August 5, 2019

Managing a Classroom Nature Center or Space

Classroom Nature Center

One of my favorite spots, no matter the room or grade level, in all of my classrooms was my student's nature centers. I pretty much spent my childhood days running barefoot in my backyard since having parents who were less than enthusiastic about having kids "plugged in" to devices or glued to the TV. While I've always had an appreciation for nature and being outside until I actually found myself in a school that actively promoted nature-based learning and play, I had never imagined that I would be integrating it as heavily as I did into my curriculum. This is also my apology right off that bat at how long this post is, but I wanted to make sure that I covered all my bases and shared everything I've learned over the last few years with this teaching practice. 

Classroom Nature Center

Two books that heavily swayed and influenced my love of nature learning: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv--anyone, and I do mean anyone, who has even the slightest interest in child development needs to read this book. It is an in-depth look at the importance of being in nature and all the incredibly positive benefits there are to having kids outside on a regular basis. Louv is an excellent writer, both from a research standpoint and storytelling; there are many real-world stories shared throughout the pages to hold your attention all while taking in the scientific knowledge. Second, The Sense of Wonder by the renowned naturalist Rachel Carson. A very short manifesto for experiencing nature alongside children with beautiful prose--it is just an inspiring book to have to help you to spur on your teaching or parenting with an emphasis on the natural world. 

Classroom Nature Center

Having prepared, managed, and taught with nature centers in differing grade levels (1st through 4th), I've formed some key beliefs about how to use this important space in the classroom.

Classroom Nature Center

Nature Centers Evolve and Change. Just as the natural world does, so do the centers and their evidence of learning as the students grow in their own knowledge. It is also reflected by the curriculum units and the very seasons themselves changing through the school year (summer, spring, fall, and winter). The above picture is my 4th grader's nature space at the end of September, which is right around the time when we started using it heavily. You'll notice that it is actually pretty sparse and that there is not a lot going on. That is done on purpose and intentionally because they are prepared to be student-led. The following two pictures show you a more "filled" nature space; these are from 1st grade, right as we were getting into winter those first winter-days:

Classroom Nature Center

Classroom Nature Center

Nature Centers are Student Owned and Teacher Guided. That is, I believe that they function best when managed as such. In many of these images, you'll notice that I mostly just provided the skeleton for these spaces--books, empty jars and basked, clipboards... essentially the tools to be used. However, it is the students who provided the specimens they were already interested in or had a connection to. On occasion I'd bring something in to share with the class and model how we interacted with each other's "artifacts," but for the most part, they had free range of what went into the space. Additional guidance would, at times, come in when I'd have them bring in something that went along with our specific unit curriculums.

Classroom Nature Center
Lots of Jars, trays, and clipboards--staples to a nature center
Classroom Nature Center
Seashells from a student's trip 
Classroom Nature Center
Other treasures brought in--don't worry, no wildlife was ever harmed 
Classroom Nature Center
...more backyard finds
Classroom Nature Center
...and more, some repeats in there as those are items that students either donate at the end of the year for future students or come from my personal stash.
I'd put out smaller bulletin boards for the kids to attach things to, or as a class, if we found something online, we could print it out and have out for everyone. 

Classroom Nature Center

Nature Centers are Learning Hubs. Depending on the unit of study, our nature center would morph and change. Depending on what the students were personally interested in would also cause the nature center to morph and change. It functions as both. 

Classroom Nature Center

In first grade, we did a year-long phenology study (how a selected tree changes through the seasons) where we documented changes and made observations. The journals were kept in the nature center so students could look back on them and keep their reflections going.

Nature Study
Focused nature study for our plants unit.
I would put up different activities throughout the year where students could interact with the nature center as a morning activity when they first came in until the bell rang (thinking routines). Usually, they were simple open-ended exercises in practicing observations skills. I'd often have this worksheet printed out for them to have evidence of learning for that time. 

Classroom Nature Center
Seed thinking routine

Thinking Routine
Rock thinking routine

Shell Sort

Another idea for our tidepool unit (which could be done with others) was a shell sorting activity. 

Classroom Nature Center

In third grade, we did a study on natural history using Cabinet of Curiosities. Students collected artifacts and build "cabinets" using miscellaneous cardboard. 

Classroom Nature Center

Another morning work option that was a part of our nature center were class journals. Students could write stories either about our class pet (Frodo, a frog) or about their nature experiences outside of class. Students could also go back and read each other's entries since they were all housed in a couple of notebooks only.

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What tips and tricks do you have for your classroom nature centers? Leave them in the comments below--I love getting more ideas and suggestions!

Classroom Nature Center

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