Educator Spotlight: Expanding Perspectives through Outdoor Exploration and Social Media

Sharon Davison, this week’s Educator of the Week, emphasizes the importance of spending time in nature. For her National Geographic Educator Certification capstone project, her kindergarten students went on a nature walk, made observations, wrote in journals, and then communicated their findings to people around the world using social media platforms.

Sharon Davison teaches kindergarten at Allen Brook School in Williston, Vermont. Photo courtesy Sharon Davison

Tell us about the unit you led called “Creating a Forest Inside and Outside of Kindergarten.” What did your students do, and what were their main takeaways?

While we were walking through the forest by our school during our weekly outdoor classroom time, I asked my students to think about what was above them, what was around them, and what was under their feet.  After our walk, students brought natural artifacts they collected back to the classroom, and we discussed what they noticed.

Then, they worked in their science journals. Some students did leaf rubbings, some drew their leaves, and some taped their leaves into the journals. They used their oral language and literacy skills to write about some of their observations. This activity was early in the year, so a lot of kids weren’t comfortable with writing yet. I gave them the words “I noticed” as a sentence frame for them to finish in their own words.

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Sharon’s students recorded their observations in nature journals. Photo by Sharon Davison

We also created a Padlet, which is like an online sticky note. We asked people around the world, “What do trees look like where you live?” Citizens of three or four different continents contributed to the Padlet by sending in photos, and my students were able to compare and contrast the different trees.

Finally, we came up with a belief statement that listed the things trees need to grow: seeds, soil, water, and sun. My students came up with a fifth thing that all trees need: care. I thought that was really powerful.

Why do you use social media in your classroom?

Sharon created a Padlet that asked, “What do trees look like where you live?” She printed out responses from around the world and put them on this map for her students to see. Photo by Sharon Davison

It’s not about the social media, it’s about the conversation. As educators, we have to think, “How are we having conversations with our students? How are our students having conversations with other people locally about their learning?” Communicating with people around the world sparks excitement and curiosity.

I think it’s important to teach students to be responsible with social media. At the beginning of school, I have parents volunteer to call us on Skype so my students can practice saying hello. At first, they want to be silly and stick out their tongues; we have that exploration period so they learn what the tools are and how to use them. Then, they are able to understand the purpose behind these different platforms.

What advice would you give to educators who want to introduce more outdoor time in their teaching?

Ask your students what they would like to explore outside, what they want to learn, and what they can do to make a difference in the world. Make a whole list of ideas. When you ask your students about their interests, you can typically find a curriculum connection, and you’re highlighting your students’ inherently curious brains. Nature lends itself beautifully to learning and patterns. For example, we deepened an activity on 2D and 3D shapes by going outside; students could pick up sticks and say, “This is kind of like a cylinder and it’s 3D.” There are tons of opportunities to make those connections.

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In another activity, students made tree sculptures from recycled materials. Photo by Sharon Davison

What do you think students can learn from spending time outside in nature?

For young children especially, being outside and getting fresh air and exercise allows the mind to reset itself. When my kindergarteners are outside, they work on motor skills and collaboration. During an outdoor activity that involved using iPads in pairs, I heard them ask their partners, “Will you take a video of me rolling down that hill?” If their partner didn’t know how to take videos, they would teach them. This kind of work is purposeful and deep, and I know that when my students are outside they’re really thinking.

In order for children to deepen their love and understanding of the natural world, we have to provide opportunities for them to spend time in it. In order for them to advocate for change, they have to understand natural spaces and why they’re important.

Educators: Download the full lesson plan here!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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