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Ty's Tips for Helping Students Form a Relationship with Nature

Seeing what Annie's kids were up to today was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. This week, while so many students around our state were sitting in airless rooms taking this or that standardized test, and while their teacher/proctor was not permitted to "grade papers, use electronics, read, read ahead in test materials..." (direct quotes from the manual...ugh!), 13 classes in the Lansing area were participating in BIG lessons at four (count them, FOUR!) different nature centers and the Potter Park Zoo.  Pop quiz! Where in Michigan was the learning happening this week? I drove to Woldumar Nature Center through the thundering rain in hopes of seeing kids and adults doing what they naturally do: exploring, being creative, moving their bodies, and engaging in authentic learning.


I couldn't have found a better class than Ty Cotter's 4th grade class from Dimondale Elementary, in the Village of Dimondale and the Holt school district.

I found Savannah, sitting quietly on her stool taking some extra moments after observation time to finish up describing something soft, something squishy, something dead, and an animal home.  I found another child, who shall remain nameless for reasons that will become clear soon enough: after Ty told his class to keep their volume during observation time at a "0", this child would only make *the most expressive* faces at me as I asked him questions about the wood chip he was examining:  Why do you think it's two colors? ... What do you notice about the texture? ... (And finally) Ok kid, do your thing! 


I found Julian, who was crushing it during the Web of Life discussion with naturalist Emma Campbell, and when I asked him if he liked it out here or in the classroom better, responded by enthusiastically gesturing to his environment. And when I asked him what he liked best, he took a deep breath and sighed,  "A gentle breeze, the feeling of the earth beneath my feet, the sunshine that's finally coming out..." I kid you not, he spoke to me in verse. 


And finally, I found Bridget, a parent, who had come to each day of this ABNL week from start to finish, and came to the last day even though she wasn't originally scheduled, because she wanted to see to its conclusion the transformation the kids made in their appreciation for and confidence in being out in nature. 



What I found today was the end result of a week of transformation. That transformation didn't come on accident, or by simple proximity to nature. It came from the deliberate, principled, and passionate work of their teacher, Ty Cotter.

I learned so many lessons from Ty today about how to help students start and build a relationship with nature. They're boiled down in the list below: #1: Allay the Fear One of his earliest memories of ABNL from the last five years was when a student refused to participate and go outside. When Ty asked her why, she said, "Because I'm afraid of the bears!" Ty takes this fear seriously, and makes a deliberate effort to make his kids understand that first and foremost, his job is to keep them safe. He explains that he would never take them into a situation in which they would be in danger and which they have to fear. Once that trust is instilled, it's easier for students to absorb lessons about where fearsome predators like bears often live (hint: not here) and what their behaviors are like (hint: not going to jump out of the bushes and devour adorable children).  #2: Let them Play As adults, we often want to create these elaborate plans and sophisticated activities to get kids engaged in the activity we think is good for them. Instead, Ty lets his kids play and experience the natural world on their terms. "I think it's so important for kids to just go outside and play...it doesn't really matter what they do because they're having an experience. I don't buy it when kids say there's nothing to do. There's anything, and everything to do outside." #3: Set Expectations While it's important that kids get to play outside, they often want to know what the rules are. How far can they go? How loud can they talk? Can they climb? Can they go off the path? Providing clear guidelines for behavior outside helps kids feel more comfortable, confident, and safe. When they're on nature walks, Ty expects students to exhibit patience and self-control. When they rise to his expectations, these behaviors have concrete payoffs: kids can observe all the surprising creaking, oozing, trickling, wheezing sounds of the natural world.  #4: Embrace the Teachable Moments "Have a concrete start and end in mind, but everything in between is flexible," says Ty. He's talking about what we in the education field call teachable moments. These are unplanned situations within the natural course of an exploration, conversation, or activity that offer the opportunity to learn something. Kids are so much more open to learning when it happens in this natural, immediate way. Teachable moments are all around us, especially out in nature. 


For example, when students were doing their nature hike after the Web of Life conversation with Emma, they walked right by a dead log covered in lichen.

They walked by the pond where a dead fish or two were floating.

They dodged a toad, frozen still in the middle of the path so as to blend in with its surroundings. "Is this toad keeping still because it is prey?" asked one student.

 

#5: Prepare, Practice, and Anticipate For kids who are unaccustomed to spending time out in nature, we can't just head out for an epic afternoon and expect it to go well. It might, but that'd be the exception, not the rule. Instead, Ty has integrated exercises like Observation Time (one hour spent in quiet reflection and writing in nature) into his daily routines since the beginning of the school year. He introduced the concept in baby steps: 10 minutes, then 15, then 25, all the while warning kids that eventually they'd be able to do this for a whole hour. Many didn't believe him, but when I observed their observation time, it was a most lovely sight: students scattered Woldumar's Walnut Glen, sharing this collective experience of pondering the wonder of nature individually, together. It was kind of wonderful. 

One of the fundamental goals of Annie's BIG Nature Lesson is to stimulate care and concern for the natural world in our young people, so that they will embody a conservation mindset throughout their lives. This mindset is a long-haul effort; it's not adopted in a day spent in nature, or even a week. It's formed by having a lifelong relationship with the natural world. Ty's work with his students shows how this relationship can begin to form.  The natural world right now is in a period of transition. Snow has melted and mud remains. The wind is blowing through freshly budded trees and shrubs. Grass, insects, and other living things are warily embracing the warming temperatures. And Annie's kids are out there witnessing it all, undergoing their own transformation. What a time to be alive! 

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