Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Outdoor Fun for All Ages May 19, 2011

Almost every morning during the week I wake up, eat a banana and–if I’m organized enough and remembered to wash the old congealing milk out of it–pour coffee into my travel mug, climb into the car, and drive in the opposite direction of all the commuting traffic out into the neighboring community in which I work. After much planning, my outdoor days with grades K – 8 are finally here!

For these days I put together a series of outdoor activities and lead each class through them, teaching them about topics they have learned throughout the year in as hands-on a way as possible. Some grades travel to nearby locations like a wetland or stream, while others learn right on the school grounds. They are so much fun, and I have been having a great time! The kids are wonderful and have a lot of great questions and insights.

Unfortunately, I won’t put up the many adorable pictures I have of the kids themselves, but I thought I’d share a few other photos of the days and what we have been up to. Below is a random collection of pictures from a variety of different activities.

I feel very lucky that I get to do this for my job!


The owner of the wetland’s rule was that everyone had to get at least a little muddy. Many of them fulfilled this obligation!


And this station didn’t hurt…


Some crayfish discovered during a macroinvertebrate study.


A ghostly bee keeper suit watches over some kids learning about hives.


A local dairy farm shows some kindergartners the different parts of the feed they give their cows. This matched a later activity where I gave the kids vegetables and we talked about the different body parts they kept healthy.


A sign showing how to get to the “plant art” station at the end of the boardwalk.


Some clay pots painted by a kindergarten class drying in the window. Later, they filled these with soil and planted seeds in them to take home.


A large tooth (I believe cow) that students found in the stream during the macroinvertebrate study.

It’s been so fun to go out with all of the different age groups and help them experience nature. I have learned so much and love hearing their thoughts and impressions of the different activities. I end every day with what I call “Nature Letters,” where students pick a family member or friend to write a letter to about their day. They have to include at least (1.) something they learned, (2.) their favorite part of the day, and (3.) something they did that day that they would like to do again with the person they are writing to.  They write the letter first and then draw a picture to match. I LOVE reading what stood out to them about the day and like to imagine the person they are writing to getting the letter. One girl wrote to her older sister, and drew a picture of them collecting litter together sometime in the future. Another included “BEST MOM EVER!” in all cap bubble letters at the end of his. In the example I do with the class I always write to my grandma (hi, Grandma!) so some of them write to grandparents as well, or cousins, or a best friend in a different class. I am very careful with students to NEVER ever say “mom and dad” or “parents,” always “families.” It’s a simple change in words that helps to include every student, whether they are raised by another family member, their dad and stepmom, a single parent, their brother, their two moms, etc. etc.

Anyway, in a second grade class I noticed that one of the girl’s drawings had me in it! In the picture I am holding a ziploc bag with some milkweed seed pods in it, which I used to talk about seed dispersal and plant adaptations. So, in case you have been wondering what I look like, look no further!



I also want to say that these days are partly made possible by volunteers who come out and help me lead stations. This is especially necessary if a grade has more than one class of students. In these cases I simply couldn’t do the days without them, and I am very grateful there are people who are interested and able to spend time with the kids to teach them about nature.

As a quick public service announcement I just want to say that if you happen to have any spare time (which, I know, is rare), please consider helping out your local schools! I had a very difficult time finding volunteers this year and I know the parent teacher groups are having the same problem. Also, many public schools have had funding for assemblies, art programs, and extracurricular stuff completely cut out, and they would LOVE to have an interested party come in and do some programs with their kids. Maybe you could lead a class or two in an outdoor painting activity? Or bird watching? Or bring in vegetables from your garden? Or lead them in a song about nature? The possibilities really are endless and I’m sure there is something to match up with your specific interests.

If you have a particular hobby or specialty you would like to share with students but don’t know how to get started or what age-appropriate activity matches, please contact me and I will do everything I can to help! I can be reached by e-mail at any time at

I hope everyone is having a great week getting outdoors. As always, I’ll see you out there!


10 Tips for Teaching Environmental Education February 24, 2011


When I am not writing this blog or struggling to make myself get out into the snow, I am an environmental education coordinator for a local school district. I work with K – 12 grade classes, creating outdoor activities that fit with class curriculum and PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) exam standards. My goals are always two-fold: 1. to have students learn something about the topic at hand, and 2. to give them an experience with nature that will increase their comfort in being outside and turn nature into a “friend.”

