“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” -Rachel Carson
Happy Earth Day, everyone! Sharing nature with children is one of my most deeply held inspired values as an early childhood educator. I believe that:
If children are to care about and want to protect the Earth, they need to have a personal relationship with it
The sense of wonder children experience early in life will remain with them and bring a greater depth of understanding to their later studies and explorations
Nature can enrich our lives as a source of inspiration, creativity, and strength.
Despite the recent, dramatic changes to the public school curriculum and the restricted freedom and time we now have for “enrichment,” I hold onto some goals that I strive to weave into my teaching however possible. They include:
Connecting children with the natural world through direct experiences and observations, stories, photographs, informational resources, and art projects
Putting children in contact with growing things to develop a greater awareness of the cycles of nature
Cultivating the child’s reverence and sense of wonder for the whole of creation (natural world)
Encouraging sensory awareness and mindfulness of nature
Sharing metaphors and cycles from nature that speak to the human experience
Using natural objects as manipulatives and play props.
To accomplish these goals, there are certain activities throughout the year that I will do everything in my power to keep in my kindergarten curriculum despite it all. For example, I would continue to have an indoor butterfly pavilion in my classroom for children to observe the monarch butterfly life cycle. Even if (hypothetically) we were not taking time to officially learn about it, at least my students could observe it, be in awe of it, and ask questions. We could take a few minutes at the beginning of recess to release the butterflies outdoors. This is an example of one of my personal “non-negotiables.” Another is growing plants from seed. Both of these activities cultivate caring.
I’ve thought long and hard about different ongoing activities and structures I can include in my classroom to support my goals of connecting children with nature no matter what. Here are some I came up with:
Having a seasonal “nature” table in the classroom
Naming each full moon based on what is happening in the natural world during that month
Celebrating each full moon by reading a story featuring the moon
Observing and discussing the weather and temperature on a regular basis
Pausing for a moment to honor and observe natural phenomena as they occur (i.e. leaves or snow falling, squirrels playing, wind gusting, butterfly hatching)
Setting up science investigation stations for free exploration
Offering magnifying glasses as tools for exploration during outdoor recess
Providing bags for children to pick up playground trash
Providing direct experiences when possible – and when not possible, alternatives include virtual experiences (on our SMART Board) and family “homework”
Taking monthly nature walks and focusing on sensory observations and signs of the season.
Seasonal nature tables
Science investigation stations
I have yet to implement “family homework,” but here are some ideas:
Feel the bark of different trees, and do a leaf rubbing with paper and crayons.
Collect and press a few fallen autumn leaves, and send to school to share, compare, and use in an art project.
Go outdoors after dark, and notice (and make a list of) different night sounds.
Look for bird nests after the leaves have fallen from the trees; inspect with a magnifying glass, and perhaps bring to school for our bird nest display case (empty fish tank).
Make a snowman or snow sculpture, and take a picture of it.
Make a bird chart, and keep track of the birds you see in your yard during winter (or spring).
Look at the night sky, and identify constellations, or make up constellations of your own.
Take a walk, and notice signs of spring (or fall).
Listen to the sounds of spring.
Put out materials for birds to use in making their nests (such as hair from a hairbrush).
Full Moon Club: Step outside when the moon is full each month, and make a list in a small notebook of what you notice (sights, sounds, smells, temperature, etc.); notice how the sensory impressions change from month to month.
Like delicate plants determined to push up through cracks in the pavement, there is always a way to facilitate children’s connection with the natural world. Sharing my nature and wildlife photography is one of my favorite ways to do this. It seems that my passion for what I have photographed and experienced on the river awakens something in my students. They engage and pay attention when I share my photos and anecdotes via the SMART Board, and it is among the highest quality, most insightful and observant discussion we have. I think that a teacher’s passion is infectious and ignites learners. I have a class website with a photo album in which families can upload pictures of nature and wildlife they observe outside of the classroom so children can do the same – a high tech version of show-and-tell. I also make room for some read aloud stories pertaining to Earth Day. Some of my favorites are:
Why the Sky is Far Away: A Nigerian Folktale by Mary-Joan Gerson
The Gift: A Magical Story about Caring for the Earth by Isia Osuchowska (since I teach in a public school, I omit religious references)
Zinnia’s Flower Garden by Monica Wellington
Each Living Thing by Joanne Ryder
The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry
Each year, I like to create something in celebration of Earth Day. One year I made a book from a paper bag that showed, through photos and text, 20 different ways we care for the Earth in our classroom.
