Nature as a classroom: A space where teachers and students observe, learn, and wonder together

Going on a nature walk and creating a nature map that reflects the experience of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and memories is a great way to begin, shares the team at Nature Classrooms at Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), in i wonder magazine.

Imagine all of nature as a classroom — a space where teachers and students observe, learn, and wonder together.

What creatures and phenomena in nature will you chance upon and witness? What are some of the questions and learnings that could emerge from these experiences?

Oh! Look how beautiful she is - look at her emerald colour!”

a group of primary school teachers exclaimed as they observed the queen of the red weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) during a short walk in the outskirts of Bangalore city (see Fig. 1).

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Fig 1. The weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) queen that captured the attention of the teachers.

Credits: Vena Kapoor. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Twenty minutes of exploring and observing, hand lens and binoculars in tow, brought many delightful creatures and stories into sharper focus for this group (see Fig. 2).

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Fig 2. School teachers encountered many wonders of the natural world during a nature immersion workshop organised in 2019.

Credits: Vena Kapoor. License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

The word nature’ can evoke different images, meanings, and memories for each of us (see Box 1).

Box 1. What is nature’?

What images, thoughts, and memories come to your mind when you think of nature’? Each of us may come with our own imagery, understanding, and positioning of what is nature’. This can be based on our own lived experiences, the spaces and its various inhabitants that we have explored, engaged, empathised with, and what fits in our present scheme of life and beliefs. 

The imagination of what a wild, ecologically rich place is for an ecologist who understands and studies this system will possibly be very different for someone who’s only been exposed to nature in a hyper-urban setting. We, at Nature Classrooms, approach nature as everything that inhabits this World with us, and that we humans are part of.

As teachers and educators, let us remind ourselves not to get confused about the various terms and definitions that we encounter. Understanding these positions and accepting them is a great starting point, followed by a shared understanding that we can all learn together. 

Let us try and empathise, and make more meaningful connections with the mammals, birds, invertebrates, trees, shrubs, rocks, streams and all the rest of the wonderfully diverse forms of life that the earth is home to.

Thus, as part of our nature learning workshops with school teachers and educators, we often begin conversations by understanding and unpacking this word (see Fig. 3).

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Fig 3. A word cloud reflecting teachers’ responses to the question: What is nature?”

Credits: Nature Classrooms. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Going on a nature walk and creating a nature map that reflects the experience of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and memories is a great way to begin such conversations (see Box 2).

Box 2. Sensory nature maps:

Creating a sensory nature map is an exercise that encourages the use of our senses to focus attention on the natural world. It can help students and teachers closely observe and experience their immediate surroundings. To do this:

  • Choose a comfortable spot where you can spend some time (~ 20 minutes) in silence. This can be a neighbourhood park or garden, around potted plants and other corners at home or even views from your window, balcony or terrace.
  • Use as many of your senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste) as possible to notice what is around you. Be aware of your feelings, thoughts, body sensations, and memories.
  • Describe and draw your experience in a notebook to reflect the time you spent observing nature.

It can also help draw attention to the natural world that exists all around us, in every nook and corner. Even a short immersive experience, like the 20-minute walk with primary school teachers, that is focussed on paying close attention to nearby nature can leave participants with a strong, renewed sense of connection to their immediate environment. 

Participants often share fond childhood memories of tree climbing escapades; making friends and having conversations with various creatures; or spending hours watching birds and insects while walking to school (see Box 3).

This is often followed by collective nostalgia, regret, and despair that similar opportunities may not exist for their students.

Box 3. Reconnecting with nature:

If we want students to experience the wonders, delights, and secrets the natural world has to offer, we must create similar opportunities for teachers and educators. 

As adults we often forget the simple joy and wonder that things in nature can offer. From following a line of ants in our kitchen, to listening to birdsong outside our window, to watching a butterfly lay her eggs, to a spider stalking a pesky fly— the natural world is full of fascinating surprises waiting for us to take notice and love.

Creating opportunities for nature walks as well as nature inspired reading, writing, and
discussions for teachers will be a great beginning. A few other ideas for teachers and schools:

  • Nature walks: looking for colours, patterns, shapes, and numbers in nature is a wonderful way to familiarise and re-familiarise oneself with a school campus or
    neighbourhood. Documenting observations by taking photographs and nature
    journaling will encourage curiosity and connection for teachers.
  • Access to nature learning resources, guides, and libraries: a curated repository
    of nature stories, tree, insect, spider, and bird guides among other activity ideas and resources will be a great way for teachers to continue to learn and find answers along with students.
  • Workshops, courses, and peer networks: participating in workshops and having access to a community of teachers and educators for inspiring ideas and collective solutions to challenges is a great way to sustain nature learning initiatives in schools.

In what other ways can we reignite our love and connection with our immediate surroundings?

Nature learning as part of EVS

Environment Studies (EVS) is a compulsory subject in primary education across different boards in India, and provides a wonderful opportunity to introduce students to their immediate environment.

However, an underlying narrative in the prescribed EVS curriculum is that nature’ exists purely as a resource for people. This creates a false dichotomy of people and nature as separate entities. 

