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Weekly Challenge # 53 Community Habitats Journals

cottontail tracks

Through our weekly #EnviroEd chats each Wednesday night on Twitter and through previous challenges in this blog, I have often said that one of the most sincere and clear ways to accurately define a student’s comprehension of a subject or to assess it is via journals.

As we get into the colder winter months in North America I’d like to challenge you to bring students outdoors more often and begin to discuss and reflect upon what makes up habitat and what wild creatures are present in those areas.

Winter is a wonderfully visual manipulative for an environmental education practitioner.

A newly fallen snow offers permission to view the world as an open and inviting SMART board just waiting for stories to tell through animal tracks after all. These tracks, a little like this challenge are a visual way of presenting your students own journey of discovery … follow along and see where it can lead.

Create Venn diagrams of which creatures seem to prefer each of these different habitats; fence lines, conifers, open fields or mature hardwoods. After a major snow fall, or when the winds are blowing hard do students see a change in behaviours? When do deer start to yard in the conifers where perhaps the snow depth is not as deep? Do Chickadees stop visiting the classroom birderfeeders when the winds blow to a certain extent? Do the squirrels move their drays (nests) from the edge of the tree to the centre as more and more snow builds up? Do the four components of habitat, food, water, shelter and space change at all during your study time for certain animals?

I have had great success with year long outdoor journalling.

I know there are readers of this blog who do not share the same weather patterns as I do, but encourage you to create the same community habitat journals. Monsoon season, day light cycles, or even “rush hour” can all have a visual and obvious impact upon animals and plants in our own backyard.

The truly important piece to this inquiry is to let the students discover, question and hypothesize themselves.

By constant immersion into the world of the wildlife within our own backyard AND by encouraging reflection upon it we can learn so much more than what the textbook and curriculum can tell us. I recognize this is a longer term challenge perhaps, but it does not take a lot of time … a half hour once a week perhaps.

Student journaling, with photos, sketches, mapping, graphs and more can truly lead students to their own “environmental epiphanies”.

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 52 Anthropomorphism

crab spider

I have many passions. I love to play, I love to write, I love to explore.

I find writing, especially writing from another’s perspective to be a wonderful way to perhaps not walk in another individual’s moccasins but to at the very least consider it. It is a fascinating way to explore. One of the reasons I teach outdoors is because I grew up reading the works of Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Thompson Seton who were both masters at telling tales from an animal’s point of view.

It’s easy to put human emotions and behaviours upon animals. Between television, movies and marketers selling breakfast cereals, it’s not surprising that we tend to think of certain critters in human terms.

If you were to ask your students today what animal comes to mind for each of these human emotions below I have no doubt you’d get answers along the lines of these examples:

Grumpy Excited Loyal Aloof Proud Wise Hard Worker Playful
















What do your students think? What examples come to mind for them? Do students have different perspectives on the same animals? For instance, do they see a Clown Fish playful and innocent like Nemo? Or loyal like Marlin?

There are dangers in anthropomorphism (assigning human characteristics, form or attributes to wildlife, weather, or other non-human thinjgs) such as assuming certain wildlife are indeed friendly or the opposite, that they are dangerous.  Can a storm be “angry” or can a dog feel jealousy?  Many of the maligned species on this earth are maligned because of attitudes and perceptions that are inaccurate.

However there is certainly benefit as well in allowing us to teach our students to try to look at perspectives and ideas from another point of view.

This week I would like to challenge you to ask your students for ideas on what human characteristics they think of when thinking of different animals. Perhaps even ask them to create a short story that challenges those perspectives.

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 51 – Environmental Word Walls

Wordle: Nature Terms

I love working with students of all ages on introducing them to the world around them in the realm of environmental and experiential education. However one of the things I do find challenging is answering questions using terminology that I am uncertain students have come across before.

Now I am the first to suggest that any profession has a plethora of strange and wonderful terminology. I recall a few years back hosting an engaging and crazy game of Scrabble with two other equally eccentric outdoor educators however we were only allowed to use words one would find in a Biology/Zoology/Ecology textbook. While words like BIOME, MIGRATE and MUTUALISM may not in and of themselves be high points in the game, it was challenging trying to stay within the rules.