To raise awareness of what we already do – and to brainstorm more ideas – I included items like:
Sharpening crayons, using the shavings for art projects, and using the stubs for crayon rubbings and melting into block crayons (message: using all the parts instead of throwing them away)
Turning off the lights when we leave the classroom
Obtaining most of the books in our classroom library secondhand (message: buying used rather than new and passing things on to others after they have outlived their usefulness to us)
Having a system for reusing and recycling paper, and using both sides of paper for writing and drawing
Repurposing different kinds of food containers to make classroom materials (paint cups, pencil holders, mini greenhouses).
For the second year in a row, I have created a video in celebration of Earth Day. Last year, I wanted to share Louis Armstrong’s song “What a Wonderful World” and Tom Chapin’s “This Pretty Planet” with my students and thought it would be more powerful if I paired the songs with images. That is how the first video came into being. My students asked to see it repeatedly; I think it has a comforting effect. Since I didn’t have my blog going at that time, I’ll share last year’s video HERE. (Please be sure to watch it at the highest quality setting!) This year, I created a video based on one of my favorite songs, “The Garden Song” by David Mallett, in memory of my friend, David, who passed on in February. David was a faithful gardener of both land and spirit, and my last visit with him ended with a walk around our yard looking at our gardens. One of his last pieces of advice was about how to keep cauliflower heads protected as they grow. He planted so many seeds during his lifetime, some of which have been growing in me for decades. In a nutshell, I think life is about growing and blooming where we are planted, and offering the world our highest expression – and then leaving seeds for the next generation to do the same. “The Garden Song” is full of metaphors, and it reminds me so much of David. Email followers: Click HERE to play video. I hope you will enjoy the videos and find some way to plant a seed in honor of Earth Day! With love and light, Susan
In a recent post, I mentioned the labyrinth I walked while I was on retreat. The topic of labyrinths deserves a post of its own, and here I will describe different ways to make your own, even if you don’t have any land or space. Knowing how much I love labyrinths, my husband surprised me one day a few years ago by mowing a seven-circuit, Classical labyrinth design in our yard while I was at work.
Maintaining it (with a lawnmower and a weed wacker) has been a labor of love ever since. Mowing only takes about 20 minutes, but weed wacking, which needs to be done every couple weeks, takes about three hours. I think of it as our “wildflower labyrinth” because flowers grow in the “walls” between the circuits throughout the summer. We placed a “gazing ball” orb mounted on a stone pedestal at the center of the labyrinth.
Mowing a labyrinth seemed like the simplest way to go since we didn’t want to go through the trouble of buying and laying down rocks. It is also an easily reversible choice.
The Classical labyrinth (scroll down to see my turquoise and purple mini replica) is a simple design that is perhaps most easily recreated by beginning with the cross toward the bottom near the entrance and working outward from there. If I were making one, I’d measure and mark it out beforehand. My husband, on the other hand, took a more “intuitive” approach; he attached the labyrinth design to his lawnmower and started mowing at the beginning of the path, moving very slowly and only a few steps at a time as he followed the path on his “map.” To each his own!
It’s a nice touch – though certainly not necessary – to have a passage or threshold leading to the entrance. Ours is very simple:
A more permanent labyrinth may be created with rocks, as in the 11-circuit design based on the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth that I walked at Light on the Hill retreat center…
or with slate, as in this seven-circuit, Neo-Medieval style labyrinth in a nearby park:
I love the entrance to the park labyrinth (photographed while exiting the labyrinth):
A portable alternative is to tape or paint the labyrinth design on tarp, vinyl, or cloth (such as a king-sized sheet) that can be laid on the ground or floor. I have considered doing this for my classroom but haven’t gotten around to it. I’m thinking it could be a useful tool for helping children to relax and center their energy. They would need to remove their shoes before walking it, to help it last longer. If time and space are issues, a finger labyrinth could be the answer! A finger labyrinth is held in your lap, placed on a table, or mounted on a wall, and the path to the center and back out is traced with a finger (preferably the pointer finger of your non-dominant hand) or stylus. A finger labyrinth is a tool for calming and centering mind-body-spirit. In its simplest form, it can be an image you find online and print on a piece of paper. However, I prefer finger labyrinths with raised “walls” so I don’t have to pay so much attention to remaining on the path (and not inadvertently crossing over to an adjacent circuit).
