Read-Alouds for Outdoor Learning

Over the summer our school yard got a massive make-over. We went from having a small concrete pen to a large, beautiful, natural play space. When I was constructing my schedule for this year, I wanted to make sure I left ample time in our day, every day, for outdoor learning. It is important to me that the children aren’t simply released into the outdoor classroom without guidance or explicit teaching, but that we use the outdoor classroom as a springboard for conversations about environmental stewardship and the development of inquiry skills like noticing, asking questions, and carrying out explorations.

I often use read-alouds as a starting point for classroom learning or inquiry projects. Outdoor learning is no different. Luckily, I have stumbled upon some truly wonderful children’s books that I have found to enhance the learning my students and I do together outdoors. Today I thought I’d share some with you. Here are some of my favourite books about nature and the outdoors:

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost step-gently-out

This book is a favourite because of its beautiful photography and lyrical text. The main message in this read-aloud is the need to be careful and gentle with nature. I love using this text at the beginning of the year when I am establishing expectations about our outdoor time with the children.

Quiet in the Garden by Aliki

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This is a beautiful book in which the main character talks about how to be still and quiet in the garden and how doing so will allow you to notice things in your surroundings. I love using this book to teach the children about the importance of being still in nature, looking closely at our surroundings, and making observations.

Nature Spy by Shelly Rotner and Ken Kreisler

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This is another gem of a book that teaches children about how to be a “nature spy” and look closely at one’s surroundings. The book includes several photographs with “zoomed in” images and creates a few opportunities for the children to make their own observations during the read-aloud. After reading this one with my class, several children identified themselves as “nature spies” when we returned to the outdoor classroom.

We’re Going on  a Nature Hunt by Steve Metzger

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This is one of those delightfully simple books that has a powerful message! In We’re Going on a Nature Hunt, the author presents several scenarios one might encounter on a nature hunt and in each one, adds a message about being gentle and kind to nature. I often use this book when teaching about point of view. When reading, I ask my students to pay close attention to the author’s message: “Look at the frog jump and swim. But don’t scare it.” “Look at the colourful flowers. But don’t pick them.” “Look at the eggs in the robin’s nest. But don’t touch.” This books sends the message that children need to respect nature.

Basil’s Birds by Lynn Rowe Reed

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I’ve done quite a few bird inquiries over the years (in part because we used to have a prime view of some beautiful sparrow nesting boxes outside our classroom window!) and this is always one of my go-to read alouds. Again, this book carries the theme of caring for and respecting nature. The main character, Basil, originally views the birds nesting around his school as a nuisance. But one day, after falling asleep outside, Basil wakes to find a bird nest on his head. Ultimately, he grows to love and care for his birds, until the eggs hatch and the birds fly away. This book is wonderful for highlighting different feelings/emotions and having “what would you do?” types of discussions.

Gummytoes by Sean Cassidy

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This is a book about a little tree frog who wants to be noticed and admired, but when he finds himself captured by a group of children and kept as a “pet” he realizes how much he wants to blend back in to his natural environment. Because this book is told from the point of view of the frog, you can’t help but imagine how terrible it is to be poked and prodded, yelled at and held captive in an inhospitable jar. I’ll never forget one of my students suddenly becoming concerned about her pet goldfish after hearing this story; namely, she was worried that perhaps her fish felt like Gummytoes and would prefer to be in a big pond in the wild. It’s a great resource for teaching children about the importance of returning their found creatures (like worms or snails) to nature after taking time to study them respectfully.

The Dandelion’s Tale by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey

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This is the story of a dandelion who wishes to be remembered. A little sparrow helps her out by writing her story in the dirt. This is a magical little tale about friendship that my students are always captivated by! Dandelions are a focus of excitement nearly every spring, and every spring I find myself reaching for this book.

