Bruce Hammonds on using the immediate environment for expressing and learning

Personal writing is a means to let the children affirm that their own lives are significant and worth recording. By bringing their world into school we are in a way legitimising the children’s unique existence and, in a small way, helping them come to terms with themselves and their experiences. We are also reinforcing the idea that small scale events of one’s own life are valid things to think about and express. Many children in our school seem to mistrust their own way of thinking, finding security in the ‘right’ answers that many teachers prefer.

There are a number of activities that can help children develop their own ability to express themselves and to recognise that they all have something of value to say and share. For children who have learnt to dislike writing (even early in primary school) this at first will be no easy task and will require time. Teachers who contemplate introducing such a programme must appreciate that it will take a long time, even for the competent writers, to share their innermost thoughts with a teacher. It will be over to teachers to develop the right atmosphere and relationship so that the children will come to trust their ideas with them.

Theme selection is an important matter because many children have great difficulty in focusing on the most important aspect of an experience whether from memory or the present. Often language topics are chosen which are so broad in canvas that intensive thought is impossible. For example, an account of a day’s visit starts from the moment the child wakes and then develops into a recitation of events. To avoid this, ask children to quickly list all the things they remember about the trip (or a happy event, or beginning school …). From this initial list the children then select an idea for development.

Another useful technique is scribe writing. This has been found most successful when used with junior classes and with older children who have lost confidence in their writing ability through repeated lack of success.

Scribed writing is simply the children’s language written down by the teacher as it is spoken by the children. This last point is vital if the teacher wishes to gain the confidence of the child. Scribed writing allows the children’s thoughts to be recorded with immediacy. These thoughts can be used for the individual child’s reading and can be kept on large charts to be referred to when necessary. Obviously it is possible to work with only a small group of children. Scribed writing recognises the very important link between talking, reading, writing, and visual expression. The emphasis must always be on the value of self-expression.

We now move closer to a consideration of the quality of children’s written language.

Every child should be encouraged to see the shapes, patterns, textures, and movements of things around them.

Children should learn to be able to express their thoughts and feelings about such experiences and make comment on the network of relationships that exist on a personal level for us all. To see with the eyes of a scientist, poet, and artist is an important experience for all children. The environment is a rich storehouse of visual memories and emotional responses to be embroidered, relived, combined, and transformed by the imagination, ready to be recalled by an active mind. The teacher’s task is not to teach in this situation, but to set the children free to do their own learning. Inspiration is there for the taking.

Vital to achieving quality responses in language or any expressive form is a need to develop a reflective atmosphere, both in the class and in the field. Encouraging a reflective atmosphere in a large class is not any easy task but it is an important one. The more ‘open’ the classroom programme, the more it is a necessary.

The allowing of time is a vital ingredient in the development of work of quality in any subject field. When achieved it gives the teacher an opportunity to enter into meaningful dialogue with individual children – listening, helping and, most of all, valuing the child’s efforts. At these times, the teacher can really assist children in making their own discoveries.

Possibly the teacher’s own actions and responses to the environment is the best model. It is also important for the teacher to explore the potential study areas of the local environment. Too often teachers rush unprepared into a field trip outdoors, armed with the belief that such experiences will automatically interest and thereby involve children. The truth is that unless the children have the correct attitudes and skills, much of the time will be wasted in containing over-excited children rather than using their natural enthusiasm more constructively.

The following are some activities teachers could provide:

Looking high above us. Collect thoughts about clouds, the wind, tree branch shapes, birds, aeroplanes … Lie down on the lawn or concrete.

A search for tiny animals. Note where they are found, what they looked like, and what they did when they were disturbed. Look under stones, in grass, in flowers … Work on hands and knees.

Take out a small group and play ‘I spy’. Observations could be illustrated and made into a chart or booklet.

Feel the wind. Go outside on a windy day. Pretend to be blown around. Be aeroplanes, birds. Sit down and gather thoughts about the wind, what it does, what it reminds us of, and what it is. What makes wind? Copy the ideas on display sheets, name beside, or have the children write their ideas for display. Be unreceptive to ideas children have just repeated. Leave the sheets on display for long-term interest and adding to. Use this process as a model in consideration of all environmental activities. The immediate environment should be seen as a laboratory.

Go on a tree shape hunt. Visit a selection of interesting trees and gather observations, descriptions, and thoughts.

