Nature Education with Young Children: Integrating Inquiry and Practice – Meier & Sisk-Hilton

(en español)

Nature Education with Young Children - Meier, Sisk-Hilton 2013We are taking our weekly walk to the library, when Jason, typically a very rambunctious 4-year-old child, suddenly halts in his tracks.  As I’m holding his hand, I stop as well and glance at him quizzically.  He points up at the branches of a tree next to a garage.  He whispers, “Mr. Jeff, a squirrel.”  The whole class pauses and watches in silence as the squirrel hurries along a branch of the tree, jumps toward another tree, and misses, falling to the sidewalk.  Whispered exclamations of “Oh no!” can be heard, along with sighs of relief as the squirrel picks itself up, runs to another tree, scampers up, and successfully leaps to the roof of a house.  Upon arriving at the library, the children are anxious to tell the librarian what they saw.

Anna Golden points out that “It doesn’t take very much wild space to capture the interest of young children” (Golden 2013, p. 124).  We see in this example a group of Pre-K students managing to find the bits of nature that exist on a neighborhood city street, and becoming enraptured by it.  As with the preschool attended by Stephanie Sisk-Hilton’s daughter, “The elevated train tracks and commuter parking lot are more noticeable than anything one might call ‘nature.’  And yet the toddlers and preschoolers who attend this school are deeply connected with the natural world” (Sisk-Hilton 2013, p. 13).

But such spontaneous connection to the wonders of nature can easily fade away in a word full of touchscreens and mobile electronic devices.  As Gita Jayewardene puts it, “young children’s biological attraction to nature diminishes very quickly if significant people in children’s lives do not nurture it” (Jayewardene 2013, p. 100).  Our own squirrel encounter came just a week after having observed a squirrel burying nuts in the park, as I guided them to remaining silent and moving slowly so as not to scare the squirrel off.  The children then began taking notice of the sounds made by squirrels in the treetops, and how the squirrels began making screeches that sounded like desperate calls for help as the autumn weather continually dropped.

Daniel Meier reveals that, “inquiry has the wonderful potential to happen all the time, popping up here and there across the totality of nature teaching” (Meier 2013, p. 32).  As a teacher I nurtured this spirit of inquiry among the students.  Every time the children would pause to note the squirrel behavior, I found myself pausing along with the children to make the discovery alongside them.  At times I would extend the children’s curiosity and pose it as a question to the class as a whole, but often it was enough to simply acknowledge that the question existed, and the children would take the initiative to explore it on their own.  As Meier & Sisk-Hilton state, this is “what really matters in nature education—calling on children’s powers of attention and focus, of wonderment and joy, analysis and reflection, individual exploration and collaborative discovery, and sifting and sorting of information, data, and concepts over time” (Meier & Sisk-Hilton 2013, p. 2).

Following these series of squirrel encounters, we decided to use the sand table to build off of the idea that squirrels bury nuts for the winter.  The original plan was to bury different kinds of nuts, but there was concern about minute nut particles mixing into the sand and causing problems for any future students that may have nut allergies.  However, as Jean Mendoza and Lillian Katz make clear, “There are reasons to be cautious with nature, but fear need not overwhelm understanding and enjoyment” (Mendoza & Katz 2013, p. 168).

With this in mind we altered our plan to use nuts and instead added sunflower seeds to our sand table, remembering the squirrels we had seen stealing sunflower seeds from birdfeeders over the summer.  The children enjoyed pretending to be squirrels and burying the seeds, using the containers that the seeds came in to scoop them up and fill with sand, then dump them out over the seeds or mixed along with the seeds..  As Mabel Young observed, the children “could hone their investigative skills in any indoor or outdoor environment” (Young 2013, p. 78).  When sieves and funnels were added to the sensory table the children explored how to use these new tools to uncover the buried seeds and sort them from the sand.