But for students, of any age – the answer to an inquiry can and should lead to so many more questions. When I answer a tweet from a class in 140 characters I know I cannot explain every term I may use and I know, often it is left up to the teacher to try to explain to the students what Ranger Ridley meant by that.

I also know that students are amazing at finding links. Leave it to youth to find human examples to environmental scenarios. For example, when a student learns how a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly works – more than one previous student has recognized their own metamorphosis as well.


This of course brings in all sorts of potential for English or Language Arts in storytelling, the use of metaphors, similes and more. Very much like the environment, no mow zone, or community forests you visit regularly, the more students are immersed in these words, their meanings and their uses – the more of a connection they feel.

In fact a single word, is almost like a single organism. By itself it can be amazing, but when put into a sentence or a story, that single word becomes an integral part of a greater ecosystem where each and every word depends upon one another.

There is also huge potential for English Language Learners as well in finding ways to emphasis environmental words. One of my favorite examples is from a passionate Kindergarten teacher I know, Lada Duric who created this simple but lovely image of a tree with how to write it in all the languages represented in her Mississauga, Ontario, Canada classroom.

treee language poster ladad2

So, this week’s challenge is to begin a word wall for the environmental work you’ve been doing. What words do your students think deserve a spot of honour? What words do they wish to investigate further? What words do they wish to share with their parents and others?

Be creative in this wall – like a good outdoor classroom, it should never be “done” but something that is always growing, changing, evolving. Make it seasonal or make it topical. Perhaps like a river delta or a growing tree create branching or tributaries where one word has led to the investigation or recognition of another.

As always, please share your results!


Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 50 – Too Cool to be Warm?


It’s November. Here in this hemisphere that means we’re seeing shorter days, colder recesses and for some teachers’ less outdoor learning time. Which is sad considering that these colder months allow for some of the best outdoor learning time available to us as educators. But for outdoor learning to be successful in this season our students and teachers alike must be prepared.  And just as plants and animals are preparing for winter now is the time for us to have the same discussions with our students.  Whether our students are new to the country, new to a region or just new to outdoor learning in colder temperatures we should ensure they (& their parents?) are aware of the best ways to be ready for being outside comfortably.


We don’t need to dress our kids as “Slug” from A Christmas Story. Students can be both warm AND comfortable for outdoor learning. This week’s challenge is to not only begin those discussions in the class but perhaps to others within the school community too.  How do your students think they can share the message and importance of dressing for the colder months? Video? Posters? What’s their public service announcement about preparing for the winter months ahead look like?

While some “winter boots” may be stylish and work well on sidewalks that are ploughed by your municipality before you leave for school – what do your students think is appropriate for footwear if doing an hour lesson outdoors in deeper snow? Do your students know the benefits of mitts over gloves? Having the warmth of each finger in one sleeve is better than individual sleeves for each digit although admittedly gloves can be handier for gripping and writing. A winter hat, toques as they are called in Canada is essential rather than a headband or earmuffs. While there may not be much truth to the concept that you can lose 40% of your body heat through your head – you will lose some heat and it’s important to keep your scalp warm as well as those ears.

There are some good, kids oriented videos out there such as this one from ActiveKidsClub called Get Dressed for Winter.

I recognize all parents are on a budget and there is only so much a school can do to help with this as well – but the first step to getting students comfortable with outdoor learning in the colder months is to inform them.

Those that choose to ignore that, well aren’t they an experiential lesson on their own? I’ve watched those “cool” kids in the schoolyard with their “winter” jackets undone. No hoods nor hats to keep them warm, they tend to stand by the doors at the school with ungloved hands tucked up in their sleeves moving back and forth with their head tilting from one should to another in a valiant yet futile attempt to keep their ears warm.

If that’s “cool” I’d rather be warm.



Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 49: Take Me Outside Day


A few years ago I was astounded by Colin Harris who decided to run across Canada, doing a marathon a day in an effort to inform people on the amount of screen time youth spend in front of screens and not truly experiencing life. We were lucky to have him speak to the Peel District School Board in June that year at a barbeque fundraiser for his efforts at the Jack Smythe Field Centre. On October 29th that year he finished his incredible run but the marathon of informing the public of the cause still remains.

