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Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 64: “Soil” Need Not Be a Dirty Word


Step outside after a good spring rain and inhale deeply. Smell the soil? That scent even has a name – petrichor.

I have spent the last couple of months at local schools discussing the fact that 2015 is the International Year of Soils. At the moment I mention this though – the group has almost always become silent.

I mean – even the Crickets stop chirping.

Soil, is often referred to as dirt however I tend to argue that I see dirt as man-made. When one gets “dirty” they tend to get into trouble. Dirt, is a dirty word.

Soil on the other hand is extremely clean. There are more harmful and plentiful germ issues on the bathroom door at the mall then in your gardens.

90% of our food comes from the soil – or eats things that come from the soil. The clothes we wear, the school bricks that keep us from the elements and more.

However, most folks are not aware of the fact that while soil may be fairly deep in some areas, it is typically the top 5-10 cm that is topsoil – carrying enough in the way of nutrients to sustain life. The sub soils beneath, while helping to keep deep-rooted plants like trees standing offer much less in sustenance.

Remember playing in puddles as a kid? Making mud pies? It’s such a shame that as we get older we lose this connection to our soil.

We as educators (and parents) need to stop scaring our kids away from the soil that feeds, clothes and shelters us. So this week’s challenge is what I hope will be the first of many steps in a soil inquiry project. It is to encourage our students to experience soil first hand.

The next two or three Challenges for #EnviroEd will be a continuation of this week but this being the first is about one small step for your class and one giant step into Soil Inquiry.

While I hope everyone allows their students the opportunity to play in the soil, setting the “ground” rules for learning of the ground is equally important – unless you are not the one doing or speaking to the one doing all the laundry that is.

How will you engage your students in soil inquiry and what expectations will you and the class lay down to keep both your parents at home and the custodian at school happy? Share your ideas, methods and your trial and errors.

As always, looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 63: #KindergartenBioBlitz Season’s Changing Edition


The internet may be down in your school, the devices may need updating, heck the chalk in the classroom may have disappeared even but the one thing any classroom teacher can count on is the weather.

Some days it may mean indoor recess, or days perhaps play such as “tarmac only” restrictions  but every single day there is a 100% chance of weather and for teachers looking to build upon literacy or numeracy there is no better tool available every single day.

Weather, especially at this time of year can be a perfect tool for inquiry as well. With the harsh winter in North America still firmly upon us, there are just the hints of spring’s approach. The Sugar Bush season has started, the days are getting longer, the morning sun basks the bricks on the east side of the school whereas the afternoon sun does the same on the west side.

Students (and teachers!) are itching to get outside after one of the coldest Februarys in recent history. Where I live, this was the first February since the 1970’s where not a single day saw the temperature rise above 0 degrees Celsius. So what better time than now to bring back our #KindergartenBioBlitz Season’s Changing Edition.

For an example of how a classroom teacher has made use of this I’d recommend reading  Elissa Iagallo ‘s Blog post on it last year.

So, for the next week Kindergarten classes are encouraged to send their discoveries and inquiries via Twitter using the hashtag #KindergartenBioBlitz. As always, this is not just a conversation between me and your class – but for classes to compare and discuss findings with each other. How does spring’s arrival look in Calgary compared to Toronto compared to New York, or San Diego? Share how you are using the weather for math, language or in other ways with colleagues and bounce ideas off each other this week using the hashtag for a week long discussion.

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 62: Sugar Bush Field Trip Inquiry

britannia shack

As someone who facilitates field trips to the forest, the pond and beyond I used to start the lesson each day by asking the students, “Do you know why you are here today?” … Depending on the age of the students and the diligence of the classroom teacher students sometimes knew the program topic or perhaps just that they were about to explore nature in some way however this was not always the case.

Recently though I’ve approached it much differently. I have been telling the students what we are about to do in vaguer terms, (ie we will be exploring life in the pond) and then ask them – directly, “What would you like to know about life in the pond?”.