Before this position I spent time as a museum guide in Philadelphia, a park guide at Arches National Park in Utah, a nature camp leader, and as a “content expert” for high school geoscience teachers at a conference in Pennsylvania. Each of these brought their own set of challenges, rewards, and lessons, and each has helped me to grow as a person and educator.  I am always changing based on new experiences, but here are the ten most important lessons for teaching environmental education that I have learned so far!



1. Don’t depend on the teacher to get control of the class for you.

This is sometimes hard to do, because you don’t want to come into a new place and correct someone elses’ kids. I am not saying you should go overboard with this, but sometimes teachers are going to welcome the brief respite from teaching and take the time to grade papers, plan the next activity, etc.  They will not always be available to step in for you, or step in at the time you need it. The ability to gently bring a group back together when they are not listening on your own is very important!


2. You don’t know what else these kids are dealing with, so be compassionate!

You can’t let kids walk all over you, but you will often find that the kid who is having the hardest time sitting still or listening to directions is also struggling in other ways. I once told a kindergarten class to show the work we did to their families when they got home, and the student who had been the hardest to work with said quietly, “My dad only calls me bad names.” A 4th grade student in a writing exercise about a favorite place in nature wrote about a tree in his backyard that was his only friend, who he could “tell all his secrets to.” The list goes on.  Some kids are struggling with very difficult things, and you won’t always know what they are.

Along these same lines I am careful to never address letters home to ‘parents,’ and don’t use the word ‘parents’ to students–I only ever say ‘families.’  I am also careful to say “where you live” instead of house.  It requires less effort than it might seem–it quickly became a habit for me and now I don’t even have to think about it anymore. It might seem extreme at first to worry about this stuff, but it is a small change that might make a big difference.


3. Instead of being angry at a “difficult” student, invest extra time into that student or get her or him to help you with an activity.

This is one of the very best pieces of teaching advice I ever got. If a teacher tells you in advance that one of their students might be difficult, set up a positive relationship with them as soon as possible. Your initial reaction to hearing someone is difficult might be to assert dominance and show them you can’t be messed with. Resist this urge! Instead, ask them to help you set up an activity or ask for their opinion on a topic. If you discover that a certain student is causing problems in the middle of the activity, use any down time to see how that child is doing, what they find exciting about the class, etc.

Shortly after I first got this advice I had a 3rd grade student who had a really hard time working in a group and following directions. During the lunch break I noticed him looking at a plant and went over to talk to him about it. After I showed interest in what he was thinking, he was much more willing to work with me in the second half of the day. It was amazing what a difference this minimal effort made!


4. Kids will be excited if you are excited!

And they will be bored if you are bored. One of the best tools you have for reaching kids is your passion for a subject. It is contagious, and will keep kids listening and wanting to learn more. Don’t ever forget that you got into this field because you love the topic, and you want to share that love with others. You are making a difference in ways you won’t ever even know about!


5. Some students you work with will have Asperger’s syndrome, sensory processing disorderattention deficit disorder, anxiety, Down syndrome, etc. Sometimes you will know about it and sometimes you won’t.

In my opinion, the more you can learn about these different topics the better you will be at working with ALL students. This is a bit like #2, in that if you are not the regular teacher you never really know what an individual student is dealing with. I started thinking about this a lot recently after watching the documentary “I can’t do this but I CAN do that: A film for families about learning differences.”  I highly recommend watching it if you have a chance! One of the stories that especially stuck with me is of a boy with auditory processing disorder. He had a very difficult time understanding what the teacher was saying over other class noises, and as a result was always in trouble for “not paying attention.” I think back in horror now to every time I ever said to a student “Well, what did I just explain to the class?” After seeing this film I started asking myself, “Why do I care about explaining something a second time? What is the big deal to me?” It is possible some people could argue I am being ‘too easy’ on the kids, but I have made the decision that my most important goal is to get kids excited about nature and science while keeping everyone safe. This means that I will stop an individual who is disrupting the class or calm a group down that has gotten out of hand, but I don’t feel the need to punish a kid for being distracted when I first explained directions. If the regular teacher wants to do that, I will leave it up to them, but it isn’t my job in the few hours I see a group.


6. Make sure students really know they can ask you questions, and be willing to cover less than you thought you would if students are confused.