For example, a Grade III lesson on forests discusses the uses of trees for humans and how deforestation would harm human life, but makes no mention of how other plants, insects, and animals interact with trees. 

Similarly, it is not uncommon for end text questions in EVS chapters to ask students to list the different ways in which animals or plants are useful” to people. Secondly, the EVS textbook often presents nature’ as an entity that can be observed only in faraway forests, high mountains, and deep oceans. 

The fact that our backyards, streets and even buildings and homes are teeming with wonders of the natural world is rarely acknowledged!

Lastly, EVS textbooks are often devoid of examples that are relevant to the local and cultural context of students.

Since students in many classrooms in India come from diverse landscapes, geographies, and cultures, this separates the curriculum from their many unique lived experiences and connections with the natural world. 

For instance, while a child from central India may associate rain with rare relief and a child from the north-east may see it as an everyday experience, the curriculum often does not showcase this diversity or create opportunities for these conversations and reflections.

Since the teaching and learning of this subject also often remains largely confined within the four walls of the classroom, there are few opportunities for teachers and students to discover and observe their immediate surroundings themselves. 

Moreover, while nature education material exists in many different forms in India, school teachers often find it challenging to incorporate these resources in a sustained manner in conjunction with the mandated EVS curriculum. 

This is because many common resources, like anchor charts, YouTube videos, magazine pictures and murals, often have images and information that require thorough fact-checking or are not contextually or culturally relevant (see Fig. 4).

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Fig 4a. Anchor chart on animals in a bookstore

Credits: Roshni Ravi. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0.

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Fig 4b. Animal mural in a primary school classroom.

Credits: Roshni Ravi. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0.

If you go looking for nature and wildlife resources at a local bookstore, even in a city like Bangalore, you are likely to find posters with examples of only megafauna like tigers, elephants, rhinos and lions. 

They also often have visuals of animals, like giraffes, zebras and hippopotamuses, that are not found in the wild in India. These animals are likely to be visually familiar to students because of easy access to television, but how many of these creatures can students see around them? How many can they situate within their own lives and landscapes?

A nature education framework and pedagogy

Enriching and supplementing existing EVS curricula with locally relevant natural history examples, stories, and experiences can help make our and our students’ bonds with nature more meaningful and lasting. 

During school visits over the last few years, we have found that valuing children’s lived experiences and using local examples creates opportunities for independent exploration and sustains curiousity about the natural world (see Box 4).

Box 4. Curiousity and wonder:

One way to encourage wonder and cultivate a culture of inquisitiveness in students is to practise an inquiry- based teaching and learning approach. Making space for student questions not only increases their sense of ownership over their own learning, it is likely to encourage them to be more curious, engaged, and creative. 

In fact, formulating questions is in itself a creative art that is known to facilitate learning and allow for co-construction of knowledge. Also, if encouraged by the teacher, wonderment questions can help students develop the ability to hypothesise, predict, and generate multiple explanations for natural phenomena.

For instance, when students find a chewed-up leaf, teachers can approach this by asking — are all leaves chewed up by the same creature? Did one animal do this or many? What kind of mouthparts would they have to do this — a straw like in a butterfly, or with teeth like ours?

A child’s observations and serendipitous encounters in nature can make EVS classrooms a fascinating space where questions and new learning is encouraged (see Box 5).

Box 5. Learning from observations of nearby nature:

Like in any classroom, nature learning sessions can be filled with delightful experiences. This could include unexpected and unplanned visits by different creatures, like insects, spiders, reptiles, and birds, to the classroom or school grounds.

A flowering or fruiting tree abuzz with activity during a nature walk can create excitement and lead to rich discussions. Serendipitous encounters need to be valued in everyday lessons because they hold immense potential for observation and learning.

In one such instance, a cryptically coloured dragonfly flew in, and settled on one wall of a small Kannada medium government school in peri-urban Bangalore that has almost no outdoor space. The colouration and patterns of the dragonfly were beautifully camouflaged against the school’s compound wall.

When we drew the students’ attention towards this camouflaged insect, their responses were filled with delight at noticing a creature that was hiding in plain sight! This encounter was not part of our lesson, but was a great opportunity to talk, with even very young students, about dragonflies, other flying insects, as well as the idea of camouflage in nature. 

Some students observed and drew the dragonfly, some created a story or a poem, and some had interesting questions about dragonflies. There was so much that the students already knew and had observed. Rich discussions and several anecdotes followed — dragonflies in their hometowns and villages, swarms during the monsoons and around rain puddles. 

A brief encounter with a dragonfly on the school wall had so much to offer — a chance to listen to and value past experiences and observations, while simultaneously creating opportunities for new learning.

With this in mind, we create age-appropriate resources across various topics that are part of the EVS curricula, and that link and build on each other.

One of these resources is a Nature Learning Framework that has emerged through conversations and consultations with educators, ecologists, and our own experience as trained naturalists and teacher practitioners (see Fig. 5).

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Fig. 5. A Nature Learning Framework serves as a guide for designing age-appropriate nature learning experiences.

Credits: Nature Classrooms. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0.

