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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!

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 43 – #KindergartenBioBlitz Evolving

forester moth

One of my first attempts into the world of online social media learning with students I think is still amongst the most popular. #KindergartenBioBlitz was developed a year and a half ago, originally as a way of promoting our Field Centres and the expertise we have with this wonderful outdoor education team.

However, when we ran the second one a year ago this month it grew well beyond our own school board and I had to ask for assistance in keeping the great environmental inquiry going with amazing photos and questions from four and five years olds exploring their school yards.

Then by the time we ran the third version in February focussing on looking for signs of spring I found, with much enthusiasm that students and teachers were comparing each other’s discoveries and sharing their own expertise. I came across just how powerful this initiative was in blogs such as I Learned it in Kindergarten. A wonderful post by Ellisa Iagallo of the Toronto Catholic School Board.

So with this in mind, this week I am encouraging Kindergarten classes to explore their schoolyard habitats once more. Share your photos, your questions, your findings not only with myself and my amazing team but with each other as well. I love hearing stories of teachers who are starting their day with a check in online to see what was discovered or answered the previous day. I’m thrill to hear students are excited because they’ve discovered their photos have made it onto the KindergartenBioBlitz Pinterest Page. We’ve had high school teachers asking their younger cohorts provoking questions as well.

So, #KindergartenBioBlitz is perhaps a big hashtag but it is also a big deal … Hope you give it a try during the week of Sept 15-19th!

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 42 – Weather as a Story Teller

water may fall

With the school year newly started it is a fantastic time to consider how you will make mention of the number one teaching resource available to every teacher, in every locale, of every grade.


Every day there is a 100 % chance of weather and it can be inspirational to educators and students alike as a tool for environmental literacy. Students paying attention to the weather tend to come to school each day better prepared for the day ahead after all.

I think many a primary classroom will have a weather board in their class but typically I see it being used to record the weather and perhaps cloud cover. Even this can lead to fantastic math lessons with graphing and more. However the sky is the limit with weather studies. Here is a great Pinterest collection on recording weather in the classroom. Now what if we spent more time relating today to yesterday – or predicting what is to come? What if we had lessons allowing us to think like a meteorologist?

What if one was the think of the weather as a good book, and each week of school was an engaging chapter I’m curious of the discussions that would occur in your classroom?

In school I was a fan of English or Language Arts and loved reading good books. Quite often we would read a chapter or two and then as a class we’d sit down at the end of the week and discuss what had happened and how what that meant to the story that had happened thus far. That of course would lead to us trying to guess or even foreshadow what was to come.

And – the best part is that every single day there is build up and the potential for climatic surprises. There is no denouement to the story of weather.

At any grade level this would lead to interesting discussions if looking at the week’s weather and perhaps some interesting discussions on climate change as well.

Weather is indeed a perfect teaching manipulative. I recall teaching grade 5’s one fall about Forces on Structures for their Science Unit be setting up tents in the school yard during a large rain storm that days before (any 100’s of miles away) was Hurricane Sandy.

Weather can be a fantastic visual art tool as well. Stunning photographs can be created with your BYOD classroom for instance before, during and after a storm with discussion on lighting and optics. Weekly or seasonal changes can be monitored quite easily and discussed with images taken or drawn.

Hopefully, with some serious discussions as you study the weather this year your students will recognize that there is no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothing choices.

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 41 – Using Nature to Help Set Classroom Norms


Nature is the ultimate teacher of how to overcome all obstacles. ~ Tao te Ching 

The beginning of another year. And to myself it reminds me of the perfect EcoTourism adventure. It’s not a cruise with every hour of every day planned – instead I’m given the destination and can choose my own path. I can stop and reflect or take a new path as long as it is heading into the right direction.

However, any good trip does need some guidance and some expectations and in our class that leads the teacher to setting up goals and guidelines for classrooms norms.

When I go into classes I will often see a list upon the wall of norms that the teacher set up with the students in the first days of school. The rules are more often than not written collaboratively and listed prominently on a numbered list. For example:

  1. Listen carefully
  2. Raise your hand
  3. Be respectful
  4. Be responsible
  5. Be safe & consider others
  6. Take turns & share

Many the school board, like my own will have their own Character Attributes. And by its very definition, an ecological community, like a classroom or school community is bound together by the network of influences that individuals have on one another. A few years ago I created a program entitled Darwinian Thinking to Teamwork which is full of activities showing what business students in high school can learn from the natural world as well.

So, my challenge to you this week is to take those classroom norms and expectation and make them visual. Use the natural world to show your students and parents alike what is in store for them this year in an environmental education themed class space.

