Category: Teaching

Sound and smell

We are a sight dependent species. Although there are other species, and eagle for example, who could make our quality of vision seem paltry, we rely heavily on site. Further, in this technologically miraculous age, we often have gadgets in front of our faces and or covering our ears. We forget to connect with the world around us.

One of the fundamental skills of an astute person is the ability to observe and the ability to connect seemingly random observations. Here is a simple lesson that will help kids look past seeing and practice observing the world using two other senses. The activities help students make connections between themselves and the observation and between the observations themselves.

Objective: Make and use observations using the senses hearing and smell. Practice verbal or written communication about these observations.


  • Cloth or a bandana for a blindfold
  • A journal.
  • Plain paper and crayons or colored pencils for drawing if you want.


  1. Find a comfortable place to sit. Place the blindfold over the child’s eyes. Have the child sit, quietly and without talking, and listen. Time them for two minutes. At the end of the two minutes have the child journal for two minutes about what they heard. Encourage the child to be specific, instead of writing “I heard birds” encourage the child to write I heard a bird that sounded like a squeaky door and a bird that sounded like a trilling flute.
  2. NOTE: The time and level of complexity should be adapted to meet the age of the child. Very small children may need  a shorter time. They can say or draw what they heard rather than write about it. For them, you could ask what the bird song sounded like. Did it remind them of a sound? Did it remind them of a color? Maybe a certain bird song sounded blue and another sounded yellow. Encourage whimsy and fun.
  3. Have the children share what they have heard with each other and with you.
  4. Have the child repeat the exercise and this time try to have them identify where, on a circle, that the sound may be coming from. Have them listen for two minutes and write or draw for two minutes.
  5. Have the students sit and attend to the things that they are smelling. Perhaps they smell the dampness on the air. Perhaps they smell the grass that someone is mowing somewhere down the block. Perhaps they smell the earth they are sitting on or the warmth of the sun or the faint fragrance of a flower. Perhaps they smell your perfume mixed with the bug repellent and the blanket they are sitting on. Perhaps they smell nothing. Again, give them two minutes to search the smells out and then two minutes to write or draw them.
  6. If you wish, repeat this exercise by having the child try to locate the direction the smell is coming from.


  • Have the children write or tell a story about what they heard and smelled and what it might be like to live in a world where your were more dependent on these two senses than on site.
  • Have them  find out if there are things that have to live that way.

This lesson is adapted from an activity in: Sharing Nature With Children by Joseph Cornell. More information is found here.


Saving Butterflies

Two articles from Science Daily inspired me to focus on butterflies this week. Article on focused on the difficult winter that Monarch butterflies faced in their wintering grounds in Mexico, this year. The weather was cold and wet. This, along with habitat destruction threatened the overwintering butterflies. The second article focuses on creating butterfly oases to help their north/south migrations.

One of the greatest threats to all wildlife is habitat destruction. The same forces that affect large wildlife affect the insects as well. Suburban sprawl, increased pesticide use to maintain that perfect monoculture lawn, along with loss of small farms and an increase in insect resistant crops is taking their tolls on insect populations.

The good news is that the suburban landscape is a the perfect place to build butterfly oases. Butterflies don’t need a lot. They need nectar bearing flowers. They need nursery plants on which to lay eggs. They need to be able to have a pesticide free life. That’s it. The reward we get for planting these oases is beautiful flowers, some with stems, some with wings. The other good news is that it is a great “connecting with children and nature activity”.

I’ll begin an intermittent series on butterfly gardens with a focus on Monarchs. Monarchs butterflies feed on the nectar from a variety of plants like zinnia, lantana and milkweed. The nursery plant for the monarch is the milkweed. Butterflies lay a single egg on the underside of a leaf. When the egg hatches it will begin its life by eating the host plant. The sap of the milkweed plant gives the monarch butterfly protection in the form of a bitter toxin that birds and other animals learn quickly to avoid. In a few weeks the caterpillar will find a place to create its chrysalis so that it can complete the final stage of life before becoming an adult.