The Imaginary Garden by Andrew Larson

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I have blogged about this book before (you can read about it here). It is one of my all time favourite children’s books. In this story, Theo and her Poppa share many special days in Poppa’s garden. When Poppa downsizes to an apartment with a windy balcony, recreating that garden becomes a creative inspiration! Instead of plants in pots, Theo and Poppa set about painting an imaginary garden on a large canvas. This is a wonderful book to read during the last cold snap of winter when you are waiting for spring to arrive. We used this book as inspiration for our own garden mural, but it would just as easily work for any garden projects you are undertaking in your outdoor space. So many possibilities!

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown

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Another garden favourite, this book is a stunning example of the difference one person can make in the world. In the book, a grey drab city transforms into a lush green garden paradise after Liam discovers a bit of garden life and sets about nurturing it. This is a wonderful story about the power of human action and the importance of taking care of our environment.

Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre

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This is a stunning book! It is a lovely book to read on a rainy day, particularly before heading outside to see how the world looks different after a rainstorm. Besides the gorgeous photographs, one of the things I like best about this book is its use of descriptive vocabulary: “Rain plops. It drops. It patters. It spatters.” 

Any book by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

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I have every book written by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long: A Butterfly Is Patient, An Egg Is Quiet, A Nest Is Noisy, A Rock Is Lively, A Seed Is Sleepy,and A Beetle Is Shy. I love the scientific detail that has gone in to each of these books, but what I really love is the journal/sketchbook-type illustrations. These are beautiful books to look at and we always marvel at the information that is presented in each one!

I must say, it was very hard to narrow down this list! As a self-professed book lover, I do hope you will take some time to share your favourite books about nature and the outdoors in the comments below. I’m always looking for my next great read-aloud!

 

 

The Butterfly Inquiry

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Have you ever had live creatures in your classroom? There is something quite magical about having a living, breathing part of nature in the classroom to inspire some deep thinking. Beyond the obvious scientific connections, having live creatures in the classroom also provides opportunities for social development around respect, responsibility, care-giving, and self-regulation. Over the years I’ve had many insects, amphibians, and animals come through my door but butterflies are definitely my favourite. The whole process of watching and waiting for metamorphosis to occur provides endless opportunities for observations, predictions, hypotheses, and of course, lots of excitement!

This inquiry project turned out to be quite all-encompassing and there is a lot I want to share here. This post will be mainly photo based, with some captions for the photos to describe what we were doing. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!

Our caterpillars on the day of their arrival. We ordered our live caterpillars from Boreal Science.

Our caterpillars on the day of their arrival. We ordered our live caterpillars (Painted Lady Butterflies) from Boreal Science.

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E.A. thought our caterpillars should have names – here, she made name tags for two: “Zigzag” and “Stripey.”

Our literacy connection for the start of this inquiry was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Here, a student records a shadow-puppet retelling of the story on the iPad.

Our literacy connection for the start of this inquiry was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Here, F.S. records a shadow-puppet retelling of the story on the iPad.

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The children take time to record their observations of the caterpillars in their science notebooks.

A closer look at the science notebook.

A closer look at the science notebook.

 

We represented each phase of the butterfly life cycle through an art piece. Here is our collaborative art piece for the caterpillar, based on Eric Carle's famous story.

We represented each phase of the butterfly life cycle through an art piece. Here is our collaborative art piece for the caterpillar, based on Eric Carle’s famous story.

Racing caterpillars at the math centre. The children negotiated the length of the course and recorded the results of their races.

Racing caterpillars at the math centre. The children negotiated the length of the course and recorded the results of their races.

Our caterpillars inspired so much writing at the writing table!

Our caterpillars inspired so much writing at the writing table!

Writing letters to our butterflies while we wait for them to emerge from their chrysalises.

Writing letters to our butterflies while we wait for them to emerge from their chrysalises.

We found this idea on Pinterest - recording the growth and change of our butterflies. We kept this record on the SMARTBoard.

We found this idea on Pinterest – recording the growth and change of our butterflies. We kept this record on the SMARTBoard.

 

Art and Fine Motor Instruction: learning how to draw a butterfly. Much of this lesson was dedicated to symmetry.

Art and Fine Motor Instruction: learning how to draw a butterfly. Much of this lesson was dedicated to symmetry.

