Learning to Love the Land

winter sketching

What is our relationship to the natural world?

Over the past few years I have been exploring notions around Place-Based Education, Critical Theory, and Environmental Education in my own personal reading as ways for taking up this question with my students.

As I have read I have come to believe that powerful environmental education and active citizenship go hand in hand and develop in three parts:

  • LOVE:  Children need multiple opportunities to develop personal connections to place so that they may learn to love the world;
  • LEARN:  Children need support as they develop a critical understanding of how the natural world works, and the challenges and opportunities around environmental issues;
  • LEAD: Children need to be empowered to lead their communities to take steps to support a just world based on sustainable practices.

Every year I strive to provide multiple opportunities for my class to spend time outdoors.  This year I will be starting the year with an extended field-trip to the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area as part of the Campus Calgary Program.  Each day for five days we will take the bus to our very own classroom at the Cross Conservation site and spend the day exploring the land, and coming to develop a sense of place.  Learning to carefully watch the natural world, to sit quietly, and to record our experiences is central to this program.

Given our early start day (September 16th – the third week of school!), and that I only work half-time, we only have a few days to develop what Cynthia Chambers calls watching the land.  Using our Visual Journal is a central part of our work.

Here are some guides I have the children glue into their Visual Journal before we start:

Looking at Objects

My Visual Journal Includes

Mapping Checklist

And here are some warm up exercises I will do with my students inside and outside to get them comfortable using their Visual Journals.

1. 10 seconds +

In this activity students choose any object in the classroom or outside to sketch (pencil sharpener, water bottle, a patch of grass etc).

I have them divide a blank page into four squares and label the boxes: 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, 3 minutes.  Children then draw that same object for that amount of time.

After the activity I debrief with the students about how much more detail they are able to observe and sketch when they take more time. A fun follow up is to then get the students to sketch their object for 10 minutes. Some students will find this very difficult, but the more they practice making careful observations, the easier they will find this.

2. Ten/Ten

Students divide their journal page into two columns.  Then they spend 10 minutes sketching (an object or a scene) on one side.  When the 10 minutes are up they write about what they have sketched for 10 minutes.  Having children write about what they have drawn is an easy way to engage reluctant writers.  Ask students to use the Looking at Objects sticker to help guide their writing.

3. How Observant Are You?

I then have the children do this observation/writing activity How Observant Are You, modified from Writing Well, by Milliken Publishing Company.

4. The Story of Recess

Children love creating maps! After spending some time looking at birds eye-view maps, and practicing making a map of our classroom together, I get the children to make a birds-eye-view map of our school yard.  I will usually prepare a simple outline showing the borders of our our school yard for those children who have difficulty getting oriented.  Once they have completed their map I have the children write “the story of recess” into their map, showing the places where they played, who they played with, and if/how they moved around the yard. Often the children will observe how the school yard place is divided into different areas for activities and grades.

5. Leaf Wonderings

In order to help my students make more detailed observations I will have them bring in a variety of leafs.  We will then try a variety of techniques to draw them in our journal, including doing rubbings, tracing and free hand drawing.  We will then write our observations and I wonder questions all around.  The children are excited to learn the vocabulary to describe the different shapes of leafs.

Here is an excellent video series by John Muir Law on how to draw flowers and leaves (for those of us who may not have the art skills ourselves!)

What do you do to get your kids outside?

NB Please see my resources page for other ideas!