Look at the leaf, trunk, branch patterns. Measure height, girth, and spread. Draw shape.

Rain. Put on raincoats and explore gutters, raindrops. Collect rain thoughts. Observe raindrops on windows.

Visit after rain – when the sun is out. How has the rain changed our world?

The magic of dew. Collect thoughts about a heavy dew. Paint dew-drop paintings.

Frost. Walk on fresh frost. Collect impressions. Look at the patterns. Explore icy puddles. Break one. Describe.

Complete the paintings – white on black.

Shadows. Visit some shady areas, what are they like? Contrast with a sunny spot. Play games with your shadow.

Puddles. After a shower of rain on a hot day visit a puddle. Look into it. What can you see (reflections)? Drop a pebble into it. Draw around with chalk – observe during the day. Where has the water gone?

Playground rocks. Visit early in the morning. How do they feel? Revisit late afternoon on a hot day. How do they feel? How did they get hot? Record thoughts. What else gets hot in the sun? A bucket of water? Wooden walls …?

Kowhai in spring. Visit kowhai (if you’re lucky so might a tui!) Admire colour. Discuss shape. Collect a flower and in class explore – petals, stamens, and pistil. What is the function of these parts? When the kowhai has finished flowering, watch the skinny seed pods grow – measure growth. Make a lino cut.

Observe a flower. A simple colourful flower like a poppy is ideal. Direct observations to the young bud, a flower opening, petals falling, and seed box. Note any other areas of interest. Make a flower mural – life and death of a flower. Mime growth.

Measure. Have a flower show. Grow plants or seeds.

Observing birds. Go on a bird walk in winter or spring. Describe birds you see. Count them. How big are they? What is their behaviour? Make a bird feeding table. Make a bird mural. Name those you can. How do birds fly?

Explore a bird’s nest. Admire a nest. What thoughts come to mind? Measure. Take apart carefully, write a description.

Tree trunks and bark patterns. What is the function of bark? Visit a select number of tree trunks in the playground to feel textures and describe shapes. What images come to mind? Look at shapes, colours, patterns.

Use a crayon to take bark rubbings. Measure girth and height to first branch. Look for animals and plants on trunk – especially around base.

A number of leaf activities. Visit the environment to find a range of leaves from the very small to the largest you can measure. Another visit could concentrate on the thinnest to widest leaves. Some leaves could be traced on to squared paper and the area counted. Visit to find leaves with a variety of shapes – from simple to complex; leaves with more than one colour; leaves with interesting textures. Such activities could lead to comparisons, measurement, and classification skills. As well, leaf prints with crayon or ink and rollers can be introduced. Make a lino cut. Copying machines make excellent copies of leaves. Games such as find this leaf can be developed.

Leaf shapes in lawn or waste area. Collect at least six different shaped leaves from a limited area. Sit and discuss ways in which they could be grouped (size, shape, colour, feel …). Describe a number of the more interesting ones. Make a pressing or take a leaf print – add descriptions.

Wild flower collection. See how many small wild (weed) flowers you can find. Bring a flower from each back to class. Group them by colour. Paint or invent some flower patterns. How many different flowers? Graph common colours.

Lawn daisies or dandelions or cape daisies. In spring or summer when the fields are covered with daisies, visit to gather impressions. Lie down and look at eye level. Describe. Throw physical education hoops and count flowers. Find the longest stemmed flower. Make a flower mural. Count petals.

Autumn leaves. Look for autumn leaves. Lie in them. Throw in the air. Collect different colours. Which are the oldest? Which have the best colour? Write impressions, thoughts. Make an autumn tree mural.

Spring buds. Visit trees and shrubs in spring. Observe buds. Describe different buds – sticky, furry, pointed, scaled … Discuss what might be inside. What do new leaves look like? What function do leaves carry out? Fat buds are usually flower buds – thin ones, leaves. Make a display inside. Bring along buds from home – pussy willow, magnolia.

Insect visitors. Either visit one flower bed or one shrub which has insect visitors or check a number of plants. What animals can you see? Describe them. Collect children’s thoughts. Keep selected animals in suitable containers. Paint giant flowers and add insects and thoughts. Group insects. Count them.