Our See, Think, Wonder graphic organizers were available throughout the entire inquiry. This one says, "I see the butterfly has spots. I think it is camouflage. I wonder how the butterflies get their designs."

Our See, Think, Wonder graphic organizers were available throughout the entire inquiry. This one says, “I see the butterfly has spots. I think it is camouflage. I wonder how the butterflies get their designs.”

 

One of our main questions was "how can we care for our caterpillars/butterflies?" This led us to think about how to create a  habitat for the butterflies where they could thrive while we had them indoors. The children recorded their ideas on butterfly habitat planning sheets and looked for their materials in our outdoor classroom.

One of our main questions was “how can we care for our caterpillars/butterflies?” This led us to think about how to create a habitat for the butterflies where they could thrive while we had them indoors. The children recorded their ideas on butterfly habitat planning sheets and gathered their materials in our outdoor classroom.

Our representation of the chrysalis stage: creating a chrysalis out of papier mache. The children added finer details with permanent markers when their work was dry.

Our representation of the chrysalis stage: creating a chrysalis out of papier mache. The children added finer details with permanent markers when their work was dry.

You can see how excited the children are to catch a glimpse of our first butterfly!

You can see how excited the children are to catch a glimpse of our first butterfly!

Representing our butterflies with beautiful watercolour paintings. The children worked very hard to create symmetrical designs on the butterfly wings.

Representing our butterflies with beautiful watercolour paintings. The children worked very hard to create symmetrical designs on the butterfly wings.

Documentation of our learning. We layered the children's work in a display that captured not only the growth and change of the caterpillars but of our own learning and understanding.

Documentation of our learning. We layered the children’s work in a display that captured not only the growth and change of the caterpillars but the growth and change of our own learning and understanding.

More documentation.

More documentation.

Our butterflies were clipped to our chrysalises and hung from a branch suspended from the ceiling.

Our butterflies were clipped to our chrysalises and hung from a branch suspended from the ceiling.

We celebrated the end of our learning journey with a butterfly release party in our outdoor classroom where the children sang songs and talked about their wishes for our butterflies as they flew into nature.

We celebrated the end of our learning journey with a butterfly release party in our outdoor classroom where the children sang songs and talked about their wishes for our butterflies as they flew into nature.

 

 

 

 

 

Nests, revisited…

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One of the things I’ve noticed about inquiry projects is how everlasting the learning is. Our projects never really end; though we may “shelve” our thinking and ideas for a time, we often revisit our projects throughout the year – or even in the following year. Earlier in the fall I wrote about a nest inquiry we embarked on after one of my students brought in a nest she found on her way to school (you can read about it here: “Whose Nest is This?”). This Spring, students started thinking about an inquiry from last year where we studied the birds in our yard. As the weather warmed up, the children started noticing our sparrows territorially guarding the bird houses in the courtyard and began speculating that the birds might be preparing nests for their babies, as they had done last year. This created some interesting discussion and wondering about nests. Some of the questions that came up were:

Why do birds (and other animals) build nests?

How do they build nests? What materials do they use? How long does it take?

We really wished we could see inside our bird houses so we could see what the birds were up to! To that end, I found a clip on YouTube that showed a time lapse of a bird building a nest inside a birdhouse (some clever person had set up a video camera in the roof of the house to capture the whole process – boy, did my students think THAT was a genius idea!).

To capitalize on the students’ interest in nests, I created a provocation at the Art Studio. We had been working with clay over the last few weeks and I wanted to give the students a new experience with this popular material. Here is the provocation:

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Students were asked to sculpt a nest out of clay and make sure that it could safely hold at least one egg. Students were also asked to add “texture” to their nests using a variety of materials. Fitting an egg proved to be a wonderful challenge that encouraged the children to problem solve as they worked  – making their nests deeper, wider, or taller as necessary to safely hold the egg. When it came to adding texture, we spent some time holding real bird nests and describing how they felt – “rough,” “prickly,” “scratchy.” “soft,” “smooth,” etc. Children were given simple tools (popsicle sticks, toothpicks, forks, etc.) to add the texture they felt was appropriate. This was a new experience for my students, as our previous work with clay had required them to make their pieces as smooth as possible. Some children had a hard time scratching up their work – in their minds, the nests needed to be smooth because “that’s what clay should feel like.” I was fascinated by this line of thinking. It just goes to show that we often misinterpret the messages that children receive from us from our teaching.