I make sure to ask students if they have any questions often, and at times explicitly say, “Please tell me if you don’t understand this topic, I don’t mind and I am happy to explain it in a different way.” Sometimes you won’t find out until the very end of a lesson that students have no idea what you are talking about. This is okay! Remember that your goal is NOT to just get through all of your material, but to impart knowledge to other beings. It is okay if you can’t cover everything you hoped if students really understand what you do cover.

One of the more difficult sides of this is that you really do need to explain things in a different way if kids aren’t getting you. This can be difficult, but the better you know your material the easier it will be. I once had a math class in college where the professor would answer my question by repeating the exact same sentences and examples he used the first time. I really hated this, and it did nothing whatsoever to help my problems with math. It is very frustrating to be willing to learn in spite of struggling, and not have the instructor meet you half way.


7. Be willing to change your plans completely.

It will rain. The teacher will forget you are coming that day. The students will remember the golden retriever they saw at the farm above every other thing they learned that day. You will teach a whole activity and find out at the end that you were accidentally using a word beyond their vocabulary but nobody told you. Most importantly, sometimes you will just feel that things aren’t going very well. When you get this feeling, CHANGE YOUR PLANS! Do not continue to teach to blank faces, do not cling desperately to your notes as you go down with the ship. You have to be willing to adapt to each individual class, their interests, and their needs. This will be difficult and scary at first but will get easier with time, and is one of the most important things you can do to be an effective educator.


8. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something!

If you don’t know something and make up an answer anyway, they will know, and they will not listen to anything else you say. This advice was given to me when I was working as a park guide in Arches National Park, and I have stuck by it ever since. The most important part about saying you don’t know something, though, is to tell students/groups that you will find out the answer and get back to them, and then actually do it. More than a few times I have e-mailed a teacher after an activity with information that the students wanted to know that I just didn’t. Saying you don’t know something will also seem scary at first, but it is really important. If you are willing to say what you don’t know, people will trust what you DO know even more, and students will see that the learning process continues even in adulthood.


9.  Spend a few seconds before each activity getting mentally ready.

This is probably one of the biggest “little” things you can do. Spending a short time before an activity reminding yourself of the topic, why you like it, and to be “centered” will make you more confident and ready to deal with whatever comes next. I do this a couple of different ways–sometimes I run through what I want to say again in my head, sometimes I center myself by thinking about all of the atoms in my body with their electrons spinning around (this is a weird thing I have done for a while–don’t know quite where it came from!), and sometimes I just think about how cool the science topic I am about to teach is! I find taking this time really helps with #4, and conveying my excitement and interest to the students.


10. Reflect, reflect, reflect!

The best way to get better is by doing, making some good decisions, making some bad decisions, and then reflecting on why one was good and one was bad. Sometimes you will have an amazing day with kids who are excited and asking great questions, and sometimes you will wonder if you made any impact at all. You need to figure out what went well! I try to do this immediately, while I am driving home from an activity (although sometimes I just listen to music and sing along loudly). If you like writing, journaling can be another good way to do this. Other times I reflect just by talking about my day to someone. Explaining things out loud to another person helps me recognize patterns or reasons that I didn’t see at first.

I’ve also started sending out brief 5 question surveys to teachers after activities. I made the survey for free on, and ask questions like “Q: Do you feel students were engaged in this activity? A: Yes, the entire time. B. Yes, for part of the time. C. No, they were not engaged,” “What was the best part of this activity?” and “What would you like to see in the future?” The teachers don’t always have time to answer but the information I do get back is well worth the effort.

Reflecting will also help you develop your own personal tips and guidelines. Five years ago I was afraid to speak up and correct a class if their teacher wasn’t doing it. One year ago I had never thought about how saying “parents” might affect kids who lived with their grandparents, a family friend, or a single parent. 6 months ago I had never even heard of sensory processing disorder! I can’t even imagine what kind of things I will learn in the next activity, the next 6 months, the next years of my life. But I do know that I will find out, thanks to reflection and the help of those around me.


So how about you, readers? What have you learned from your time in the classroom or outside, with kids or adults? How do you stay excited and interested in your topic? How do you convey that to others? What kinds of life experiences have affected the way you interact with others?

I hope you will leave some of your experiences and tips in the comments section! There is such a wealth of personal experience out there, and we are always better for sharing. I would love to learn from you!


Shadow Play August 22, 2010

I’m your follower in the light,
Yet I’m invisible at night
At various sizes I appear
I won’t harm you, have no fear
What am I?