Click HERE for instructions on using a finger labyrinth. Here are a few different designs I have replicated for finger labyrinths:
Chartres replica (sans lunations)
Applying the non-dominant hand theory, I created the above finger labyrinths with a left entrance for right-hand dominant usage with the left hand. (Does that make sense?) The pattern could be flipped for lefties.
To make the design, you could attempt to draw it freehand (for Classical style), trace it using an overhead projector, or affix a paper printout to a board (or stiff cardboard) of some sort. After much experimentation, here is my method for creating finger labyrinths: Materials needed:
Artist canvas panel, acrylic-primed (11″x14″ is a nice size, but you will need 14″x18″ for the Chartres design)
Dimensional fabric paint
Printout of labyrinth design (on plain paper, watercolor paper, or scrapbook paper)
Colored pencils or crayons (optional)
Round gemstone (optional)
Hot glue gun
Print out the design, and make sure it is the right size for your canvas. You can reduce or enlarge it using a photocopier. You could bring it to a copy shop if it needs to be printed larger than you’re able to do on your own. (Variation: You could print the design on watercolor paper if you want to paint it with watercolors. Simple Variation: You could print the design on patterned scrapbook paper and skip steps 2 and 5.)
Decide whether you will color the labyrinth using paint, crayons, or colored pencils. If you wish to use crayons or colored pencils, go ahead and color it at this point. (Watercolor paint is another choice but only if you printed the design on watercolor paper.)
Trim around the boundary of the labyrinth using scissors so there is no excess paper around it. Or you might choose to keep a small border around the labyrinth, as I did with the Santa Rosa design, above.
Attach the printout to the canvas using Mod Podge.
If you are painting the labyrinth, do so now, making sure you can still see the lines. You can paint the rest of the canvas at this point if you wish, or wait until later.
Very carefully, trace the “wall” lines with fabric paint. You might want to practice on a scrap paper first to get a feel for how the paint flows.
Allow fabric paint to dry completely.
If you haven’t yet painted the rest of the canvas, do so now.
When paint has dried, cover the entire canvas with a coat of Mod Podge, and allow it to dry.
If you’re using glitter, apply more Mod Podge to the center, and sprinkle on some glitter. You could even mix the glitter into the Mod Podge. Allow to dry.
If you’d like, affix a gemstone at the center, using a hot glue gun.
There are many alternative methods you could experiment with, including using glue and string, sand, or tiny pebbles (instead of fabric paint) for the walls. The possibilities are endless! Here is a simple finger labyrinth I printed on cardstock, colored with pencils, traced with black dimensional fabric paint, and put on the wall next to the Peace Table in my classroom. The children find it calming to trace the path to the center and back out.
I have a vision of creating a labyrinth in a grassy or paved area around a school. Children could walk the labyrinth as an activity during recess, or it could even be used as a tool for problem solving or conflict management – as a non-punitive “time-out” or reflective activity. I imagine it would be useful for helping children focus, as well. My husband gave one of my finger labyrinths to a blind woman who works in an alternative educational setting with teenagers when they are in highly agitated states and need to cool down. Although he gave it to her for her own use, apparently the students enjoyed it, too. I am now offering finger labyrinths (Classical and Santa Rosa styles) in my Etsy shop.
Here is a larger (24″x30″) labyrinth that I painted on canvas as meditative art:
To learn more about the uses and kinds of labyrinths, to find images for creating your own, or for more in-depth instructions for making them, here are two highly informative websites:
Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
As usual, the flower parade has begun with the daffodils leading the way, to be followed closely by the tulips. Growing tired of winter, I was thrilled to notice the daffodil shoots pushing above ground outside my classroom during the last week of February – and I have been observing them with my students and photographing them ever since. They became a symbol of hope and spring, and I enjoyed watching the yellow tips mature and bulge.