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S.M: The inside of my nest is very big so all the eggs can fit and won’t fly out because of the wind!

Y.T: I made my nest with clay. First, I made a circle and then I put my thumb in and pushed. First the egg didn’t fit and then I pinched it more and tested it but it still didn’t fit, then I tested it again and it fit!

G.M: Nests are for baby birds. The nest keeps the eggs from falling out on the ground where someone might eat them.

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J.M.: Nests are very scratchy. I’m going to pinch it to make it rough. I really enjoyed making this!

J.K.: Nests have a bumpy texture.

S.M.: My nest has a rough texture on the outside and a smooth texture on the inside. It’s smooth in the inside because we don’t want to hurt the birds.

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After completing our nests, the children were given the opportunity to paint an egg to put inside. We read An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Silvia Long (one book of many in a wonderful series – definitely worth checking out!) where we learned about the different sizes, shapes, designs, and textures eggs can have. We also discovered that eggs can be laid by a wide variety of animals! While working on their eggs, the children were asked to imagine what creature might hatch from their egg – a wonderful, creative exercise that greatly influenced how the children designed and painted their eggs.

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M: That’s a crab egg. It’s red with black spots!

M.B. I knew he was making a crab egg. I knew it because he made it so red!

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M.C: I’m painting my egg black because there’s a black snake inside!

R.K.: Mine is a blue jay egg. It’s just blue because a blue jay is blue. Oh, I love my egg!

J.M.: I made my egg green with white, yellow, and blue. I put on black speckles and blue lines. There’s a little robin inside.

Our display of nests and eggs is in the centre of our classroom, at the children’s level. Our students can be found admiring their work daily (and they can’t wait to take them home!).

Are you working on a bird or nest inquiry at the moment? What kind of thinking is happening in your class? I’d love to hear what you are up to!

The Amaryllis Inquiry…a reflection on clustering expectations

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What can you do with one Amaryllis bulb? It turns out, quite a lot! One of the questions I often get about choosing an emergent, inquiry-based program is “How do you make sure you still cover all the learning expectations laid out in the Kindergarten curriculum?” This inquiry turned out to be a great example of how an inquiry-based approach to learning can help you cluster learning goals and expectations with effective results!

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In the fall, our students made an exciting discovery in the courtyard: seeds! Our beautiful Rose of Sharon bush had gone to sleep for the winter and left behind some interesting pods which, when the children opened them, were found to contain “little fuzzy seeds.” This discovery led to many wonderings about plants, seeds, and growing things. At the science and nature table, the children tried planting the seeds from the Rose of Sharon, orange seeds, and apple seeds. Anything they could find! I happened to have received an Amaryllis bulb as a gift, and I added it to the collection of “growing things” on our table.

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Our initial exploration of the bulb led to some interesting observations from the children, a skill I was looking to develop at this early stage of the school year:

“It looks like an onion!”

“It looks like spaghetti!”

“It looks like it has hair and skin!”

“Is something really going to grow from that?”

“Maybe that spaghetti stuff is the roots!”

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We planted the bulb and excitedly waited for something to happen.

After the weekend, we noticed something green poking out of the bulb! The children were encouraged to record their observations and make predictions about what the Amaryllis would look like.

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At the same time, we had begun to learn about measurement. As our plant sprouted, we asked the children: “How can we measure our Amaryllis?” Very few tools were given to the children; rather, they were encouraged to problem solve their own ways of calculating the plant’s size.

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M.F. : “I’m tracing the leaf on the paper and cutting it out to show how big it is.”

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E.A. : “I’m measuring the leaves with crayons and pencils. The leaf is as tall as my pencil!”