Each October 29th we celebrate Take Me Outside Day to inform schools, public and government that having youth outdoors is not an add on but it is essential. As government offers tax breaks for putting your kids into organized sports, one should not dismiss the value of bringing kids out for nature study as well.

This week I’d like to encourage you to bring your class out on October 29th no matter the weather. Put some plans in place for a proper outdoor lesson outside and share your findings from it using the #TMODay and #EnviroEd hashtags. If within my own Board, send me a tweet to inform me of what your students are up to on this day.




Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 48: Digital Literacy in Environmental Education


As an outdoor educator in a school board that is very forward thinking when it comes to student success I have embraced the concept of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and technology. I feel any current educator (and likely student) today would agree with this assessment.

I’m finding myself in a shadowy age zone these days. I find I am old enough to regale my children with stories of phones that were permanently attached to a wall or having to get up and flip a dial on the television if uninterested in the show I was watching.  But I’m still young enough not too really miss those days and to crave the newest devices. I feel my past allows me to appreciate when such devices are helpful.

Having said that, I love it when I see an effort to move away from devices as well. Gary Turk’s spoken word poem Look Up is a perfect and a powerful example. If you have not taken the time to watch it. I recommend you do so now.

Recently, I’ve spoken at a number of workshops and conferences on the fine line of making use of technology to expand upon outdoor experience and crossing over into a loss of sensory awareness and missing out on the peripheral opportunities of time outdoors. I believe wholeheartedly that technology can enhance a visit to the outdoors as my first blog post ever Fishing & Reflections mentions.

I read this summer an article about restaurants keeping track of wait times and discovering over the years that wait times have increased dramatically due to patrons spending more time focusing on their screens than on the menu. Are we all that far away from restaurants having signs on their door selling the fact that they proudly are not wifi enhanced? What a great idea for those interested in face to face dialogue with the person across the table.

More and more at our nature centres we are seeing classes coming expecting BYOD programming and we’ve created some great initiatives from Augmented Reality, photography and even global collaborations. At our own Board run outdoor education centres we are sensitive to BYOD requests when we are made aware of them. It’s been both challenging and thrilling as we trek upon the steep incline up this mountain pass between digital literacy and experiential environmental education. Setting the foundation and protocol for its usage during our outdoor time is critical.

Again, do not get me wrong. I am a huge supporter of technology as a way of enhancing and sharing an outdoor learning moment. I love responding to class questions, seeing what is being done with Padlet, Haiku Deck, Minecraft and other education focused programs. But just as we are trying to incorporate  technology INTO the classroom and teaching digital literacy – perhaps we should also be sitting around the campfire, outdoor classroom or “no more zone” and discussing just when it is appropriate to use our devices outdoors as well.

Recently I have seen examples of digital literacy fit tidily into three key categories.

Digital Citizenship – this would be giving our students the skills to be able to use technology outdoors both responsibly and safely. In an outdoor setting this includes but also goes beyond classroom norms. It would include taking into account sensitivity of the environment for example. Is it in the best interest of the ecosystem to promote exactly where that photo of a species at risk was taken? If using your device to record water quality are you considering the impact upon spawning grounds as you ford the water? If publishing online are students aware of potentially sensitive issues or information they are thinking of sharing?

Technology Literacy – this would help our students know which practical tools are handy in environmental education situations. Leafsnap is a great tool, as long as you are within wifi range for instance. Augmented Reality can bring new life to outdoor lessons but due to shadows and changing seasons, sometimes a simple QR code is even better. Are they aware when roaming fees may be present? If students are faced with a technology challenge are they capable in finding a technological solution for that environmental condition?

Information Literacy – one of my main concerns is that all researchers, students or teachers alike seem too willing to accept a Google search or Wikipedia as a credible source. How are we helping our students understand that there are at least two sides to every environmental disaster for instance. Would citing an article from British Petroleum on the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill have the same information as the blog of a Louisianan fisherman personally impacted by the spill? Do students understand the political bias many mainstream and credible media agencies have? We do not need to make our students think what we think, but we must ensure they have the ability to research effectively.