Yesterday was the first day back from spring vacation, and I hoped they hadn’t bloomed in my absence. I was not disappointed! They were just about ready.
This morning, I arrived at school anticipating something wonderful – and here is what I found:
The sight filled me with joy.
I observed the daffodils obsessively throughout the day. And they couldn’t have picked a better day to bloom.
It so happened that our big book read-aloud story for the day (as per our language arts core curriculum) was Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus. This is a story about a young tiger named Leo who couldn’t read, write, draw, or “eat neatly” like his friends. I introduced the story by talking about what it means to bloom – how flowers bloom and how people bloom, as well. I gave an example of my mother learning to play guitar in her mid-70s and talked about how beautiful it is to see someone bloom and how good it feels to bloom. I also mentioned that our daffodils were in the process of blooming today, and the children were eager to see for themselves since we’d been watching and waiting for so long.
But first we read the story. Young Leo wore a sad expression on his face throughout most of the book as he tried unsuccessfully to do what his friends were doing. His dad was worried, too, and told Leo’s mom that he’s afraid Leo is not a bloomer. His mom, however, had faith in Leo’s natural developmental rhythm and assured his dad that Leo will bloom in his own time. The dad tried not to worry, but as Leo continued not to bloom, he couldn’t help but worry. Again, the mom reassured him that Leo will bloom when he is ready. And at last…Leo bloomed! He was able to read, write, draw, and eat neatly. And he was so proud. I love the message of this story. It saddens me that recent public education mandates have raised the academic bar so much higher for kindergartners, and as a result there is little tolerance for the natural developmental rhythms of diverse learners. I tell parents at the beginning of each school year that my primary goals for their children are for them to enjoy coming to school, to love learning, and to feel good about themselves. And yet, even in kindergarten, teachers are required to identify children who are not meeting grade level benchmarks and to provide them with intervention services designed to accelerate their learning so they will catch up and end the year where they are expected to be. Although I agree – and have seen for myself – that children are often capable of more than we may imagine – I worry that this approach may result in more young children feeling badly about themselves and feeling self-conscious about not measuring up. Some children are ready for the new, more demanding kindergarten curriculum, but others are not. I wish we had greater freedom to honor children’s developmental rhythms and to rely more on authentic assessment methods. I really enjoyed reading and discussing Leo the Late Bloomer with the children. We talked about how poor Leo felt bad about himself and how his dad was worried about him – but also about how his mom had faith that he would bloom in his own time. I really stressed his mother’s attitude, hoping to get across the message that children bloom in their own time – and not to worry if something is very difficult for you because eventually it will get easier. Don’t worry or compare yourself to others. You will arrive in your own time. I have faith in you. Despite all the report card testing, benchmark testing, and progress monitoring, I have faith in you, and I know there is something each one of you does really well. It might not be something we assess in school, but it is important and valuable nonetheless.
After reading the story, we had snack time, and the children wanted to see the daffodils, so I took them outside one table group at a time. It was so beautiful to watch their faces light up when they saw the daffodils opening and beginning to bloom.
We noticed that some of the daffodils were blooming more quickly than others. Each of them was growing and opening their petals at a slightly different pace. And each will become a beautiful, fully formed flower in its own time. We continued to observe the daffodils throughout the day, during recess and at dismissal.
We have observed the daffodils since we noticed the first shoots and talked about how people and flowers are alike in the way they bloom. And it seems my students have developed reverence for the daffodils in our little garden. They are protective of the flowers and remind children in other classes to be gentle and to keep a safe distance.
I hope that the ways in which our curriculum coincided with natural phenomena today deepened my students’ connection with the natural world. I hope they will grow to regard nature as a mirror of their own social, emotional, and spiritual selves and to find strength and hope in the metaphors offered so abundantly by the natural world. The first of our daffodils will be in full bloom tomorrow.
And woe to any unsuspecting child who innocently attempts to pick one. I don’t think my students would stand for it!