The following is an excerpt from Connecting Children to Nature: Ideas and Activities for Parents and Educators, edited by Michael Bentley, Michael Mueller, and Bruce Martin, “Chapter Eleven: After School Nature Clubs” by Ryan Brock and David Crowther.
Components of Nature Club
Nature Club was organized to help upper-elementary students develop a stronger environmental identity. Clayton (2003) proposed an environmental identity is one part of the way in which people form their self-concept: a sense of connection to some part of the nonhuman environment, based on history, emotional attachment, and/or similarity, that affects the ways in which we perceive and act toward the world (pp. 45-46).
The club had to create a sense of belonging for the students and needed to last long enough to foster this environmental identity development. Therefore, we decided that Nature Clubs should have a 9-week time frame. The clubs combined both in-school and out-of-school learning characteristics, where nine formal sessions take place in a classroom after school once a week. Three Saturday experiences are offered along with this for students and their families to develop more intimate contact with natural settings. The classroom sessions are anything but static and allow participants hands-on, interactive time with elements from the natural world. Social mechanisms are also incorporated to encourage students to learn from each other’s experiences and knowledge.
The 9 weeks are broken down into three broad concepts for exploration: mammals, birds, and habitat or physical environment. We teach 9 mini-lessons, 3 for each broad concept, with an emphasis on inquiry and the construction of knowledge through environmental interactions. The lessons are not grouped and alternate between the three concepts already mentioned so that students can see how they interact with each other. Activities include animal calls, nature photography, hiking, wildlife and plant identification, animal tracking, building birdhouses, monitoring and collecting data, role-play, map reading, rock and mineral identification, and more (See book for details).
I mostly attribute the club’s success to the inclusion of nature notebooks and our routine of taking time during the last 10 to 15 minutes of each session for students to reflect and write about a teacher-poised concept related to nature. They are asked to first think about the concept and how they relate to it. Then they write for 10 minutes in their nature notebook. The last few minutes are used to share their thoughts with the rest of the class (on a volunteer basis), allowing for mixed opinions and ideas on the topic. This reflective writing activity is vital to helping students take current and past experiences, along with newly formed ideas and beliefs, and merge them together as memories (Smith & Williams, 1999). The notebooks are collected each week by the instructor, and comments are written inside. Sometimes students need a little motivation to stay on task with this activity. We found that a “Nature Award” can do the trick. These awards include little raffle tickets for nature prizes and work exceptionally well as motivation for students who work diligently on reflecting. In fact, after doing this for two sessions, all of the students in one group had at least one raffle ticket taped to their Nature Journal Notebook. It is amazing how excited kids get over pieces of magnetite, old deer antlers, track identification sheets, donated camouflage hats with random logos, camouflage book covers, and other items that they regard as recognition for their achievements.
Keeping Up the Momentum
Finally, consider how you might keep the energy and excitement of your program or club going from year to year:
• Find a bulletin board in your school or classroom to post photos of children participating in nature-based activities.
• Ask the school principal to include your program on the line-up for assemblies or prep rallies. Have club members take responsibility for presenting different aspects of the Nature Club.
• Visit other teachers’ classrooms to promote the Club. Involve shy students, have them demonstrate the animal calls, belching out loud sounds that intrigue other students.
• Use an animal call as your attention-getting device on the playground. But be prepared to answer the “What was that?” question from 400 curious students!
• Have students write articles for local publications like the newspaper. Sportsmen groups, especially those who helped you with your program, love to include students’ write-ups in their newsletters.
• Popularize camouflage. Camouflage is Nature Club’s trademark, stemming from the idea that we can see more wildlife if it can’t see us. Camouflage cloth makes great bulletin board background. Classroom blinds can be accented with camouflage. Have a “Camouflage Day” once a month, with students wearing camouflage, even if it is pink! Imagine how much fun it is to get everyone in your school in camouflage.
There are many organizations and governmental programs with policy efforts for protecting nature. On-the-ground efforts however boil down to dedicated individual educators and family members who share some of the responsibility and time for helping children connect with the natural world around them. The dedicated volunteers who engage with youth can make a big difference in moving them beyond media-centered lives, and they are rewarded with an enormous sense of satisfaction. The more basic, emotional connectedness of nature is unforgettable.
We conclude with a quote from a Nature Club student that reflects the need for nature bonding and environmental studies:
Nature Club’s been really fun. Just what you bring in is really cool and it is fun to learn about that stuff because you never really get to see anything like that. Like anytime really. —Turner