Have that discussion with your students this week. When do they see value in using technology outdoors? And equally important, see if they are aware when the time is right to turn it off and get a broader, more personal experience.


Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 47 – Math Lessons as Well as Life Lessons via Waste Reduction Week

waste reduction week

October 20-26th is Waste Reduction Week in Canada.

For more than a generation we have heard about Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s not by mistake that we always tend to repeat the three in that order.

If discussing waste – it seems obvious that the first – Reduce – makes the most sense. If the waste is not there in the first place then we need not concern ourselves with having to reuse or recycle the material at all. Reusing things is the penultimate choice. By using materials that would otherwise head to the dump or the recycling factories you are not only dealing with that specific item but also with anything you would have purchased instead of reusing an item. Recycling is the last and in my mind the baby brother of the three “R” in this sustainability mantra. When recycling we are saving things from landfill, and we are certainly giving them a second life – however it should not be surprising that the trucks that pick up those blue bins at the side of the road, nor the factories themselves create quite the issues as well.

For the last number of years though the 3 “R’s” have become 4. More and more students are given a new eldest sibling in this mix and that would be Rethinking.

A powerful word and a powerful mandate. Rethinking.

I have often told my students that the most valuable thing they can do for the environment is not plant a tree, not pick up after others but instead it is to learn more about it. Knowledge is power.

At first glance videos such as The Story of Stuff provide an insane amount of material and knowledge for our students on how we as society create and manage waste. However, at the same time – one would hope that such a video would create more questions than answers.

The most powerful lessons we can offer a student are the ones they can see – no … FEEL a personal connection to. As such, if studying waste reduction this week it seems a perfect opportunity to relate your studies to your math lessons as well.

A few weeks back I was helping my own Grade 8 daughter with her math homework. We were solving problems around Prime Factorization. A huge part of environmental and experiential education for myself is to answer that age old question “When am I ever going to use this?”  I see math in all my lessons, from measuring how tall a tree is using the Pythagorean theorem or the geometry of nature.  I encourage all to look at what is being taught in math this week and beyond and to find those connections to waste management in the classroom and beyond. Venn diagrams, division, multiplication, graphing, measurement, creating formulas – oh the math connections to waste reduction are well perhaps logarithmic?

Here are some great Waste Reduction Week Resources:

Resources for Rethinking

Waste Reduction Week

High School Curriculum: Buy, Use, Toss

Waste Management Math Lessons 

Lesson Planet lessons on Waste Management

Ontario EcoSchools

Let me know of your Waste Reduction math lesson successes this week!


Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 46 Understanding Slums Through Local Wildlife Habitats

from PEI Department of Agriculture & Forestry

from PEI Department of Agriculture & Forestry

The first Monday in October is recognized as World Habitat Day by the United Nations. Now while this day is less focused on wildlife habitat and more focused on human beings, we can use the first to help our young students understand the second.

In 2014 the theme for World Habitat Day is “Voices from Slums” and the goal is to give recognition and a voice to slum dwellers for improving living conditions in these areas.

When speaking in these terms, I see a “slum” as an area that is meant to be habitat but is lacking enough of the key ingredients for making it a healthy habitat. Habitat in elementary biological terms is an area made up of four key factors, Food, Water, Shelter and Space.

A slum has limited access to all of these key factors. Socio-economic conditions tend to create a situation where the population density outweighs sanitation. Infectious diseases, unhealthy drinking water, a lack of food, poor living conditions all result.

I applaud the UN for bringing more recognition to slums as for generations society deemed the best way to deal with these areas was to pretend they did not exist, even in the middle of our largest cities.

It may be hard for our students to understand the plight and living arrangements of people in Dharavi (Mumbai) without movies such as Slumdog Millionaire or why the African Ebola outbreak can be contained in North America or Europe but not the slum conditions of many villages where it is hard to contain.

So this is where I make the connection to what I typically write about in this blog space.

Back to the needs of living things. Food, Water, Shelter and Space. If just one of those elements is in decline then it is no longer a viable habitat for a species.

It takes just a little encroachment into the habitat for the results to be devastating. It may not always seem to be significant at the time. One new introduced species or one stand of trees cut and the entire ecological balance is thrown to the wind. Often it will become a domino effect with one element followed by another disappearing. First a drought will kill the trees which provided habitat for the caterpillars which are eaten by the birds.