Looking into lawns. A mini-jungle. Lie down on a lawn or along a fence line. What shapes, patterns can you see? What animals? What are they doing? Plan a mini-jungle mural. Write impressions. Mime. Classify finds by colour, shape, movements, number of legs …

Worms. Why are worms useful to people? Detergent and water brings worms to the surface. How many from a square metre? Place on paper and observe, listen, measure. Observe movements, write thoughts. Look for worm casts – how are they made? Find worms on the surface after heavy rain.

Snails. Undertake a snail search. Look in leaves of flax, red hot pokers, under things. Observe and describe snail trails. Place snails on glass and observe, describe, and write thoughts. Note movement. Draw. Make a lino cut. Measure speed. Have a snail race.

Slaters. Find some slaters. Note where you found them. Look under a rock, in grass around trees, under things. Put in a 3D viewer. Observe. Count legs. Write thoughts.

Spiders and spiders’ webs. Visit spiders’ webs (orb webs or cartwheel webs) on a dewy morning. Describe. Write impressions, thoughts. Count spokes. Which bits are sticky? Feed in a fly – observe. Make a giant web in the classroom. Catch a spider – observe in a jar. Count parts of body – legs, eyes. Describe. Draw.

Monarchs, emperor moths, white butterflies. Follow the life cycle of a moth or butterfly. Record changes. Describe movements. Draw caterpillars and adults.

Material used in building. Walk around the school to see what different kinds of materials are used in building. What are the properties of each? What textures? How do they react to the sun? How are they treated? Make a collection of materials. Group them. Wood, glass, iron, concrete, tiles, plastic, aluminium, bricks, blocks …

Follow the sun. Follow the sun through the sky on a sunny day. Make a note or diagram where it is at each hour. You could mark with chalk the movement of sun’s rays in the room. Where does the sun rise – and set? Write sun thoughts. What are your ideas about the sun? Night and day? The moon? Stars?

Patterns against the sky. Search the school grounds for patterns made by objects against the sky – describe (or draw) what can be seen – tree branches, telephone wires, birds, TV aerials, pylons …

A feelings walk. Emphasise the sense of touch. Go on a feelings walk to feel and describe textures. How can we group the things we feel – rough, sticky, warm …? Collect thoughts about each. Take rubbing of textures. Make a display of textures. Blindfold children and feel textures. Make a video.

A listening walk. Listen to sounds in different parts of the school grounds – under trees, by the road. Shut eyes. Record thoughts about sound – make into a sound poem. Listen to small sound (imagine a leaf falling) – distant sounds. Make a list of sound words.

A smell walk. Collect thoughts about smells. Make a smell poem. Smell smoke of the incinerator. Newly mown grass. Crush up phebalium leaves – mint, parsley. How do the smells travel? Smell crushed onion weed, flowers. Grasses. In summer collect as many grass flowers as you can. Measure the tallest piece of grass. Play ‘tinker-tailor’ with rye-grass. Lie in the grass. Smell grass. Write thoughts.

In autumn collect as many examples of seed heads, seeds, and fruits as you can. Back in class sort them out into groups. Make a display of seed heads.

Shape hunt. Walk around the school looking for as many round things as you can find – or curved things. Walk to find exciting things, delicate things, solid things, shapes …

Pattern walk. Collect as many examples of patterns as you can – weatherboard, tree branches, bricks, netball lines …

Looking for records. Find a pod with the most seeds, the animal with the most legs, the flower with the least number of petals, the shortest leaf, the narrowest leaf, the biggest weed, the longest daisy flower stalk …

Estimating. Use a stretched out hand (span) to measure a tree trunk, a flower bed, the height of a friend. What could you measure with your finger, your foot, a step? Guess, then measure.

Explore space. Find a big area. Explore as much as you can. Run to all the corners. Walk using giant steps, tiny steps, kangaroo jumps, on toes, on heels, skip – fast, slow. Swing arms. Spin. Bend. Lie down, crawl.

Map making. Use directions from children to make written instructions for getting from A to B in the school grounds. Emphasise precision. Get another adult and teacher to follow instructions.

As Bruce has suggested, when taking children outdoors we are trying to lead them into experiences that will involve them touching, seeing, tasting (where possible), smelling, and hearing things in their world, and we also want them to become involved in experiences which lead to imagining, exploring, measuring, reasoning, drawing, inventing, experimenting, investigating, and selecting so that these experiences will enrich the learner and lead to personal growth. Most of all we want the children to come to think of the environment as a place to enjoy, care for, and to learn in, and from.

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