Alamo Area Master Naturalist, Wendy Drezek, is the author of this piece. She also developed the Starting Out Wild curriculum, a set of over two dozen units with full resource materials for teaching real nature concepts to very young children. Starting Out Wild is being used in several San Antonio Natural Areas as well as by many other organizations.
All photographs are courtesy of Teresa Shumaker of The Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy and have appropriate photo releases on file.
Why teach young children about nature?
As parents and teachers, we are dealing with nature deficit disorder; children are hooked on screen time and virtual experiences from infancy. So, the love of nature will need to be nourished from the earliest age. Teaching, ideally, engages both children and parents.
We know that learning will accrete, moving from encountering nature through tolerating and participating, to adventuring into nature with bodies and senses, and acquiring nature concepts and vocabulary with mind and heart. We use familiar analogs of unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary—e.g. basters, medicine droppers, nutcrackers, and strainers can be analogs for bird beaks. And we remember, at early ages that providing an emotionally comfortable environment is the starting point. All activities are process-oriented and developmentally appropriate. The focus is nature learning. From enjoying nature with senses and bodies, to exploring concepts and vocabulary, we invest in nature.
How do we engage young children in the nature adventure?
We want our children to experience the natural world in the way children learn—through moving, touching, and acting on and in natural world, so that the children will enjoy, and therefore return to, learning about nature. In general, children will respond by choosing, participating in the activity physically, or imitating actions.
We are sensitive in our approach so that children and parents are emotionally comfortable in our activities. Rich experience paired with simple language makes words meaningful. Young children enjoy dot markers or stamping, banging motions, and media using their fingers such as finger-painting, or patting, but may not be ready for structured cutting and pasting.
Our concerns are: PROCESS AND FUN. We incorporate independence, that is being able to do parts themselves and owning the activity, natural materials, reinforcement of the learning component, and safety. Activities in general should have one simple step so the children experience the satisfaction of completion. Children love to move but tire easily on long walks. We proceed leisurely, so the children discover their own interests, and are sensitive to the motoric attention span of the age. At the earliest age children learn from familiar and real objects. We have two audiences—children and their families—parents, so they will continue to encourage nature learning
How do we facilitate happy learning?
Pacing is key— be active, dramatic and rapid. Have real objects to teach any concepts, e.g. to teach “gizzard” a box of dirt and sand and a (taped up) food processor—you want to relate to things the children may see at home. It’s important to relate the session both forward to nature learning, and to familiar materials they will meet at library story hours and in school. We use classic children’s books such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, with props to make them more concrete, and relate them to real science books, and finger-plays, songs and movement games to teach and reinforce concepts. We want the children to acquire rich relationships in the world of nature, and to relate them to their future world of school. And remember, since we have two audiences, have some materials that parents can take away to reinforce their learning as well!
Nature Learning Examples—Here are examples of topics covered in Starting Out Wild, an online curriculum which includes, lessons and materials for teaching each topic, and templates and training for personalizing teaching:
Batty Bats—the mammal that flies
A Bear’s Lunch—animals eat different things
Bloomin’ Blossoms—native wildflowers nearby
Breakfast for a Bird—adaptation for feeding and flight
Busy as a Bee—roles in an insect society
Butterfly Flutterfly—anatomy and complete metamorphosis
Clever Spiders—arachnids and web adaptations for hunting
Deer, Oh Deer—what animals need
Fish Full Ocean—adaptations for different environments
Froggies—metamorphosis and amphibians
Green Grows the Grass—grasses we eat and grasshopper incomplete metamorphosis
Grow, Grow, Grow—metamorphosis
Hide and Seek—the role of color
How Do I Feel? -scary and friendly animals
How’s the Weather—wind, sun, rain and sources of energy
Leapin’ Lizards—kinds of reptiles
Living In a Tree—there’s more to trees than leaves
Little Ladies—bugs and beetles
Mighty Ants—insect communication
More and Less—recycling and conservation
Pokies and Pricklies—adaptation to heat
Rockin’ and Rollin—rocks and soil relationships
Seeds We Need—seed dispersal
Turkeys Are Terrific—anatomy of birds
Water, Water Everywhere—cycles and forms
We Love Leaves—function of tree structure
Where’s the Energy? —food webs
Wild things—domestic and wild
Worm Tracks—worm anatomy and composting
This link provides materials you can use in teaching nature to children preschool through elementary: https://txmn.org/alamo/area-resources/childrens-guides/
- Hardy Headlines: Natural Areas and Creekways
- Hardy Headlines Concepts of Ecology
- Hardy Headlines Talking Points
- Hardy’s Nature Guide Slideshow
- Interactive Nature Guide
- Junior Master Naturalist Nature Guide
- Rebus Nature Guide
This link provides the training, templates, lesson plans and full materials including songs, stories, slideshow, puppets and posters for teaching Starting Out Wild for children 0-7: https://txmn.org/alamo/area-resources/starting-out-wild/