By studying the conditions of habitat in our own backyards we can see examples of animal “slums”. A quick hike will show signs if you are looking for them.

1) Are animals using unconventional shelters? (under porches for instance)

2) Are animals eating unconventional food? (opossums for instance will often have a perfectly round scar on their face from licking the inside of tin cans)

3) Is the local waterway covered in algae? Or perhaps is it so crystal clear that it is a likely sign that not even algae can live in it?

4) Do you think there is enough space for the animals to consider it “home”? Or if seen are they just passing through?

Then, after being aware of the issues. What do your students think should be done? What do they think THEY should be doing about any wildlife “slums” they discover?

By making students aware of inappropriate conditions for their own backyard brethren could we be germinating the seeds of empathy of discussion of human conditions around the world perhaps?

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 45 – Creating Outdoor Games to Highlight Understanding

icebreak @ school

I am a huge fan of organized sports – don’t get me wrong. There are few things better for teaching cooperation, teamwork, empathy and passion than working with others towards a common goal.

But I am a huge supporter of UNORGANIZED sport for building upon the very same things as well.

Climbing trees, hopping from rock to rock in a stream bed or playing hide and seek in a field of long grass. When kids have the ability and desire to create their own games with their own version of boundaries and fair rules it can be amazing to watch the inclusiveness that results. I get a thrill each year when Clif has their Kid Backyard Game Competition. 

Along those lines, in the early days of autumn as sweaters begin to be prevalent with the last of the bare toes disappearing with soon to be hibernating sandals – I wonder what games can be created by your own students to highlight their own understanding of their eco-literacy?

Can your students design a fun recycling relay? Or a version of tag that speaks to their comprehension of species at risk or pollution?

I would hazard that the right activity could be made even more outstanding if the outdoor atmosphere suited the game’s background as well. Many Project WILD games can be played in a gymnasium – but if played in the forest or meadow can have much more meaning after all.

Wouldn’t it be great to assess a student’s understanding of the topic based upon the outdoor, interactive, character building activities they create from that? We ask them to design PowerPoints and Prezis, videos and Minecraft worlds … why not just a little outdoor fun where they design, create and showcase their own recess games as a way of evaluating their grasp on environmental awareness?

Give it a try and let me know how it goes?



Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 44 – #KndFall – Autumn is the Time to Plant Seeds of Inquiry



From an ecological sense for many it may seem as if it is the ending of a cycle. Trees lose their leaves, temperatures drop and many of our favourite critters either prepare to migrate or hibernate.

From a teacher’s point of view though, autumn is a time of renewal. New students, new lessons, new possibilities and new growth.

Now is the time to plant the seeds of exploration and inquiry and work steady for a fruitful harvest come spring.

This past spring we asked Kindergarten classes to share their signs that spring was close at hand and used the hashtag #kndspring. We also storified the discussion over a 5 week period. Students and teachers alike were amazed at how the seasonal signs such as the first crocuses in the gardens at the front of the school arrived weeks apart even when the schools were only a short distance away from each other. This of course lead to inquiry as to why this was the case … (south facing gardens vs north facing gardens, etc)

As classes across North America participate we discover how the seasons look everywhere. Although living in Ontario, Canada – my siblings are all out in Alberta and Saskatchewan and have not had the experience of a bright red maple leaf for instance. Most leaves turn yellow in the autumn where they are.

I received a Tweet just today from some inspiring Toronto-based Kindergarten classes who wanted to let me know that they are once more looking for the signs of change as we did in the spring.

One of the things I enjoy the most with these initiatives is the collaboration and discussion. Feel free to share via Twitter using the hashtag #kndfall, or if not a twittering class, you can join the discussion on the Autumn Kindergarten Collaboration Padlet created for this initiative over the next few weeks as well. I’m going to attempt to “meet” with a few classes online myself via Skype or in other ways as well to encourage the discussion over the next few weeks.

So, with autumn’s arrival – I encourage once more classes to explore, share and discuss signs that summer is changing into autumn. Continue to explore your own backyards looking for the signs that autumn, and experiential learning are indeed upon us!


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