As the Amaryllis grew and we learned more about using non-standard measurement tools such as cubes, links, and string, the children began to try more precise ways of measuring. To support their desire to measure with different objects, we added the cubes, links, string, paper clips, and measuring tapes to our centre. The children were encouraged to record their thinking and learning on paper and share their ideas during reflection time.

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The day our Amaryllis bloomed was truly an exciting event! The children were very interested in touching the flower, looking closely at it (with magnifying glasses and the class microscope), and drawing it. We set up a still-life provocation at the Art Studio for the children to record their observations and creative representations on paper. Many children returned day after day to paint our Amaryllis as it continued to change and bloom.

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The children were given black permanent markers to first sketch the flower and watercolour paints to fill their sketches with colour.

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From start to finish, our Amaryllis inquiry touched on learning expectations in literacy, mathematics, science and technology, and art. I was able to gather information and assessment on the children’s ability to make observations and predictions, communicate their thinking orally and in drawings and art works, demonstrate their problem solving skills and knowledge of measurement, and learn about the needs of living things and how plants grow. Because our exploration originated from the children’s natural interest in seeds and how things grow, there was a high level of engagement throughout the project.

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Growing an Imaginary Garden

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Today I’m back with another of my most treasured children’s books to recommend: The Imaginary Garden by Andrew Larson. In this story, Theo and her Poppa share many special days in Poppa’s garden. When Poppa downsizes to an apartment with a windy balcony, recreating that garden becomes a creative inspiration! Instead of plants in pots, Theo and Poppa set about painting an imaginary garden on a large canvas.

My students really responded to this book. We have been anxious for signs of spring, but since it has been a rather slow start to the growing season this book is just what we needed to tide us over until the warm days arrive. After reading the story aloud, the children were immediately interested in creating an imaginary garden of our own. We did a group brainstorming session and decided we wanted to begin where Theo and her Poppa began: by setting the stage for the garden by creating the soil, a garden wall, and the sky.

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Our class compilation of ideas for the garden, generated after one of our read-alouds

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The children get to work on painting the garden wall – they wanted the bricks to be in “an A-B-C pattern.”

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A group of students work on painting the soil.

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The children work on painting the sky. They really enjoyed mixing the paint to make different shades of blue.

Last week we continued our garden planning by setting up a planning station at the classroom writing centre. Along with a copy of the book, clipboards, planning sheets, and markers, we also included whimsical objects such as small gardening tools, pots, gloves, and real plants to get the children inspired. We also put out some books about different kinds of flowers. As the children completed their plans, we clipped them to the hanging display at our science centre. Throughout the week, children were invited into the hall to add their ideas to the mural.

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Our Imaginary Garden provocation

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Each student planted a seed in the garden and labeled it with their name. The children were asked what kind of seed they were planting/what they hoped their seed would become:

J.K.: Mine is going to grow into a Lego flower!

Y.T.: My seed is going to be a sunflower – a GIANT one!

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Some children were interested in the idea of painting sprouts, just as Theo and Poppa had done. ‘”These are our baby plants.”

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F.I.: “I’m planting wheat in the garden because I just love bread so much!”

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J.M.: “We are painting vines. I got the idea of doing it when Poppa said, ‘The vines are reaching for the sun.'”

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This is how our garden looked on Friday before we headed home. I can’t wait to see what will appear this week! The children have already established that next week our Art Studio will be dedicated to “painting flowers for the garden.” I’ll be sure to post an update soon so you can see how our garden has grown!

*Update

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The spring bulbs popping up in the courtyard outside became a source of artistic inspiration for our students. Along with photos of our flowers outside, we also added pictures of spring flowers and some real potted plants I brought in from home to the Art Studio. The children had access to any colour of paint they wanted (and many decided to mix their own colours!). Many children visited this centre daily and waited anxiously for their painted flowers to dry so they could cut them out and “plant” them in our garden mural.

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Our flower painting provocation at the art studio.

Below is a picture of our completed Imaginary Garden. After our project was complete, we reflected on our work as a class. As one student said, “Our garden gives us happy tears because we love it so much.”