The babies that were hatched in my yard have grown and flown. I like to think that they will pass through again, this September, on their way back to their wintering grounds in Mexico. I look forward to the next crew. The milkweed and lantana in my yard are ready and waiting.

To find out more information about how to plant a butterfly oasis go to Monarch Watch ( You can receive a way station kit that will help you build the best habitat for your monarchs. The kits include seeds for milkweed and other nectar plants.

I recently read an article that was published in The Independent (linked at the end of this post). The author talks about the trend to reconnect children to nature. He also talks about the limits we place on kids connecting with nature. He calls it “the don’t touch culture”. As I read it, the author postulates that looking is all well and good but to really connect you need to touch as well. I have to admit, he has a point. I have been to dozens of “don’t touch” museums and after a time your eyes glaze over. You feel separated, a distant onlooker, from the thing you are viewing. It applies to historical sites, a friend talked about being able to touch some of the objects during a recent visit to the Anne Hathaway house in Stratford-on-Avon, it was evident from her words that touching things was a high point of the museum.

If the delight in touching inanimate objects at an historical site exists, it exists in at least equal measure for living things in nature. I spent most of my youth outside and I picked, poked and prodded everything I came across. I totally agree that kids need to engage with nature using every sense imaginable. In the closing paragraph the author extols us to: “pick the common wayside flowers, gather wild nuts, berries and mushrooms for the pot, and take home interesting bits of dead wood or fossils. We could capture caterpillars and tadpoles, build wigwams out of fallen wood, and play games with elder stems or plantain guns. The wildlife can take it. And we would become freer, happier, and in the long run, more aware of the plight of nature and ourselves in a perilous and rapidly changing world.” I agree, we would be freer and happier in the long run.

The thing is, I don’t think the wildlife can take it.

Many of them need those mushrooms, berries and nuts for food, the bits of wood for shelter and the peace to be left alone to get on with their lives. With a world population of 6.7 billion people (up from the 3.6 billion in 1970, the year I started high school), we can’t all explore hands on, taking things with us, and have anything left to love. We will have loved nature to death doing that.

Further more, in the last 40 some years the way we do things has changed greatly. Small family farms have given way to large, commercial operations that maximize productivity at the expense of diversity and the health of the local environment. The focus of modern farming is the large, single crop plot. Often these crops, hybridized for the most yield, are vulnerable to pests and disease which is is countered by heavy uses of chemicals. Habitats are ever more fractured by intensive farming, increased building and roads. Some wild life will do well in the presence of people, foxes are an example. Others will not and, when their habitats become too fractured will cease to breed because they do not have enough territory to support themselves and their off spring.

So. What is the answer to this dilemma? I believe strongly that children need unstructured, unsupervised play that encourages curiosity and hands on exploration. I believe that we live in an over crowded, over developed world that is putting ever more stress on the other creatures that share our ecosystem. I have to believe, even though I don’t yet have the whole answer, that these two things are not irreconcilable. What about you?

The Independant: Getting close to nature: It’s time to grasp the nettle

Nature education, where you live

The other day I was teaching a lesson on one of the Biological Kingdoms. As part of the lessons I conducted a lab lesson about microscopic organisms that live nearby. I brought water from a freshwater pond and from the Laguna Madre. The Laguna Madre is one of only five hypersaline lagoons in the world. It is a unique ecosystem and none of my students live more than 10 or 12 miles from it.

As I was describing  where I got the water samples I regularly had students blurt: “where is the Laguna Madre?” I would try to tell them and even then many of them didn’t know where it was. The most effective description was to use, as landmark, a local seafood restaurant.

