“Waltzing with bears…”

Three days ago, as the rain fell softly on my mountain house after dinner, I looked out the window and made eye contact with our resident juvenile neighborhood bear. “Hi bear!” I said. The wet bear looked right at me, smiled I swear, and playfully romped up the hill to my driveway to jubilantly enjoy a butcher paper wrapper before skipping on. I was glad to be inside.

I’ve never seen a bear up close, but it was the happiest bear I’ve ever seen. Last night it knocked over the dumpster across the street. Naughty Bear! So, today I have outdoor safety and learning on my mind.

As a scientist, I am a supporter of outdoor learning. There is just so much world out there! As a 4th generation Colorado native, I believe quiet time in nature is something that is essential to growing up in any region. However, kids growing up in Colorado will have to face some intense challenges. Kids we raise in the Rocky Mountains will have to care about outdoor issues, like water conservation, manage the balance of 9 separate but evolving ecosystems across the state, and guide how human increases in development will impact the plants and animals that also live in Colorado if we want that balance to remain sustainable. They will need to know how to “waltz with the bears!”

In the interest of encouraging teachers to get their kids outside this year, away from ceilings and carpets, consider this first installment of ideas on how to incorporate outdoor spaces into rich learning experiences.

  1. Start and maintain a school garden. More on this subject to come.
  2. Walk the perimeter of the school, using compasses to find little geo-cached items. Great to reinforce following step-by-step directions, orienting by local geography, describing locations and conditions, looking at local weather patterns, or measurement. Can be incorporated into mapping, narrative writing, vocabulary building, and team building.
  3. Looks for bugs. This is self-explanatory! You can work in population counts, area surveys, food chains and webs, birdwatching, nature journaling, poetry readings, or scientific classification studies.
  4.  Take a texture walk outside. Kids use a crayon, broken and without a label, to create rubbings of things like sidewalks, pavement, tree bark, leaves, or engraved words. Texture rubbings can be works of art for their own purpose or can be an introductory experience before writing with textural sensory language. Discuss what makes the sensory experience of the world through texture and touch distinct from the senses of taste and hearing or consider how senses overlap. Collect natural objects with both visual and tactile textures.
  5. Sit quietly and do nothing for just a few minutes. If you have a welcoming spot on your playground to have kids just sit and listen to the sounds around them or transition into calm from recess, allow them just a few extra minutes outside listening and watching the sky. Try making a sound picture! I learned this activity at the Keystone Science School. Draw the sounds you hear while sitting. What does the sound of traffic look like? How can you show the buzzing of a passing bee? What kind of line would you draw to show the Doppler effect of a passing motorcycle? Learning needs to connect to the larger world.
  6. Invite students to create original animals who are specially adapted to your playground habitat. How would this imaginary animal get food, shelter, water, and space? You might also encourage students to consider how your school mascot would be able to live on your campus. What would a loyal school tiger need to live on your playground?
  7. Make observations of real animals that visit your campus. Discuss with kids how to attract animals like birds and butterflies, while discouraging mice or raccoons. Discover the debate on responsible practices for dealing with animal populations that cause problems on school grounds, like redtail hawks and groundhogs.
  8. Use a duck call, or some other natural sounding instrument, to call your students in from recess. I used to see falcons and hawks regularly when I used a duck call. My students loved the novelty of a non-shrill sound, and they got to see our school mascot, the falcon, watching over us, curious where we were hiding the duck! Whistles are tools of behaviorists, coaches, and drill sergeants.
  9. Enjoy music inspired by the outdoors. I first heard “Waltzing With Bears” done by Gordon Bok, Muir, and Trickett but also found it attributed to Seamus Kennedy, who gave music to a poem by Dr. Seuss by the same name. Teach kids what a waltz is, or learn music associated with animals on different continents. Play some musical instruments outside and add your rhythm to the neighborhood.

“I gave Uncle Walter a new coat to wear,
When he came home he was covered with hair,
And lately, I’ve noticed several new tears,
I’m sure Uncle Walter goes waltzing with bears!

He goes wa-wa-wa-wa, wa-waltzing with bears,
Raggy bears, shaggy bears, baggy bears too.
There’s nothing on earth Uncle Walter won’t do,
So he can go waltzing, wa-wa-wa-waltzing,
So he can go waltzing, waltzing with bears!”

This subject is ripe with possibilities and I’ll probably come back to it. Should you have any ideas to add, please feel free to comment and share. Like most teachers, I am eager to share and borrow all the best ideas that bring deep and meaningful learning to kids of all ages.

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