Scientists on the Schoolyard: A Look Inside “Nature in Your Neighborhood”

November 16, 2013
November 2013, Sunnyvale By Kristi Wilson Frosty’s slow and steady voice could barely contain the children’s excitement as they lined up to explore their schoolyard. “When we get back to the classroom, we are going to draw pictures of what we see,” she said. “Are we going to draw unicorns?”  “No!” the kids said in unison. “That’s right. I love unicorns, too,” Frosty said. “But today we are going to draw only what we see.” As lead volunteer for the day, Frosty divided the students into three small groups. She asked the children in her group to walk to the edge of the schoolyard and stop. Scanning the schoolyard from afar, she asked them, “Now what do you see?” The children excitedly called out: “I see white birds! Black birds! I see leaves on the ground, I see trees!” She let them keep looking. A shy child called out: “I see trash bins.” A few children followed with, “I see trash!” One girl stepped out of line to pick up a food wrapper and placed it in the bin. “Look what I found in the trash!” She said as she pulled out a large tree branch. But few children took notice. “This is not trash!” she said to herself, and placed the branch carefully on the ground beneath a tree. Frosty walked the children across the black top to a large grassy area with tall trees turning yellow and orange. With magnifying glasses in hand, the children gravitated to the tree’s rough and gnarly bark. “Look, I found something in the bark!” They squealed, one after the other. “Look! I found yellow stuff,” a girl said, bringing Frosty over to the base of the tree. “That’s tree sap,” Frosty pointed out. “Who likes maple syrup on their waffles?” “Me!” Every hand flew up into the air. “Maple syrup comes from a special kind of tree sap. But this tree sap is not like maple syrup. You can’t eat this sap or put it on your waffles.” Another student took a closer look. “Frosty, something is stuck in the sap! It’s a bug!” Frosty kneeled down. “That’s a moth. It looks like he is sleeping. That’s because many moths are nocturnal. That means they sleep during the day and are awake at night.” “Look at the trees. What’s happening to them?” Frosty asked. “The leaves are turning color! The leaves are falling!” “That’s right,” Frosty said. “Does that mean the tree is dying?” “Yes,” several children sadly. “Is it dying?” Frosty asked again, waiting for more responses. Another student chimed in, “No! It’s not dying, it’s turning fall! The tree is sleeping for the winter.” “Yes! And when will the tree wake back up?” “In springtime!” many children shouted. Frosty didn’t stop to explain the seasons; she couldn’t: she was bombarded with excited questions about new discoveries: bugs of every kind, leaves, moss, the differences in the bark and leaves of pine trees and deciduous trees. As they noticed subtle details, the kid’s questions began to shift from “What bug is this?” to “Why is this bug different than that one?” Frosty’s approach to teaching was not about telling the children what to look for, but about asking: “What are you seeing?” and “What do you notice about it?” What was remarkable about these twenty short minutes spent in the schoolyard: Frosty’s and the other volunteers’ questions helped guide the children through their own discovery. By segmenting playful discovery from direct teaching, and using one method to support the other, the EV’s volunteers have tuned in on one of the most crucial aspects of childhood learning: hands-on experience is essential for young learners to grasp the world around them. And that’s a significant goal of the EV’s work: that all people may experience the natural world in order to learn about it and be inspired to protect it. Back in the classroom, Frosty, Larry, and Joan led the children in an activity to draw what they saw and to present their drawings to the class. “I didn’t see a ladybug!” One child said. “But I did see a sleeping moth.” After the presentations, it was clear that the children were surprised at how many things they saw collectively. They loved being scientists on their schoolyard discovering new things—in a landscape they thought they knew by heart. And now, they are re-discovering it through a new lens. Take this moment, for instance: Back out on the schoolyard, one child was running from leaf pile to leaf pile, comparing the veins of different leaves. “This is like recess, only better!” He said. The next time he goes to recess, I have a feeling that this child will again explore to see what things he can find. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll call his friends over to share in the discovery. Kristi Moos is a nature-lover by nature. She serves as Communications Manager for the Environmental Volunteers.   Photo credit to author.