“Look deep into nature
and then you will understand everything better.” – Einstein.
When I was teaching in-person, looking deeply into nature meant exploring outdoor spaces and natural materials as a classroom community, listening to the children’s insights and questions, and offering new questions, materials, or experiences to extend their explorations.
But what does it mean when children are indoors, connecting with their teacher and each other through a screen? My answers to that question did not recreate the richness of shared outdoor experiences; but I did find alternatives, including ways that technology can play a developmentally appropriate role in appreciating and understanding the natural world.
The benefits of nature play for young children – better physical health, greater focus and pro-social behavior, increased problem-solving skills, and a connection to and respect for the natural world - are wide-ranging. Classroom environments infused with natural materials also support children’s development by adding a sensory richness to their explorations while fostering their creativity and curiosity about the world around them. And, because natural materials are regenerative and can often be acquired without cost, their use has both environmental and economic advantage.
What and how…
I collected many of the natural materials for our explorations. Books, photos, websites, and time-lapse videos became substitutes for shared nature experiences that were not possible with remote instruction.
The specific materials and resources are included with each topic narrative.
Leaves and Trees
Potatoes and Pumpkins
As I planned our first week of classes, I pondered how to incorporate nature without shared experiences and discoveries to serve as provocations.
When I noticed a spider web near my kitchen window, I decided to share a photo of it with the children to see if it sparked their interest. When I asked the children at Morning Meeting what they knew about spiders, their responses reflected their cautious perceptions of these eight-legged creatures: “They make webs. Spiders can bite. They are scary.”
I invited the children to look for spider webs at home during Choice Time, and was thrilled when one child excitedly shared that there was a huge spider web on her balcony!
Her family took a photo to share with the class, and decided to let the web remain on the balcony instead of removing it. This shifted the focus from my experience with spiders to the children’s, and the family’s decision to watch the web rather than destroying it offered a new way of thinking about these fascinating creatures.
This delightful book from 1967 tells the story of a pet spider named Helen who is left at the zoo, and how the zookeepers eventually came to see her as a hero for catching the flies that would otherwise bother the animals. (The dated image of zoos and the fact that both women and men of all ethnicities can be zookeepers are opportunities for discussion when reading this book).
It also illustrates the process Helen used to spin a web.
I invited the children to use the illustrations as reference photos to create spider webs using the natural materials or play dough from their Learning at Home packet.
As I worked with the children during our individual meetings, I realized that they would benefit from more time to explore the materials before using them in such a focused way. So, I followed their lead and we explored other ideas.
During the week, however, some of the children chose to work with an adult to create these interpretations of a spider web..
I rarely use technology as a teaching tool during in-person learning, preferring real-life experiences to virtual ones. Remote teaching during a pandemic required me to rethink this approach.
Since we could not go outside together to look at a spider web; I wondered if technology could offer a different, yet meaningful experience. Each child had reliable access to the internet and an adult available to help them, which made using technology as a learning resource possible. I found two time-lapse videos of a spider spinning a web (Video 1, Video 2). Each was less than five minutes in length, with breath-taking photography. I included them as a Choice Time option, not knowing what the children’s response would be.
The positive feedback I received from both the children and the adults was an eye-opening reminder that technology can provide developmentally appropriate learning experiences that enhance hands-on exploration.
Time-lapse videos became a regular part of our nature explorations; and I anticipate using them (and creating my own) when I return to in-person teaching.
Sunflowers have a magical quality about them – especially the giant ones whose flowers gently bend down to gaze at the adults and children who admire them.
I often use a vase of fresh sunflowers and a giant sunflower head as provocations in the classroom. Adapting these experiences to remote learning required flexibility and accepting that the children's hands-on experiences would be different.
I included a small sunflower (in a small plastic bag with water) in the children’s Learning at Home bags. During Morning Meeting, I asked the children to look carefully at the shape of the petals, touch the soft center, and share what they knew about sunflowers.
Then, I posed some questions I was wondering about and invited them to ask a grown-up to help them research the answers to their questions as well as mine: (The answers are at the end of this section.)
·Why are they called sunflowers?
How tall can sunflowers grow?
·Are all sunflowers yellow?
The children were excited to share their new knowledge with each other, and “research” became a regular part of our explorations. Moving forward, I did my own research first and listed reliable websites on the Choice Time lists to simplify this process for the families.
