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Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 56: 12 Days of Outdoor Winter Family Time


In my neck of the woods it is the week before the Winter Break. For many this means Christmas, or Hanukkah or Kwanza but whether it is a religious time for your students families or not – it can be a spiritual time.

The weeks to come have the potential of creating wonderful and lasting memories. Traditions continue and traditions begin but the memories that tend to stand out the most are less about what ends up under a tree and are more focused on family experiences.

Looking back on my own childhood I remember heading out to get our tree each year. Sometimes we’d cut it from a neighbour’s farm and other times we’d buy it from a local tree farm already cut but I do recall the discussions each and every year with all my siblings on what made the perfect tree. I also remember heading out for hot chocolate after and while I am not a fan of hot chocolate myself (and never have been) I would have been disappointed if that tradition stopped.

In my house the last few years my wife and I have focused more on experience than on material items. The department store catalogues still have cut outs and circled items and the gifts under our tree are always plentiful but the “big gift” is an experience. Perhaps it is a play downtown, or outdoor time but it is always something we are doing as a family – and the efforts have paid back in spades. My kids love the snow and our outdoor time.

So, my kids and I created a Haiku Deck of what we feel the 12 Days of Outdoor Winter Family Time should look like and I welcome you to share this with your class if in a snow blanketed region. As with past discussions we tried to focus on the fact not everyone has a mountain or even a hill in their neighbourhood so purposefully kept it simple and easy for most to do if you have snow.

Give some of them a try and by all means, send me a tweet back if you hear of any of your students giving some of these a try over their time off. I’d love to share with my own kids and as it would relate to the last item … it would make their day as well.

All the best this season, whatever it may mean to you. My wish to you is great family time memories and I can’t wait to share more #EnviroEd challenges in 2015.

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 55 – Building a Better Birdfeeder


As we get into colder weather more than one school will be considering placing birdfeeders in their school yards and while I am in full support of feeders I do feel it is important to maintain it for the season if at all possible. Your feather friends will appreciate your class’s support but one could argue that they may also count upon it once it is started as well. I cannot think of many better ways to study animal behaviours than looking at bird feeding habitats. Grade 2 animal adaptations, both structural (ie beaks) and behavior (ie Jays making a mess of seed on the ground) can be studied easily from inside the class or on a short jaunt to the feeders on the other side of the school yard.

Maps, graphing, recording time and language arts can all fit in nicely with a local bird study.

  visual from Cornell Labs

Habitat for these birds is an important consideration as well. Having the bird feeder close to hedgerows and trees and avoiding squirrels and other would be predators are an important considerations. As such, have a look at your school yard, kinderpad or local park and give some thought as a class as to what you could do to attract birds. You should consider not only what type of feeder we place but also the best place for it and the types of birds you are trying to attract. The birds do not wish to fly too far to and from your feeder and wind protection makes it easier to land on an otherwise swinging feeder as well. Consider how close is too close to a building as well.

visual from Cornell Labs

visual from Cornell Labs

Sunflower, niger, cracked corn and mixed seed mixes will all attract different types of birds. One could also consider suet as well for those species that enjoy some meat along with their seed as well.

You could use recycled materials as well – though if considering paint or art of any type, please ensure you are using something that would not be harmful to those diners you are trying to attract in the first place.

You can even take part in Bird Studies Canada events like Project Feederwatch.

A simple challenge this week but one that I hope will create a lot of enjoyment, show ingenuity and lead to discussions on how we can help our feathered friends as we get deeper into the colder weather … design, build, maintain and perhaps even modify some birdfeeders this winter for a multitude of outdoor learning experiences!

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 54 What Did You Do at Recess Today?


Last week, I found myself, as many parents do asking my kids at the supper table, “What did you do at school today?” And not surprisingly, other than a field trip report, the answer around the table was an almost depressingly consistent, “Nothing”.

Those that read this blog frequently will no doubt be aware of the fact I have six kids of my own. I have a 16-year-old lad and five girls ranging in age from 13 years old to 14 months old. And, in part because Dad is an outdoor educator and still a kid at heart in many ways I encourage them to explore, climb, imagine and discover almost each and every day.

Having said that though, they are individuals. While between the ages of 8 and 13 I may have been exploring the river and trails near my house – catching frogs, trying to build rafts out of grapevines and waterlogged limbs I fully understand that my 13-year-old girls are into different things and my 8-year-old girl looks up to them. Just as my 13 year olds wish to be 18, my 8-year-old desperately wishes she was 13 so she could act like she was 18 as well.

The concept of community is shrinking. At one point everyone met at the General Store or the local church to share gossip or share news good and bad. However today we shop at big box stores miles away and if we attend any faith-based event at all it likely is different from that of our neighbours. The last real community hubs we have are schools and green spaces.

I’ve done a few workshops and discussions on this recently and it left me thinking perhaps I should be focusing a little less on what my kids learned curriculum wise each day and focus instead on how they are growing into more creative, social and responsible persons.

So, this week I changed it up and as we sat around the table each supper I threw out the question, “What did you do at recess today?”

I learned about a few of the social complexities today’s generations face. I heard how a new student to the school who had no friends was welcomed into the close-knit fold of my 8 year old’s peers. My 5-year-old described how she and another lad “invented” a new game in the kinderpad which the teacher took into the classroom and made into a lesson on the value of sharing.

I listened more than spoke and found the conversation around the table sparked interest in siblings. One of my 13 year olds mentioned how a younger kid at the school was being teased about his winter coat. My 16-year-old lad who no longer has recess in high school spoke up and said he remembered this happening when he was younger too and admitted it was hard to react to at the time but spoke to the kid later to see how he was.

We had numerous conversations this week on how to react to situations wisely and with a caring and responsible attitude. It was not always an eye-opening moment and more than once reactions to scenarios or activities differed but the conversation happened and it was engaging!

I learned by the engaging conversations around the supper table a lot about my children this week. I wonder if more adults asked this very question maybe free play could be a Rosetta Stone of sorts in our attempts to decipher our children’s social growth and tell us about their days.

Challenge yourself to ask your own kids, or perhaps your students when they come in, “What did you do at recess?” and see where the conversation takes you.

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!



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