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!

 

 

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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!