I included reference photos, markers, and drawing paper in the Learning at Home bags with the intention of drawing sunflowers during our individual meetings.
The children’s interest varied, as did their experience with representational drawing and using photos and objects for reference.
Although I posed questions to focus the children’s observations and scaffold the experience, drawing was a new language for the children to express their thinking and understanding and they needed time to become comfortable with this way of “speaking”.
What do you notice about the shape and color of the flower's center?
Does it look big or little?
What do you notice about the shape and color of the petals?
Are there a lot of petals or just a few?
When teaching in-person, I often place reference photos and objects related to the children’s interests in the art area or Studio, invite the children to look carefully at the photos and objects, and translate those observations into representations with their chosen media. Some children are eager to explore this process, while others prefer to first observe their peers or become more familiar with the media.
Not having a classroom where children are encouraged to explore visual arts media in a self-directed way for an extended period of time was a significant limitation of remote teaching and learning.
Bringing a giant sunflower head into the classroom typically sparks curiosity and interest, especially if children have not seen or touched one before.
Working together to remove all of the seeds fosters a sense of sense of community, while also developing fine motor skills. There are many ways to extend this provocation - providing non-fiction books about sunflowers, pondering how a tiny seed can grow to be so big, creating sunflowers with various art media, estimating the number of seeds, roasting seeds for snack, saving seeds to plant in the spring – depending upon the children’s ideas and question
I had hoped to give giant sunflower heads to each of the children, but was only able to find one. So, I shared it with them virtually.
We watched for weeks as the sunflower head dried and grew smaller, and the yellow flowers fell off revealing the seeds.
When I asked the children to estimate the number of seeds in the head, their responses ranged from 12 to one-hundred-billion: four-year-old ways of saying “a lot”! I took out some of the seeds with tweezers as they watched, and removed the rest after class.
As we looked at the empty head, I wished the children could feel the sharp points of the seed pockets –
a marked contrast from the soft flowers and smooth seeds.
I showed the children a large plastic bag filled with the seeds, and included 20 seeds in their next Learning at Home bag. I encouraged the children to save the seeds and plant them in the spring. I wonder if they will.
I also found a time-lapse video that captures the life cycle of a sunflower in less than three minutes. It beautifully captures the process of growth and change in a way we cannot observe in real time.
Answers to the research questions:
1) Sunflowers were given their name because young flowers turn to face the sun throughout the day. The process can be explained by their circadian rhythms.
3) While most sunflowers are yellow, they can also be bronze, orange, red, and even purple!
Leaves and Trees
Perhaps nothing signifies fall more than leaves changing from the green of summer to the yellow, orange, and red of autumn.
While the children and I could not take a walk together to look for leaves, I could collect leaves of various shapes, colors, and sizes, laminate them, and give them to the children as a provocation to begin our explorations.
(The leaves in the photo are a sample of the collection I gave each child.)
As we looked at the leaves together at Morning Meeting, I posed several questions:
Why do you think the leaves look different?
What do you notice about the shapes and colors?
Do you notice lines in the leaves? Why do you think leaves have them?
Do you have a favorite leaf? Why is it your favorite?
The children knew that different kinds of trees produce different leaves and that the “lines” in the leaves helped the leaves grow, and were intrigued by ginkgo leaf and it’s unusual fan shape
I invited the children and adults to go on a “tree walk” in their neighborhood (if they felt comfortable doing so), and consider these questions:
What do you notice about each tree's shape and size?
Does it still have leaves? What colors are they?
Touch the bark. How does it feel?
If you gave a tree a name, what would it be?
Thanks to beautiful weather, safe urban neighborhoods, and supportive adults, the children were able to create their own leaf collections to share with their friends. With those adults' encouragement, the children organized their leaves by both size and color. When one child shared her leaf graph, other children chose to create their own graphs.
Another child had just received a microscope as a gift, and we wondered what a leaf would look like when viewed through the microscope. These beautiful photographs, shared by the family, enabled the children and I to see leaves from an entirely new perspective,
These experiences highlight that science, math, and literacy are intrinsic to play and inquiry, as well as the essential role of families as partners in the educational process.
The book Summer Green to Autumn Gold by Mia Posada provided an introduction to the science behind the beauty of fall, while time-lapse photos of a maple leaf changing color captured the nuances of this multi-week process in a one-minute video.