I was walking into town yesterday, letting my eyes roam as usual to see what there was to see. I noticed the same acorns I took pictures of for an earlier post and the way some leaves had turned brown on the branch of an otherwise green tree. These things were interesting, but it wasn’t until something dark caught the corner of my eye that I really got excited.

Shadows! Of course! Why did I never notice them before? They are almost always there, making shapes and distortions beneath our feet. Once I thought of it it seemed so obvious–go on a shadow hunt and see what different kinds you can find! I spent the rest of my walk examining the ground and comparing what I saw. It turns out there are quite a few different kinds of shadows.

The first, and most fun to look at in my opinion, are shadows of trees that really show the shape of the leaves. Some of these have defined edges:



Some shadows have fuzzier edges:




In some places almost all of the ground is in shadow, and instead of seeing the areas where the light doesn’t get through the leaves you see the places where it does:




There are some areas where the shadows don’t just show leaves–the branches of the tree are also visible in shadow form on the ground!




Finally, I decided to just watch the shadows for a while and see what happened. I noticed that when the wind blows you can see the leaves shimmying and shaking in the shadow just like you would if you looked up at the tree. It’s interesting how some parts of the shadow move and some do not!



Looking for shadows really enriched my walk! It is definitely something I will do again and I am planning on trying to document shadows more in general–of animals, trees, cars, buildings, etc. It’s all about taking notice of the little things that are around us every day.  I’d also like to repeat an experiment that we did once in elementary school. You go out to a parking lot or side-walk at different times of day and have someone trace your shadow with chalk. If you went every hour on a sunny day, for example, you could track the way the sun moves in shadow-form and have a sort of human sundial! If you wanted you could then go out and stand in the center to see what time the shadow tells you and compare to a watch to see how close you got. I google searched and found this brief tutorial on making human sundials from Crayola.

What kind of shadows do you see? How are they changing? What catches your attention? I’d like to challenge everyone to go on a shadow hunt of their own, either on a walk specifically for the purpose or just by keeping your eyes open as you walk from your house to your car or out to your mailbox. If you see anything you’d like to share please e-mail it to

So what do you see?


Field Journals March 30, 2010

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When I was 12 or 13 years old, the way I interacted with nature changed forever. On a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park I purchased two important things: a blank journal with an embossed wolf on the front and creamy white paper, and Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place

  The book showed how to keep a field journal, and included examples of Hannah’s beautifully rendered landscapes and studies of plants and animals she found on her travels. At the time my journals did not look like hers did, but I desperately wanted them to and her book completely changed the way I record the events of my life. Her book was the first time I had ever seen writing and drawing together, each doing a part in telling a complete story. At the time it was a completely novel idea to me that you could intersperse writing with illustrations, that you didn’t need to use separate pages for each one, and that they could all be a part of a compelling (and aesthetic) whole.

  Ever since that day I have been keeping some kind of field journal.  There are many of them, although I did not always finish an entire book before moving on to another one.

  This is just a sampling of books I’ve used from the last 5 years or so. As you can see, for a time I favored the orange Elan field notebook–the bright color makes it easy to see if you put it down somewhere, and the hard cover is ideal if you treat things roughly like I do. I have used a wide variety of notebooks, though, and currently prefer the plain Moleskine soft cover books. The next time I visit my childhood home I will have to take some pictures of the massive quantities of notebooks there, which span from the ages of about 12 to 18. 

  Field notebooks can be used in many different ways. The idea is not to be strict about what does or doesn’t get in them, but to record whatever comes to mind when you are out in some natural setting. In this way a field notebook will range from sometimes being more like a diary, to sometimes being more like scientific record. Notebooks used in schools should be more focused than a personal diary would be, but students should feel welcome to record thoughts, poems, and drawings in addition to their other observations.

  Here is an example of a field journal page that combines many of these things at once: 

  This page was written a few years ago while I was helping a graduate student search the desert of Wyoming for fossil leaves. It includes some of the scientific background I was learning, a picture of one of the types of leaves we found, and a question about a type of black wasp I kept seeing carrying caterpillars around. (In case you are interested, it turned out that the wasps were paralyzing the caterpillars and then burying them in a hole with their eggs. When the eggs hatched, the wasp larva would eat the caterpillar for food). 

