candles for the family, Noah furnishes the ark with food and furniture. The storm arrives, and it rains for four days. Noah and his family stay safe in the house while the animals ride out the storm in the lovingly prepared ark. When the storm passes, the animals exit the ark into the backyard which is framed by a rainbow. With attention to “the least of these” at its heart, Noah Builds an Ark gently reminds children that they, too, have the responsibility and privilege to care for the natural world.
- Natural Disaster Preparation—Ask students what type of storm they think is coming to Noah’s city. Create a list of other natural disasters that can occur (hurricane, tornado, floods, forest fires, etc.), and then select three that are most relevant for your geographic area. Spend time reading books and learning about these natural disasters. After studying each one, help students create “I’m Ready” books. Give students fact sheets with the information the class learned in your research. Visit “Be Prepared” websites that explain how to prepare for these natural disasters. Invite a member of the local Red Cross chapter to come speak to your class. Students will record ways to prepare for natural disasters as well as family emergency plans and information. Providing information and guidance can help ease children’s fears as well as give them a strong emergency preparedness foundation.
- Vocabulary Scavenger Hunt—Noah Builds an Ark is filled with vivid vocabulary. As a class, go on a vocabulary scavenger hunt. Identify the words that help readers visualize and understand the mood of the story. “Dreary,” “drizzling,” and “popped” are all words that create pictures in our minds. Discuss the meaning of the words. Then, encourage students to look through their independent reading books to find more vocabulary words. After the scavenger hunt is complete, students can share one of their favorite found words with the class. Chart these words and challenge students to use one of the words in their own writing.