In addition to free play in nature, we LOVE taking Nature Walks with our children and students. On a Nature Walk, kids get a break from the noise and busyness of classrooms and even traditional playground environments that can tax their sensitive nerves. It also gives students another way to experience nature...through observation, rather than play.
A Nature Walk is simple in theory, (all you really need is nature!) but we know that there are challenges in early childhood education that might seem like obstacles to enjoying a Nature Walk with your students.
The first challenge is access to green space. Don’t feel as though you need an official nature trail or a full-blown forest to be able to enjoy a Nature Walk. Even a stroll around the perimeter of your school’s playground or the school building itself can provide opportunities to observe leaves changing color; birds, squirrels, and insects in their habitats; or spring buds beginning to sprout.
Another challenge might be the physical abilities of your students and the potential hazards inherent in traversing uneven terrain. Even students who travel by wheelchair or who use crutches can safely observe nature from a sidewalk stroll.
The biggest challenge of all might be interest. Many children, when posed with the prospect of going for a nature walk, will protest. Their legs will be tired or they’ll find a walk “boring.” They’ll get impatient and want to run ahead or will dawdle behind, uninterested in the simple task of observing. For these kids (by which we mean ALL kids!), we have some tricks up our sleeves to help keep kids engaged and, yes, even entertained while on a Nature Walk.
Tools and Props
One of the ways we help capture children’s attentions on a Nature Walk, is to arm them with interesting tools and props. My own kids love bringing walking sticks with them on our forest adventures. They have a collection in our garage, from which they select their favorite before setting off on the trail near our home. The walking sticks become props in their imaginary worlds as we walk, helping to prevent against a contagious case of the “How much longers?”!
Walking sticks can be cumbersome for a classroom, though, so even a tool as simple as a magnifying glass can keep kids tuned in and interested in the journey of the walk itself, rather than the end point.
Scavenger Hunts are a great way to keep students engaged on a Nature Walk! Whether the students are tasked with physically collecting items or just documenting what they notice, scavenger hunts provide children with an achievable goal--a Mission to Accomplish!
For the 5 Senses Nature Walk, have kids write or draw pictures of the things that they see, hear, touch, and smell while on their walk. Someone will notice the sad truth that they are unable to taste anything on the trail (it might have to be you--you know your kids best!). If it's possible, pull a small snack (trail mix, popcorn, or crackers) out of your backpack and enjoy a mid-walk treat before heading back into the classroom.
One of our favorite year-round activities at Wildrock is our Color Catcher activity. We’ve painted the cups of egg cartons all different colors. As we walk along our trail, we invite children to “catch” colors of natural materials that match the colors in their cups (each Color Catcher is different!). This game is fun in the spring, when a variety of colors are easy to find, and even in the winter when, at first glance, the world is just brown and gray. Students are always surprised at the amount of color variation they can find in the winter when they are reminded to go slowly and to look closely.
Nature Looms encourage kids to forage for interesting treasures to collect along a walk, and to display their finds in an artistic and unique way. Weaving natural materials through the loom is also excellent fine motor practice! Nature Looms are simple to create. Cut apart a cardboard box (I find 6” to 8” squares to be pretty manageable for most little hands) and “string” the loom with 6-7 rubber bands. (Helpful hint: run the rubber bands in the same direction as the corrugation--in line with the ridges of the cardboard. This will prevent the cardboard from buckling.) Along the walk, encourage students to collect interesting leaves, flowers, seed pods, etc. and weave them through the bands. Students can share their discoveries with their classmates at the end of the Nature Walk.
Sometimes, when we go on Nature Walks, we don’t take treasures...we leave them. A favorite in my family are Kindness Rocks. An international campaign, Kindness Rocks is a hide-and-seek game celebrating and spreading kindness. First, we painted some rocks. For our purposes, I wrote “Kindness Rocks! Pass it on!” on the backs of the rocks my children painted, but it’s not necessary. We went on a Nature Walk on the trail near our house, “hiding” the rocks in interesting places where we believed they would be discovered. A few days later, while walking the same trail, we noticed that many of the rocks we hid were gone...we even spotted two in new locations! It was fun to imagine someone finding the rocks and re-hiding them somewhere for someone else to find...spreading a bit of color and kindness as they did.
This would be a fun activity to do with a partner class. One class can volunteer to start the game, painting and hiding rocks for the other class to find. Maybe you hide them along a trail or maybe just in a small patch of green space on a corner of the school property. When the “seekers” have found all of the Kindness Rocks, they can re-hide them in another part of the school yard, or they can keep them and paint a new set for the other class to find!
Hopefully, these ideas will spark your imagination and help you to find new ways to keep your students engaged on a Nature Walk. We'd love to hear how you incorporate nature into your daily routine!