  I often try to intersperse drawings with blocks of text. It is important to record what is going on around you with words, but nothing will help put you back in that place in time quite like a drawing.  Here is a page from that same trip mentioned above.

  The drawing in the middle of the page is what the landscape we were working in looked like, and my field journal from that time is full of many different versions of this. 


  Drawings are a very important part of field journals. They can be used to tell a story in ways that words cannot.  Here is a page from a recent journal. You’ll have to forgive my poor art skills, but the drawings describe an encounter I had  on the way to work when I stumbled upon some crows trying to kill and eat a baby bird. Without thinking I had run forward to scare the crows away, but when I came close to the bird it got upset and crawled under a bush. Eventually I had to leave, and as I turned to go the crows flew back from wherever they had been hiding and landed on the bush, watching and waiting for their chance. Pictures can sometimes convey a story in a more dynamic way, and it is a great exercise for kids to have to think of which parts of a story are most important, and how to convey something in  only a few images. This is also a good example of not needing some remote outdoor location in order to have nature-based experiences! This happened just off the sidewalk only a block from a major downtown area. 


  Finally (for the moment–I love this topic and I’m sure I will visit it again later), journals are ideal for collecting!  Feathers and flowers fall out of all of my journals if you turn the pages to roughly. While looking through just my most recent journals I found these two examples:

  This is a feather I found on the ground during a search and rescue class I took where we were learning about using a GPS

  This is a flower I found somewhere–usually I record where and when on the page, but this one was all alone.

  It is important to teach kids to respect nature and not just pull up plants with no regard to what affect it might have, so not everyone will appreciate the fact that I have flowers and leaves in my books. I personally feel there is a time and a place for things like this: if kids are in a field of flowers, for example, picking a few to press and keep will not do too much damage, and can help give kids a deeper connection to the environment. If the kids are only looking at a few rare flowers, I don’t think the benefits outweigh the risks of losing those precious few. I would certainly most encourage kids to use things that have already fallen to the ground, like leaves. 

  Field journals can be a wonderful doorway into nature. When you start writing down observations and drawing what you see, you are forced to look more closely. What was “just a bird” becomes the shape of a beak, the color of the feathers around the eyes, a silhouette in flight. A tree becomes a friend with its own unique characteristics. A landscape is divided into its parts and then but put back together with new clarity. Field journals also leave behind a record of what we have seen, experienced, and how we have grown. I would recommend them to any nature enthusiast, and also to anyone who wants to combine art and writing with environmental activities. I would love to see all students make a field journal at the beginning of September and write in it throughout the year as they experience new things. 

  Please let me know if any of you keep field journals yourselves! What made you start one? What kind of things do you record? Do you feel they enhance your outdoor experiences? What kind of supplies do you use–pens, pencils, watercolors, charcoal, etc.? Leave your thoughts in the comments–I would love to hear them!



Don’t Break the Chain March 2, 2010

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Paper chain created by 3rd grade students


      The above photo is of a paper chain created by third grade students during a recent classroom activity.

      The theme of this activity was “The Interconnectivity of Life,” a big word that just describes how what happens to one thing can affect another. After discussing the basic concepts each student got a name tag with a different animal (like white-tailed deer or timber rattlesnake), plant (like tree or flower), or other ‘object’ (like river or soil) written on it. After forming a circle, each student had to choose something that either they need, that needs them, or that they affect in some way. For example, a squirrel might need a tree in order to have a place to live and things to eat, and a hawk might need the squirrel in order to have food. The relationships don’t have to be just predator and prey, though! A timber rattlesnake might be related to an owl in that they share similar food sources. A porcupine and a woodpecker would both be affected if the trees were cut down. Some creatures, like bacteria, can affect everything! Each student had to choose another animal/plant in the circle, explain how they affected each other, and then toss them the string ball. Eventually, after every student was chosen, the string they were holding quite literally created a web!

      After doing this activity with the students I had them write on a strip of paper something they could do to help keep the web of life healthy and thriving. We then shared with the class and I made this paper chain that they could hang up and look to for inspiration.

      I had a great time with the class–they had a lot of good ideas and seemed to understand that an animal isn’t just affected by what they eat and what eats them, but by many other factors as well that might not be obvious at first. 

      I highly recommend this activity if you want to get your students up and moving and really having to think about how the animals and plants around them are connected. Don’t forget to make one of the name tags a ‘human’ so they can see that they are an important part of the chain as well!