This resource provides a starting framework for teachers and educators who want to include nature learning as part of their education interventions. 

It typically progresses from more concrete, experiential activities (for young children) to introduce them to nature that is immediately accessible to offering a more abstract, conceptual understanding of ecology and interconnectedness in nature (see Activity Sheet: Colours of Nature).

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Activity Sheet: Colours of Nature

We also highlight a variety of ageappropriate tools that can be used to introduce the natural world, like walks, stories, experiments, and interviews depending on the age group and space available. 

One example of this is a poster series on common plants, like the Giant Milkweed, Neem, and Singapore Cherry, and the various creatures that visit them (see Poster: Giant Milkweed).

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Poster: Giant Milkweed

We also recognise the need for an approach to teaching and learning about the natural world that puts students at the center of learning. 

Our Nature Learning Pedagogy has been developed through our own classroom observations and field experiences and, most importantly, through conversations and ideas generated with experienced teachers and nature educators (see Fig. 6).

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Its key features are that it values students’ existing knowledge and lived experiences, and gives them the agency to actively ask and answer personally relevant questions while discovering more about phenomena and concepts in nature.

Our Nature Learning Framework and Nature Learning Pedagogy are living documents, open for review and modifications and incorporate suggestions and lived experiences

Fostering ecological identities

We believe that learning about and forging connections with nature is as essential for young students as early literacy or numeracy. This belief stems from growing evidence that meaningful connections with and awareness of the immediate natural world are often essential ingredients for our physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

As educator Ann Pelo says, engaging with nearby nature is instrumental in a conscious cultivation of ecological identities’ in young students. Intimate awareness of one’s ecological identity and connection to nearby nature is sure to shape and determine the relationship young people share with the earth. 

A deep love and connection for a place and its various inhabitants can motivate us to treasure and take action on behalf of it.

Therefore, through early immersive experiences in nature, by sharing and telling stories, and through opportunities to explore and develop a fascination for nature, we hope that as educators we can foster love, wonder, empathy and curiousity in all students. 

In time, it is these deep emotional connections that will translate to how all of us treat, respect, and nurture it.

Key Takeaways:

  • The current EVS curriculum in the country presents nature as a distant entity that functions purely as a resource” for people and is taught largely within the confines of the classroom.
  • Enriching and supplementing existing EVS curricula with locally relevant natural history examples, stories, and lived experiences can help make our students’ bonds with nature more meaningful and lasting.
  • Offering students opportunities for independent exploration and serendipitous encounters in nature can make EVS classrooms a fascinating space where open-ended, inquiry-based questions and co-learning is encouraged.
  • Nature Classrooms’ Nature Learning Framework serves as a guide for designing age-appropriate nature learning experiences. It progresses from experiential activities that make nature immediately accessible for young students, and builds up to those that offer a more abstract, conceptual understanding of ecology and the interconnectedness in nature.
  • Nature Classrooms’ Nature Learning Pedagogy provides scope and opportunities for learners to develop wonder, love, curiousity, and a deep connection to nature.
  • The framework and pedagogy are dynamic and collaborative, and based on classroom observations, conversations with ecologists, in-service teachers and experienced educators.

Notes:

  1. This article is accompanied by an Activity Sheet on Colours in Nature that can be used to document observations from a nature walk. It is also accompanied by a Poster on Giant Milkweed and the many creatures that visit it.

References:

  1. Pelo, A. (2009). A Pedagogy for Ecology. Rethinking Schools. URL: https://rethinkingschools.org/articles/a‑pedagogy-for-ecology/.
  2. Sobel, D. Look, Don’t Touch. URL: https://​ori​on​magazine​.org/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​l​o​o​k​-​d​o​n​t​-​t​o​uch1/.
  3. Sharma, Pramod Kumar & Menon, Sanskriti. Compulsory Environmental Education in India. Global Environmental Education Partnership. URL: https://​thegeep​.org/​l​e​a​r​n​/​c​a​s​e​-​s​t​u​d​i​e​s​/​c​o​m​p​u​l​s​o​r​y​-​e​n​v​i​r​o​n​m​e​n​t​a​l​-​e​d​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​india
  4. Position Paper on Habitat and Learning. (2006). National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). URL:https://​ncert​.nic​.in/​p​d​f​/​f​o​c​u​s​-​g​r​o​u​p​/​h​a​b​i​t​a​t​l​e​a​r​n​i​n​g.pdf
  5. Chin, C. (2002). Student-Generated Questions: Encouraging Inquisitive Minds in Learning Science. Teaching and Learning, 59 – 67.
  6. Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1992). Text-Based and Knowledge-Based Questioning by Children. Cognition and Instruction, 177 – 199.
  7. Wells, N. M., & Evans, G. W. (2003). Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children. Environment and Behavior.

Nature Classrooms at Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Bangalore, develops nature learning resources that correspond to existing primary school Environmental Studies (EVS) curricula and conducts capacity building workshops for school teachers. 

To see more of their work, visit: www​.nature​class​rooms​.org and http://www.ncf-india.org/education-and-public-engagement/a‑nature-learning-framework-for-schools.