A field trip should not be a walking lecture, although too often this is what it becomes. No student, nor teacher will gain as much understanding or wisdom from a 3 dimensional PowerPoint as they walk through a factory or a zoo, with each stop predetermined.  Students will tune out without the chance to explore their own curiosity.

Locally, we are setting up for the Britannia Farm Sugar Bush and for over a year now have tried to make this half day field trip a season long inquiry into the arrival of spring.

We’ve created Symbaloo pages to allow students to explore the bush via math, language and even recipes and music before and after their visit. Via the hashtag #BritanniaFarm students can ask field centre instructors questions about the process and how to prepare for the trip. Staff is available for Skyping before or after visits to carry on the inquiry as well.

Parents can watch the Youtube video of the program to get an inkling of what to expect (and perhaps help in dressing their kids for the day as well!)

This has worked in many ways. Students come knowing our field centre staff already and are excited to meet us in person. They often come with their own powerful questions as well. I recall last year a 5-year-old asking me why it takes longer to make syrup in a pioneer cauldron over a modern evaporator if the fire was the same size. She had been thinking about this for some time leading up to the program day.


sappy doo

Field trips have unbelievable potential for learning and we as educators have an equally unbelievable opportunity to allow students to explore their own curiosity by asking them before they even step on that school bus for the trip;

“What are you hoping to learn?”

… and for those field trip providers … another challenge of sorts … how can you promote and encourage this inquiry?

Love to hear your thoughts.

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 61: Snow as a Teaching Tool

Ranger Rob 2

Last week, as is the norm, groundhogs across North America could not agree on whether spring was coming early or whether it was not due for another six weeks.

Many folk were perhaps eager to get the rodent prophet’s forecast because a huge portion of the continent is under snow this week.

But I do feel that snow is one of a classroom teacher’s most underutilized tools for learning.

For numeracy it can be a wonderfully experiential tool for measurement, temperature, wind speeds, geometry and more. For language it can be the perfect atmosphere for stories such as Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee or perhaps The Hockey Sweater  by Roch Carrier. Snow can be a tool to teach visual arts, physical education and so, so much more.

So this week’s challenge, while simple is time sensitive. I encourage you to work with your students to create an engaging and practical lesson utilizing the snow outside your school to teach or to enhance those topics you are already teaching in the classroom. Share your success via this blog or online using the hashtag #EnviroEd. If looking for ideas on how to use snow with your current math lessons or elsewhere – by all means send me a message as well.

Outdoor and environmental education are not add ons – instead, like technology or other teaching manipulatives – they are critical tools for helping learners better understand concepts.

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 60 World Wetland Day – Feb 2


This February 2nd, many in North America will be paying attention to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania or Wiarton, Ontario to see what certain Woodchucks might say about how much longer we will have snow upon the ground. Groundhogs Day is a day that while we all show a slight interest in on the television before we head off to work for the day – we rarely give another thought to the rest of the day.

Well February 2nd is also another important day – It is World Wetlands Day. Even myself, as an outdoor educator used to pay little attention to wetlands in the middle of winter. I do recognize of course that as World Wetland Day that means that half the swamps, marshes, fens and bogs around the world are not frozen right now.

Whether the waters are frozen or not, they wetland is still filtering water with cattails and bulrushes soaking up chemicals. When the snow melts the wetlands will act like sponges and soak up huge amounts of run off that would otherwise be the cause of flooding.

And wetlands, even those that are winter wonderlands right now are always teaming with diversity.

This past weekend I purposely popped my head out of the ground and started to explore winter wetland activity. I went out and explored my own local wetlands and found that while I could not see the waters beneath the ice the I had no doubt that the benthic invertebrates were active.

Above the surface though there were tracks, birds, and all sorts of activity. This Red Squirrel chattered away at me in the local bog(the same bog as the photo at the top of this post is at).


There was a magical feel almost to all the wetlands I visited. The snow upon the cattail or the tamarack with the absence of their needles stood resolute. Fox, hare, crow, rabbit and deer tracks were everywhere telling me that indeed the wetland was visited on a regular basis and I found myself reflecting if their tracks would seem an intricate connect the dots from high above.