Brian initially tried picking the seeds out one by one, but Jason was content just filling and dumping the sand/seed mixture.  When he did this into one of the sieves, Maxine excitedly noticed the sand falling out of the bottom.  Maxine and Jason then took the lead in organizing the children at the sensory table to use cups, seed containers, and funnels to transfer the seeds to the sieves, which were then carried to another table where the sorted seeds were dumped out.   Mendoza & Katz reveal that “children become motivated to master basic academic skills, e.g. beginning literacy and numeracy skills, in the service of their intellectual pursuits” (Mendoza & Katz 2013, p. 156), and for my students their fascination with squirrels drove them to master the cognitive skills related to understanding cause-and-effect relationships as well as the mathematical skill of sorting, and nutrition concepts as we later washed, shelled, and cooked the seeds to make sunbutter.

Had the seeds in the sand table activity been introduced devoid of our nature experiences, I can only wonder whether the children would have wanted to “play squirrel” and bury those seeds, or what meaning it would have had for them if they did.  Darcy Campbell and Shawna Thompson state that “The most powerful forms of learning in and about nature are not those in which the learner passively receives a multitude of facts.  Rather, they involve direct contact and connections, in which the learner becomes the protagonist of a story” (Campbell & Thompson 2013, p. 108).  The direct contact with the small animals within our community allowed the children to become motivated to enter into the world of squirrels themselves through their classroom play.

It also gave them a sense of connection with life in general that can be very valuable.  The week after we saw the squirrel with the missed jump Jason discovered a dead bird lying in the grass.  The children gathered around to inspect it further and discovered that the bird had no head.  Jessica suggested that we pick it up and take it to a veterinarian.  While on the one hand I didn’t want to risk exposing the children or myself to any diseases that might be present in the bird’s blood, on the other hand I felt the same obligation that Jayewardene describes when she states that “we should encourage our young students to respect all living things and be compassionate towards them” (Jayewardene 2013, p. 90).  I convinced the children to let me call somebody to get it instead.  The children got excited about the idea of me calling a “bird ambulance,” and listened anxiously to my end of the phone conversation with the city.  Unfortunately, we had to leave before they arrived.

Our experiences with small animals demonstrate that nature can come in all sizes.  While I agree with Golden in that “Ungroomed, wild spaces in particular hold mysteries just waiting for a child to come along to discover” (Golden 2013, pp. 135-136), such mysteries can still come in wild places that have a small degree of grooming as well, as long as teachers do not restrict children’s exploration of the bits of wild that may remain within their urban environments.  In the words of Marty Gravett, “children have an intuitive sense in experiencing nature, a natural approach to the wild that will reveal their understandings if we adults can listen deeply” (Gravett 2013, p. 139).

If there is a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended  Reading page.  Next month I will most likely be discussing the book Teaching in 2 Languages by Sharon A. Reyes & Tatyana Kleyn (2010).


Campbell, D. & S. Thompson. (2013). Naturally speaking: Parents, children, teachers in dialogue with nature. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 105-122). New York: Routledge.

Golden, A. (2013). Preschool children explore the forest: The power of wild spaces in childhood. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 123-136). New York: Routledge.

Gravett, M. (2013). Putting the forest on the map: Using documentation to further natural inquiry. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 137-152).

Jayewardene, G. (2013). Overcoming our fears: Embarking on a nature journey. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 83-101). New York: Routledge.

Meier, D.R. (2013). Nature education and teacher inquiry. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp.26-45). New York: Routledge.

Meier, D.R. & S. Sisk-Hilton. (2013). Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice. New York: Routledge.

Mendoza, J.A. & L.G. Katz. (2013). Nature education and the project approach. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 153-171).

Reyes, A.R. & T. Kleyn. (2010). Teaching in 2 languages: A guide for K-12 bilingual educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sisk-Hilton, S. (2013). Science, nature, and inquiry-based learning in early childhood. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 9-25). New York: Routledge.

Young, M. (2013). Promoting nature study for toddlers. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 63-82). New York: Routledge.