What can you and your students come up with? What examples, images or connections can you find? As always, I’d love for you to share!

When the Portage Seems to Weary You, You Need the Strength of Kids


panorama pinetree lake

I just came back from a few days in Algonquin Provincial Park with my daughters for our annual interior canoe trip.

While there were many pivotal and certain long to be cherished moments I found myself upon return needing to write about portaging in particular.

Knowing there are readers of this post around the world and not everyone is necessarily familiar with portaging, it is the act of carrying your canoe and gear from one lake to another or around a set of rapids in a river. Very few people enjoy portaging. In my case, being a long distance runner I must admit I do get a sense of accomplishment and an almost giddy feeling when I have finished carrying my 70 lbs fiberglass canoe nicknamed Prairie Smoke over a height of land. There are other reasons why portaging is grand too – some of which can be found in the article 5 Reasons Portaging is Better Than Canoeing via  I do recognize I am in the minority though and as I get older, I will quietly admit that the thrill, while still there is slightly less pronounced.

Carrying a canoe upon your shoulders over 1.8 kilometres (the longest portage this time around) along a rocky unmaintained trail can lead to all sorts of thoughts. Typically, there is little view other than the trail five or six feet in front of you as the bow of the canoe blocks the wondrous view of the canopy of the forest and any wildlife you may be passing. The effort of carrying the extra weight tends to cause one to breathe harder and the mosquitoes and blackflies are drawn to the underside of the canoe with your face. One’s exposed face and hands upon the gunnels of the canoe are open season at such a time since balancing the canoe is the main priority. If raining the insects quickly recognize that it’s dry under the canoe as well and the number of biting insects grows logarithmically it seems.

Yes, as I get older I notice these things more than I did in the past.

But portaging with my daughters has taught me other things as well. We did one portage in complete darkness. Walking without a flash light and letting our eyes adjust to the world around us. While at first nervous about not being able to see far, the girls soon become enthralled by the Barred Owl calls and the site of the Supermoon when the canopy allowed.

Algonquin 008


We planned this trip at this time purposely for the Perseids meteor shower and it did not let us down either. We saw numerous shooting stars – certainly more upon the lake but it kept us excited on the trek as well.

While portaging during the day I learned a heck of a lot while carrying the canoe and trying to keep an eye on my girls as well. Watching and listening to them as we trod the trail

  1. I learned that the mud splatters higher on one’s legs when jumping into a puddle on a portage if you are carrying a load.
  2. I learned that chipmunks “fart” when startled (in an 8 year old amateur naturalist’s scientific opinion)
  3. I learned that you can tell whether a tree is newly felled by which way the shelf fungus is growing upon it (vertical vs horizontal)
  4. I learned that Yellow Birch which loves to grow upon the rotting remains of older stumps are just young trees holding onto the “roots” their forefather’s provided.
  5. I learned singing silly campsongs while portaging causes the giant hemlocks to blow in the breeze.

Okay, while there not be a heck of a lot of science in the discoveries they made, there were observations they made that made me proud as a naturalist and father.

And, I learned that a heavy load on one’s shoulders on an uphill trail in the pouring rain is made so much easier by having your kids break the trail ahead sometimes.

But most parents and educators already know that don’t they?

Nature Time Before the Age of … As Determined by My Own Kids


There are boundless examples of children and adults alike with an obvious and seemingly almost insurmountable disconnect with the out of doors.  The days of playing outside until the street lights come on or dancing in the puddles during a rainstorm seem to be fables or make believe to some children today.

Municipal parks should not be begging for attention nor should the beaten path be seen as a way to take a short cut to the mall or school alone.Now my own children are lucky enough to be outdoors kids.  They have climbed trees and they have played outdoors without their parents for the length of one meal to another without the aid of a Smartphone or FRS radio.

My 13 year old girls have told me that while other girls their age are dying for to have that phone (and my girls do have them) they see going for a bike ride on the nature trails near our home without their phone as a sign of trust from their parents. A line of thought I find mature and refreshing.

So, as “experts” in outdoor play, I sat down with my kids and asked them to come up with a list of activities that they feel all kids should do before they reach certain age milestones. They put this into a Haiku Deck entitled Nature Time Before the Age of …

I recognize that depending on where you live, resources at hand and other factors your list may change but I think they did a fairly good job. And by going beyond their own current ages, they have also given me a wish list which we will start upon before this summer is over. It’s my niche as their father to encourage that outdoor time and do my darnedest to support their  nature experiences.

Go ahead, ask your kids – what do they feel every kid should experience outdoors by a certain age? Let me know!


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