Have you visited the wetlands near your school this winter? While perhaps wise to stay well away from any water, frozen or otherwise – I’d love to hear about your class’s visit to neighbourhood wetland this winter for a little exploration and understanding of their value. Send some photos to showcase your finds using the hashtags #EnviroEd and #WorldWetlandDay.


Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 59: Trees, The Guardians of the Schoolyard

ice storm damage

Many of us are lucky enough to be in schools with trees in the playground. Each ring within the trunk could speak to hundreds of recesses and discussions.

Many students may not think much about the trees within their schoolyard on a regular basis unless they are doing a tree inquiry project or have “adopted a tree” as a class. They have provided shade for students reading comic books, novels, Kindles and more. They have been “home free zones”, fortresses and when the teachers on duty are looking the other way – even jungle gyms likely.

Now, imagine they could share those stories. If those trees could speak to discussions on the playground over generations. Wouldn’t it be great to hear the stories they could tell? What lessons could we learn from those trees? In 2014 the movie Guardians of the Galaxy came out and one of the main characters, Groot, was a tree-like hero.


Your schoolyard trees, with the right imagination, are the Guardians of the Schoolyard. They are always on duty and could share some true school ground climate related morals. This week’s challenge is to write those stories. Have your students create short stories or poems that can teach a valuable schoolyard lesson for students through the “eyes” of the trees.

Now, if we pay a wee bit more attention to those trees, could they also tell us when they are stressed? When they are under the weather? If a tree is changing its foliage well before the time of the other trees it could mean that they tree is ill or stressed. Perhaps the trees roots and the soil around them are being compacted by recess after recess of pounding feet making it hard for the roots to soak up water. Perhaps the tree was planted in an area where run off from the pavement allows salt or other issues to run off into its water table. Is the tree a shade intolerant tree species such as birch or poplars that is constantly in the shade because of where it was planted? How are they affected by winter weather such as ice storms or winds?


Much as our good friend the Lorax, could you students speak for the trees in a creative story as well?

With spring a couple of months away – write the stories now and let the discussion lead to spring time action plans for the schoolyard  trees, who are always on recess duty.

Let me know how it goes!

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 58: Urban Wildlife Adaptations to Winter


I spent yesterday downtown Toronto. It was a cold and blustery day as the mercury, (or more honestly my smartphone weather app) told me it was -22 degrees Celsius. With the winds being channeled through those downtown streets as well the wind chill made it feel significantly colder still.

However, between appointments, I had the chance to step outdoors and noticed urban wildlife all around me. Songbirds from finches to sparrows seemed to huddle on the south facing windowsills of the tall buildings and I had to admit, even I enjoyed the feeling of the extra warmth on my face when I could find a beam of sunlight at street level. I had no doubt that those birds would move from window to window as the sun moved across the sky.

As I walked down Queen Street, I noticed that all the squirrel dreys or nests also seemed to be on the north side of the street and never where there was a tall building keeping that tree in the shade much of the day. The squirrels as well seemed to be taking advantage of the limited sunlight available to them.

Even the Rock Doves or Pigeons had found these warm air vents coming from subway ducts or from other unknown but obviously warmed realms and would not budge. They were reminding me of Marilyn Monroe’s famous scene from the movie The Seven Year Itch as I watched their feathers being blown by the warm subterranean air. Wildlife has a wonderful way of adapting to urban life and even in the depths of winter we can find wonderful examples of how animals survive and thrive in such conditions.

So, I created a short Tellagami Challenge for some of our more urban classes. By starting an inquiry into winter wildlife behaviours in an urban setting I wonder what students will discover, predict and marvel at?

Weekly Challenge for #EnviroEd # 57 – 1st 100 Days of Environmental Inquiry


The winter break is over and everyone heads back to school. January is a special time in education as with a hopefully refreshing break for many now behind us – educators have New Year’s Resolutions firmly in place.