I shared a video titled The Beautiful Colors of Fall thinking that the adults would enjoy it more than the children. At a time when many park and nature areas were closed or restricted, it provided a meditative-like escape from the confines of pandemic living. Nature’s beauty spoke to the children as well. When I asked them if they would like to visit any of those places, one child responded, “I want to visit all of them!”.
I wanted to create a shared experience as we broadened our focus from leaves to trees, and decided that the majestic cottonwood tree in my front yard might capture the children’s interest and speak to their innate sense of wonder.
Since the children could not experience its enormous size in person, I took photos that used my house and myself as a basis for comparison.
I also collected pieces of bark that had fallen and gave one to each child. Having a piece of "Ms. Bell's tree" to touch and examine formed a sensory connection that photos cannot replicate.
As I was doing my own “tree research”, I discovered a book that tells the true story of a tree, the animals who called it home, and the people who loved it enough to save it - The Forever Tree by Teresa Surratt and Donna Lukas.
The fact that the tree is located at Camp Wandawega in Wisconsin, close enough for my families to visit when it is safe to travel, added to its relevance.
The “forever tree” drew our attention to the life cycle of trees.
Children shared photos of trees in their neighborhood that had fallen during storms, and I photographed trees in various stages of growth and decay in a forest preserve. The children were intrigued by the "secret tunnel" in a tree trunk, and the shell-like fungus growing on a fallen log. I had often walked in that preserve, but had never stopped to look closely at complexity of nature’s design on display, just waiting for me to notice.
While the children learned facts about trees during this process, it is their growing awareness and appreciation of these magnificent life forms that can have a life-long impact on both the children and the planet.
Potatoes and Pumpkins
Gardening with young children does not need to be limited to outdoor experiences in warm weather.
I included a red potato, toothpicks, and
instructions in the children's Learning at Home bags, and invited them to suspend the potato in water and watch for roots and sprouts to appear.
The children marked a calendar to count the number of days until the first sign of growth. I explained that this was an experiment, which meant that none of us knew for sure what would happen.
I had grown potato vines previously with great success. The potato quickly grew roots, and sprouted thick vines that grew more almost three feet tall with beautiful lilac flowers.
This year’s results were less impressive. The potatoes grew roots and sprouted stems, but none grew taller than a few inches. The children were excited nevertheless, and they were particularly intrigued with the roots that typically are hidden from view underground.
This experience prompted one child to show us a container of carrots she was growing on her balcony, and she proudly pulled one of the carrots from the dirt during class.
Another family showed us how to grow Mung bean sprouts. They, too, grow in water but need to be kept in a dark location.
While these experiences did not lead to more in-depth explorations, they added a richness to my initial provocation and strengthened the budding sense of community among the children and their families.
For young children, Halloween often means costumes, Trick-or-Treat, and jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkins are a way to acknowledge both the holiday and the fall harvest.
At school, teachers and families can provide pumpkins of all shapes, colors, and sizes and invite the children to roll them, lift them, weigh them, order them by size, classify them by color or shape, take out their seeds, and decorate them.
This year, our explorations were limited to the one small pie pumpkin I purchased for each child.
In response to my question, What do you know about pumpkins?, the children were excited to talk about the pumpkins they were going to turn into jack-o-lanterns or that they liked pumpkin pie. They knew much less about where and how pumpkins grow, and what is inside of them.
With adult support, the children scooped out the seeds from their small pumpkin. For the children and some of the adults, this was a new experience! Most of the children did not like the wet, slimy texture of the pulp, but they helped rinse the seeds and spread them out to dry.
I also included a recipe for roasting pumpkin seeds in the Learning at Home bags.
The children enjoyed roasting the seeds more than eating them, - which was not surprising, nor did it make the experience less meaningful . . It was peeking inside a pumpkin for the first time, realizing that pumpkins have lots of seeds that look different from sunflower seeds, and realizing that those seeds can be eaten, that was important.
The pumpkins served an entirely different purpose the following week. I provided paint and decorations and the children transformed them into one-of-a-kind Halloween decorations – just for fun!
“In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous" - Aristotle
While our explorations lacked the richness that shared experiences in natural environments can offer, I hope they inspired the children to engage with nature whenever and however they can.
Incorporating nature into remote teaching required me to think creatively about what I could do, rather than what I would like to do, and to reconsider my assumption that technology always draws children away from nature. Used judiciously, technology can enhance children’s real-life experiences, deepen their understanding, and foster their desire to explore and care for the world around them.