A walk in the woods

One of the things that I love about our school is the wonderful outdoor areas that we have on our property. From the simplicity of the outdoor amphitheater that could be an awesome place to take your class to change up the learning environment, to the trails, river, and prairie area we have just a short walk from the doors of our building. Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend Ditch that Conference at Turkey Run State Park with several of the teachers in our building. This conference was put on by Matt Miller, the author of Ditch that Textbook and co-author of Ditch that Homework. One of the ongoing themes of the conference was “An Analog Conference in a Digital World.” This is the first conference I have ever attended that actually told us in advance not to bring digital devices. I left my computer and iPad at home, and took along my journal (little did I know that I wouldn’t even need mine, because when we checked in we got an awesome Ditch That Textbook journal!).

Ditch Journal
This is the front cover of the cool journal that every attendee who was at the conference received!

 

There were so many awesome things that I could share with you, but I just wanted to talk about one idea in particular. During one of the sessions, Jed Dearybury took us on a walk on the “Art”side! At the very beginning of the session, Jed had us all pick a leaf from along the trail. We were told that while we were walking, we should be thinking about a story involving the leaf. The reality is that you could have kids pick anything that you want (or you could even allow them to pick whatever they wanted to carry with them). Jed shared that if he was doing this activity, he would encourage students to jot down as many details as they could while they were walking – things they saw, things they heard, etc. Then, when they return to class, students would write a story about their leaf. They would use as many of the details they wrote down to include in their story.

There are some variations you could do with this activity as well:

  • Working on persuasion? Have the student’s object be trying to convince you of something.
  • Social studies? Tell students they need to set the story in the context of the unit you are currently studying.
  • Science? Have the story tie into the biome that students have been studying.
  • Math? Can we figure out a way to find the area of the leaf we picked? What about the volume of a walnut on the ground?
  • Collaboration? Have two students partner up and create a shared story involving both the objects they selected.

These are just a couple of ideas I came up with in just a few minutes of brainstorming. With as many smart and talented people as we have in this building, there could be a multitude of others that never yet crossed my mind!

In our 50 minutes together, Jed shared 2 other awesome ideas that could easily be integrated into activities for any classroom. Want to know about them? Ask me and I’ll share – I don’t want this post to get too long!

I walked away from this short session wanting to encourage you, once again, to find as many ways as you can think of to get your kids outside of the concrete box that is the typical classroom. So many of our kids don’t get the opportunity to spend much time in nature – seeing what happens in the woods, listening to the sounds of nature, and learning from those experiences. Make use of our beautiful campus and great outdoor spaces!

Do you have any ideas for variations on the leaf activity above? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Using outdoor spaces

Today I was reading a recent blog post by John Spencer about the ways that nature helps us to be more creative (check it out here).  Personally I love to be out in nature, so the post really caught my attention.  The gist of the post was about the fact that time in nature can lead us to greater levels of creativity.  His 5 ways that nature makes us more creative are listed in bold below, with my own thoughts added:

  1. Nature creates positive disruptions – Life draws us into the natural hustle and bustle of our world. Being in nature helps us get away from technology, current events, and everything else that makes it hard for our brain to stay focused.  That time away from all those distractions allows our brains to think more deeply.
  2. Nature encourages problem-solving – Almost every time I go for a hike, or spend some time in nature, I’m inspired to write a new blog post, or solve a problem, or be creative.
  3. Nature helps us embrace deep work – When do you do your best thinking? There is a lot of research that says that simply being active can lead to deeper thinking.  Simply going for a walk helps us activate our brain in different ways.  According to some research, throw nature into the mix and you multiply that effect.  So what does that mean for you?  Before teaching a particularly important skill, take your class for a walk in the woods outside of school.  Your students brains will be better prepared for deeper thinking when you return.
  4. Nature humbles us while also expanding our worldview – I’m not sure how many of you know this about me, but I was a 10 year 4-H member. I didn’t show animals (we weren’t on the farm), but I did lots of other projects over the years.  One of the projects I did required me to take multiple observations of a natural environment every day over multiple weeks.  I chose a small wooded area with a trail just a little over a mile from my home.  I had to observe at different times in the day, and I began to notice changes in what seemed like an untouched environment.  Some animals were more or less active at certain times of the day, some plants looked different depending on various factors.  The time I have spent in the natural world helps me realize that there are so many things happening in the world around us that we miss when we are in our cars, or on our devices.  Sometimes you really do have to slow down, look around, and smell the flowers in order to be aware of what’s happening in our world, and to realize how little control we have over so much of what’s around us.
  5. Nature can spark innovation – Did you know that Velcro was designed by a Swiss engineer after his dog was covered in burdock burrs after going on a hike? Or that the design of the nose of Japanese high-speed trains was meant to mimic the beak of a kingfisher?  These are just a couple of examples of innovations that came about because of things that people noticed in nature.  Imagine what the future scientists of the world (our students) may be able to develop if they learn to look to nature for ideas and solutions to our problems.

Reading Spencer’s post got me thinking about the natural wonders just waiting to be explored outside of our school.  By walking out the doors of our building, you can access a variety of outdoor environments.  Between the trails in the wooded areas, the stream running through the woods, the untended plain near the baseball fields, or the river, there are so many ways for us to access nature.  And the benefit doesn’t just stop with the kids being out in nature away from their devices.  Something they see while they are with you may inspire creativity and wonder in a way that is totally unexpected.

What have you done with your class in our outdoor areas?  Have you seen increased levels of creativity as a result of the time you have spent outside?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.