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Spring Inspirations

When you dream of spring, what does it look like?

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Spring is finally here…sort of. Despite the fact that it is still chilly outside, spring has sprung at the Curious Kindergarten! This year, the children were particularly excited about the arrival of spring – doing their own countdown in the days leading up to March 20th. When the first day of spring arrived, some children were naturally disappointed that when they woke up that morning there was still snow on the ground, a chill in the air, and a winter jacket to wear to school. We wanted to latch on to the children’s natural excitement about the changes that were still ahead, so we created a “Spring Inspiration” table at our classroom science table.

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Above: Birds nests, birds, eggs, and early spring plants inspire the children’s thinking around the creatures we have already observed in our Outdoor Classroom.

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Above: Insects, a bug house, planting supplies, animals, and non-fiction books about spring changes help the children envision what they might begin to see and do outside now that the weather is changing.

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Above: These fairies and garden gnomes were a huge hit, providing ample opportunities for dramatic play, storytelling, and the development of ideas around how creatures respond to the changes outside.

The question we have been asking leading up to spring (and after) is: “When you dream of spring, what does it look like?” In order to support the children’s thinking, we have been reading a lot of books (both fiction and non-fiction) about spring and engaging in visualization exercises. Many of our classroom activities have been designed to help the children communicate their thinking in a variety of ways. For example, at the playdough table we created a provocation with green dough and spring-themed loose parts (mushrooms, flowers, butterflies, stones, wood chips, etc.) in which the children created their own “spring scenes.” At the writing table, children have been encouraged to write their own poems about spring, and at the art studio, children were given the opportunity to paint a still-life portrait of a tulip.

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M.F. and M.B. created a collaborative drawing that tells their story of spring creatures.

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“Hello Spring” is a poem written by one of our JK students at the writing table.

What an exciting time! It really does feel like there has been a “spring awakening” happening in our classroom. How have you marked the arrival of spring with your students? What kinds of inquiries and ideas are you talking about?

The Bird Feeder Project

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Here in Toronto this year we have been having an exceptionally cold and snowy winter! Despite the weather, some of our feathered friends have remained in our outdoor classroom. One day when we were outside, some children began to wonder about the birds – weren’t they cold? How were they finding food under all this snow?

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After reading Ricki’s Birdhouse by Monica Wellington, a book about a boy who constructs a birdhouse for the birds in his yard and proceeds to feed the birds throughout the year, the children were interested in making their own bird feeders for the birds in our outdoor classroom. We set up a provocation at the science table including planning sheets, our Ricki’s Birdhouse story, and iPads. Using the iPads, we googled “homemade bird feeder” images and the children looked for designs that appealed to them. Then they set about creating their plans. We encouraged the children to label their plans with the materials we would need to build them.

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After giving the children ample time for the planning process, we gathered up the materials the children requested for their bird feeders. I sent a letter home asking the parents to send in any materials they may have at home to help us with our project. Then we set up our bird feeder making centre! For the most part, the children really stuck to their original designs when making their bird feeders. Other children who weren’t initially interested in making their own plans stopped by and got inspired by their classmates’ projects. The children were really in charge of this activity from start to finish, and were so proud of the feeders they made!

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At the end of the week, we took our feeders outside to hang up in the courtyard. The children were beyond excited to share their creations with the birds. It felt like a bird feeder hanging party!

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Update: After the weekend, we took the children outside to see if there were any clues that the birds had enjoyed the birdseed. We had had another dose of snow, so the children noticed that some of the materials we used did not hold up in the extreme winter conditions.

E.A.: The bird feeders made of Kleenex boxes and toilet rolls with honey stayed up.
F.S.: The snow covered the paper plates and they fell down.
A.C.: The tissue boxes and the buckets are good to make feeders because they stayed up.
J.M.: The apples stayed up too and some of the food was missing.

When talking about whether or not the birds enjoyed the feeders:

M.F.: The bird seed is gone!
B.L.: That’s because the snow is covering the seeds. I can see it if I dig down.
H.K.: I think the birds look fatter!