Although, at the same time, the school year is not just beginning – in fact we are approaching another milestone altogether. It was during the time of the Great Depression when Franklin D Roosevelt first mentioned the 1st 100 Days as a way to measure his new government’s effectiveness. Since then, presidents, executives and yes teachers have used the same milestone as a chance to reflect and assess productivity.

This is the time of year when many the educator, for their own sanity or for the sake of the students find a burning desire to change desk rows or add a new display board or even a new measurement tool.

I am a fan of this. Just as some students will excel when the lesson is brought outdoors, a change in routine inside the classroom can also be a wonderful tool for stimulating the mind as well. Below are just a few ideas for you …

  1. Begin the day or week with a short video on environmental ethics/issues
  2. Create a display within the classroom to showcase environmental inquiry your class is working on
  3. Begin a blog or photo journal on your environmental learning for parents and other classes
  4. Move desks into a different arrangement and have desk groups study local wildlife or habitats as a side project
  5. Arrange to speak (in person or via the web) with an environmental expert on a semi-regular basis

So, I challenge you as educators to have a look back at your 1st 100 days in the classroom this year. Speak to your students about what they’ve enjoyed in the realm of their environmental education initiatives and ask them what they’d like to see as well. Leading up to your own 100 days, what do you plan on incorporating or encouraging to inspire your students’ environmental inquiry?

Share your thoughts with your PLN?


An Ice Storm as a Teambuilder, 1 Year Later …

finlayson ice storm

Lovely sight isn’t it? It is often said in outdoor education that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing choices. Let me tell you about a time this was not the case.

Last year on this day I travelled into work extremely cautiously as the roads were not in great shape. A few branches were down and icy conditions were the news of the day. My typical 25 minute drive on country roads was closer to 40 minutes in the slick conditions. I typically get to the site I am based out of around 6:30 in the morning so it was still dark.

When I arrived at the front gate of the Jack Smythe Field Centre I could tell that our largest outdoor education centre in the Peel District School Board was not in great shape. Immediately, I saw that I would not be able to drive in due to trees upon the roadway and right over top of the gate. In fact, in many areas there were so many limbs and full trees down that you could not see the roadway at all and it was only the downed hydro wires that gave any evidence that there was a roadway at all in some sections.

2013-12-23 09.00.16

I took a number of photos and sent a HaikuDeck of the devastation to the staff, most of whom where already on vacation for the winter break. By seeing the damage in the format I sent it was pretty obvious that programming could not run as we had expected for much of the winter.

It ended up being even worse than we thought. Trees were bent over, broken and the entire trail and roadways were impassible. This YouTube video will show you what it was like that day as I attempted to walk the trails. I suggest you turn the sound up as in the backround you’ll hear quite the eerie sound.

After a number of days with maintenance not even being able to get in with generators I went in on Boxing Day and brought any animals still alive to my house for the rest of the break. It must have been a sight with aquarium fish, corn snakes and more all stacked and tied onto an all-terrain sled as I trekked over fallen trees in the snow from the cold building to the front gate.

We still have not opened up all our trails a year later. However this is a good news post nonetheless.

First our sugar shack was not impacted – though it looked as if there was a giant bird’s nest of debris around it. Our forest needed the break after this – a chance to bounce back from the damage and we did our part in considering the sustainability of our trees as they are our teaching partners.

2013-12-23 08.46.48

In the end perhaps only four days of programming were truly cancelled at this site and that is thanks to the outstanding maintenance department within my Board and as well to staff I work with at the Peel Field Centres. The countless hours of trail maintenance and program modifications made by my own staff made an unbelievable difference. Even to this day a year later we are not finished cleaning up the debris yet.  However, the ice storm of 2013, while not one of the worst, did a wonderful job of showing a team’s ability to raise to a challenge. I’m happy to say that while we know the struggles we’ve faced as a staff – the students and visiting teachers had only great experiences to head back to school with. I’m so very proud of the team I work with.

It’s a testament to why outdoor education is so safe. We mitigate our risk. We assess , we modify, we plan …

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.


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