It is tempting to lament the situation but the alternative is to address it. How? Attend to your area. It is easy for us adults to take our knowledge for granted. We drive to the local seafood restaurant without engaging the kids. We are listening to our music. They are tuned into their iPods, DVDs, or texting. We don’t talk to them about what is going on outside. To us it is common place. They are preoccupied with their affairs. The advantage of living in a pre-digital world is that we had nothing to do but look out windows. We asked questions. Now kids don’t. At least not always.

So, attend to your area.

  • Parents–point out what is going on outside the car. This is especially effective for the young ones because they are still looking and wondering.
  • Be Aware, Be excited. Over the simple things. The pelicans flying barely 6 inches above the water in a wingtip to wingtip formation that would put the Blue Angels to shame. (Or whatever is relevant to your area) There is more going on than we would expect if we would only just look.
  • Play “out the window” games. “I spy” or finding things that match the letters of the alphabet.
  • Teachers, make your lessons relevant to the area. Incorporate elements from the local area in your lesson design. One pre-school teacher I know used a map and local landmarks like the bay, the Laguna, and other things to teach cardinal directions.
  • Go for walks with your kids. My friends’ two year old can’t get enough outside. He is lucky, neither can his parents. I have great hopes for him.

I think it is sad that my students didn’t know where the Laguna Madre was. The cool thing was that most of them loved seeing the stuff in the microscope. They were excited to see that tiny little world. Even when they were grossed out.

It is a beginning.

What’s in your neighborhood that your kids don’t know about? What do you do to engage them?

Get Wild Child

Here in the US, this past week was National Wildlife Week. This observance was started by the National Wildlife Federation in 1938 as National Wildlife Restoration Week. From its early roots to the present, the focus has always been to maintain relationship with the natural world to encourage protection of the lands and species. What has changed over time is the amount of time that people spend outside. While I couldn’t find concrete statistics about the amount of time children historically spent outside, the current data that the National Wildlife Foundation is using on its site state that the average child spends about 7 hours in front of TVs and computers and about 4 minutes outside each day.

This year’s theme is Get Wild Child. But how do you get wild in a controlled environment. And how do parents let go of their fear that something bad might happen to their child. Once, some time ago, I saw a map that showed the difference between free roaming territory of our grandparents compared to today’s children and the difference is from about 5 mile radius for our grandfathers, if I recall correctly, and the driveway for today’s children.  As I was doing my search, trying (unsuccessfully) to find that map, I came across a couple of blogs that talk about the fact that the reason that things are safer for today’s kids is that we protect them more and that this is a good thing. I have to wonder, is it? And if so, at what cost? As a teacher of 9th graders, I deal with more attitude from them and less imagination. While I will be the first to agree that schools kill a lot of creativity, when I ask for it, I can’t get it.

I have a lot of wild children in my classroom, but not many Wild Children.

So, how can you get children to be Wild, in a good way, without losing your mind over what they are up to and how safe they are?

Start small. Any beginning is a beginning and a beginning is 90% of the goal. Here are some ideas I have seen:

  • Let her make a trip to the local convenience store or around the block, on foot or by bike. (walk with her, if you must, and get a little wild yourself)
  • Let him ride his bike, out of sight, to school every day and ask for a nature report of what he saw on the way to and from when he gets home.
  • Let her go with her friends to the park to play someday, when you are not there. Find support and comfort with other parents who are learning to let go.
  • Turn off the TV and stop watching alarmist news programs.
  • Remind yourself that most children who are harmed (less than 1% of all children) are harmed by someone they know well enough to trust.
  • Let the kids build their own fort.
  • Let them climb the trees in their back yard.
  • Remind yourself that you survived, and grew from, every scraped knee and sprained ankle.
  • Most of all, give your kids time and space to risk, make mistakes. This is how we learn and grow.
  • Go to Get Wild Child and try some of the National Wildlife Foundations activities.

Over on the Children and Nature Network’s Connect forum, Richard Louv has a discussion about what we can do to help parents deal with the fear of letting go and the fear of being a “bad parent” for letting their kids have the freedoms that we had and took for granted. We are still looking for ideas.

What would you do?