Child learning about nature

How Do You Encourage a Child to Learn About Nature?

Why is this feather so fluffy?

How many different types of acorns are there?

How did this piece of hardened sap get onto the middle of the field?

Children are naturally curious, yet so often adults fail to make space for their inquiries. Oftentimes, a full list of state standards and a packed schedule distract us, as educators, from the beautiful wonderings that students have.

A few years ago, I decided to facilitate inquiry in an outdoor environment simply by taking the time to let my students ask questions. I handed out small notebooks and pencils, modeled one of my own personal questions (How long does it take for a spider to weave a web?), and then released my young charges to wander around our outdoor learning space.

It wasn’t long before I saw each student plop down in a spot and begin writing or sketching. When we came back together, I was surprised at both the depth and breadth of their questions. Some were math-oriented, whereas some were more poetic and open-ended. Some students wondered about the sky, while others wondered about the ground. Trees, mammals, bugs, birds, rocks, pinecones, fungi – all of these natural phenomena captured my students’ imaginations and provoked them to inquiry.

I continued this simple exercise with my class over the course of a few weeks. The students developed habits when it came to stretching their own curiosity and sharing their nature-based questions with peers. The notebooks were filling up quickly, and I could tell that the students were relishing this peace-filled time outside.

Looking back, I now recognize opportunities I missed to propel these student-generated inquiries into whole-class learning engagements. Nurturing a sense of wonder in my class was, in and of itself, a valuable choice, yet I wish that I had made the most of the students’ questions by connecting them to broader science/math investigations.

I have recently grown in my ability to use student inquiry as a launching point for lesson, yet I recognize that I still have much to learn! A few months ago, I stumbled across the book Natural Curiosity and was elated to have found such an incredible resource. Natural Curiosity offers theoretical understandings, key strategies, and sample lessons that are all grounded in inquiry-based environmental education. Students are the center of the learning process, and when we give them the lead, they are able to construct meaning about the natural world.

NoVA Outside has an upcoming free virtual workshop on inquiry-based environmental learning that uses a Natural Inquiry framework as a starting point for each session. I am excited about this opportunity to grow my own practice and to work in community with likeminded others. We welcome all NoVA outdoor educators to join us for one or all of these informative sessions. The natural curiosity of children is the perfect starting point for an inquiry-based approach to outdoor and environmental education.

See you there!

Stephanie Dean is an educator and director of outdoor education at a private school in Vienna. She is also pursuing her PhD in science education research with a focus on curriculum and instruction in outdoor and environmental education.