Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
In an unfortunate series of events, I learned that our school district reduced recess time by 50% (down to 15 minutes per day) about 36 hours after I finished Linda Åkeson McGurk’s There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather. Born and raised in Sweden where “there is no such thing as bad weather,” McGurk spent much of her childhood playing outside. Upon marrying and moving to Indiana, she quickly realized that nature-centered childhoods are not the norm. Her American-born daughters did not share her enthusiasm for the outdoors. Upon returning to Sweden for a six-month stay, the disparities between the countries’ views on childhood became even more apparent to her. Multiple outdoor recess periods, hours immersed in forest play, and unstructured time to build forts or make mud-pies replaced high-stakes standardized testing, hours spent in front of screens, and rigidly scheduled days. Her daughters thrived in the Swedish school setting; they developed independence, a knowledge of flora and fauna, an appreciation for dirt and the enduring understanding that “with increased freedom comes increased responsibility.”
Recess rules, testing regulations, and student screen time are issues beyond my control. But I can provide my students with bountiful outdoor learning opportunities that will give them the chance to observe and experience nature and all of its intricacies and beauty. Expand your traditional classroom walls with the following four books. Through gentle invitations, they beckon children to venture outside, to slow down, to notice, to pretend, to play, to collect and to wonder.
Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farrell, illustrated by Doug Saleti
Lawrence, a young fox cub, is paralyzed with fear when a chalkboard assignment tells students to “Bring in something you collect to show the class!” He doesn’t have a collection, and hearing his classmates’ excited chatter only increases his despair. Papa soothes Lawrence’s tears and assures him that he knows a place to find “a collection fit for a special fox like you.” The next morning, the pair ventures off into the woods, where Lawrence’s initial hesitation is legitimized when a sudden rainstorm separates him from Papa. But the storm begins to blow down leaves, and suddenly Lawrence is enraptured by the beauty of the fall foliage. Once reunited, Papa helps Lawrence collect more leaves before heading home to prepare the collection. His classmates are so enthralled by the leaves that by the end of the day his collection is dispersed among them and Lawrence, with a newfound confidence, leads his friends on a leaf-finding forest expedition.
- Classroom Leaf Collection
Read aloud books that discuss different types of trees, leaves and the science behind color change. I read Mia Posada’s Summer Green to Autumn Gold, Betsy Maestro’s Why Do Leaves Change Colors? and Gail Gibbons’ Tell Me, Tree. Give each student a gallon-sized plastic bag and ask them to bring it back in a week filled with leaves, acorns and seeds. Encourage them to look in their yards, neighborhoods, local nature centers, the soccer field or any place they notice new types of leaves. Let the students share their collections with each other and then use identification books to categorize, group and label their collections.
- A Collection of Collections
Ask teachers, parents and children if they have collections of small items they are willing to lend your class for a week. If they also have time to speak to the class about their collection, it’s a wonderful bonus! Set clear guidelines with students regarding the handling and care of personal collections. Throughout the week, give students time to look at and study the collections. My students were absolutely fascinated by my borrowed rock/gem, stamp, charm, shell, nutcracker, patch and button collections. I even had to physically pry them away from the tables a few times!
- Further Reading and Critical Thinking
Most children are natural collectors. Read other books that highlight kids’ collections and then invite students to briefly share personal experiences. I read aloud Michelle Schaub’s Finding Treasure, Emily Beeny’s Hector the Collector and Elisa Kleven’s The Puddle Pail. Spark discussion by asking, “Is money a requirement for having a collection? What type of things can we collect without money?”
The Hike by Alison Farrell
For best friends Wren, El and Hattie, hiking is their “favorite thing to do.” Armed with sketchbooks, pencils, poems, flags, feathers and Bean (their faithful canine companion), they start their Buck Mountain trek on a sunny morning. Their summit assent includes leaf baskets, berry foraging, rainstorms, rocky terrain and piggyback rides. When they reach the top of the mountain, they celebrate by releasing feathers, reading a poem and waving the flag. Unobtrusive dialogue bubbles, labels and sketchbook pages extend the simple narrative, offering readers an abundance of information regarding plants, animals and woodland forest life. The Hike is a story that not only celebrates flora, fauna and the great outdoors, but also camaraderie, perseverance and the joy that really is in the journey.
- Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
As author-illustrator Alison Farrell mentioned in this interview, at the heart of her book are some lines from a Mary Oliver poem, “Sometimes.”
Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.
Write these lines on a sheet of anchor chart paper and let students share their interpretations. Ask, “Do you do this?” and “What does Oliver mean when she says, “Pay attention?” I showed my students this Norman Rockwell painting and this photograph, and the two images prompted a cacophony of indignant and incredulous responses! Give students time to copy the lines (goodness, children still need handwriting and fine motor skills!) onto an index card. Their assignment is to “Pay attention,” “be astonished” and decide how they will “tell about it.” This exercise gave me new insights into each child’s individual personality, not only because of what astonished them but also through the way they chose to tell about it. Song lyrics, watercolor paintings, digital presentations and Lego creations are just a sampling of the ways my students communicated their astonishments.
Treasure written by Mireille Messier, illustrated by Irene Luxbacher
Two siblings set out in search of a treasure. “How will we know when we’ve found a treasure?” wonders the younger brother. Big sister confidently explains, “A treasure is shiny and mysterious and precious. And the best treasures are always hidden.” As they wander through the forest, little brother finds an acorn, milkweed pods and a feather, but according to sister, these items are not shiny, mysterious or precious enough to be treasure. Letting his frustration and doubt get the best of him, little brother sits on a rock and declares, “The treasure is hidden too far away! I give up.” But then big sister calls him to come around the bend and together they wonder at an unexpected treasure that is indeed shiny, mysterious and precious—and “too big for pockets.” Told through the siblings’ simple dialogue, Treasure reflects children’s inquisitive nature and the fresh wonder with which they view the natural world.
- Nature Counting Cards
Give students brown paper lunch bags and take them on a nature treasure hunt. I prepped by dropping acorns, sticks, bird feathers, fall leaves, miniature acorns and milkweed along our walking path. After the walk, ask each child to lay out their treasures. In the front of the room or on a long table, place pieces of white 8.5" x 11" cardstock labeled 1 through 20. After students have collectively grouped the nature treasures according to item or appearance, let them work together to decide which item they want to represent the number “one.” Place it on the piece of cardstock labeled “1.” Repeat the process for each number, then divide the students into pairs and assign each pair a number. Each pair will arrange the treasures on their respective cards, then loosely glue or tape them to the cardstock. Take overhead pictures of each card, print them in color, and laminate them. Hung together, they create useful and beautiful classroom decorations.
Tiny, Perfect Things written by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper
“Today we keep our eyes open for tiny, perfect things,” explains a young girl as she and her grandfather venture out for a neighborhood walk. Slowing down and noticing reveals the small splendors surrounding them. From “a yellow leaf that the wind blew down” to “a man with a beautiful feather in his hat” and the “pale, bright moon,” together they wonder and celebrate the beauty and miracle of nature, neighbors and night. The culminating four-page spread unfolds to showcase the entire walk, inviting children to “come look with me” and notice their own tiny, beautiful things.
Reread the text with students. Record each of the tiny, perfect things that the little girl noticed on her walk. I wrote each item on an index card and used magnets to stick them on the white board. Let students determine categories, then divide the items into the appropriate categories. Animals/nature/people was the first (and most obvious) category, but at my encouragement the students expanded their thinking and we recategorized items into living/nonliving, singular/plural, and red/not red.
- A Tiny, Perfect Things Walk
As soon as I finished reading it aloud, my first grade students began clamoring for a “tiny, perfect things” walk. Give each student a clipboard and pencil, and let them help you determine the route. Remind your students to notice and record adjectives (read examples from the text) that accompany their tiny, perfect things. Bring your phone and take pictures of the items that students notice. When you return to the classroom, give students time to draw and color their findings and hang them, along with the photographs you took, on a classroom Tiny, Perfect Things board.