The Value of Urban Forest School

March 11, 2017

Visiting the EYA community garden in Vancouver. 

 

In the weeks leading up to our Spreading Our Branches gathering on April 1st, we’ll feature the voices of place-based educators from around the Metro Vancouver area. This week’s feature highlights the work of urban educator Anna Kirkpatrick.

 

Wherever we are, there are always opportunities to engage with nature. I
spent my teaching practicum at an urban elementary school in Vancouver. The
playground was mostly concrete and there were no parks in the immediate
vicinity. Despite this, I found ways to deepen my students’ understanding
of place by connecting with nature. I took my students on a schoolyard
plant walk at the conclusion of a unit on plants. We had already learned
about the parts of plants, the needs of plants and some of the ways that
plants can be classified. Armed with this information, we headed outside.
At first glance, the schoolyard appeared pretty sparse. But once we started
looking we found many kinds of plants: mosses, ferns, clover, a maple tree,
a pine tree and more. By the end of our exploration we had found plants
that were vascular and non-vascular, coniferous and deciduous. After an
initial group walk students were asked to choose one plant to observe and
draw. Students were asked to make a guess about how this plant might be
classified and why. And then students were asked to make a prediction: if
we returned to this same spot in six months what might they see and why?

This lesson was a big hit with students. Before heading outside I worried
that students might be distracted since they might associate the schoolyard
with recess. But my fears were unfounded. The class seemed excited to
engage with this familiar landscape in a new way. This lesson gave students
the opportunity to see how the science curriculum applies to their everyday
lives.

I was surprised to see that a few students who normally struggled in the
classroom thrived when outdoors. Inside the classroom “Jeremy” was easily
distracted and struggled with independent work. In our outdoor classroom,
“Jeremy” was focused and engaged. When the lesson ended he proudly
presented his plant journal where he had recorded detailed observations of
several plants. “That was the best class ever,” he said with a smile.

If I were to do this activity again I would work with students to create a
handbook of schoolyard plants. We could use words, photographs and
illustrations to document the plants we found. This handbook would be a
wonderful classroom resource and would probably inspire further reflection
and exploration.

Stepping outside helped my students understand the science curriculum in a
way that was personal and experiential. We didn’t need to venture far
afield. Nature is everywhere as our exploration of an urban schoolyard
demonstrated.

 

How are you connecting urban children with natural places in the urban environment?

 

Resources:

Place-Based Education: Connecting Classroom and Community, by David Sobel

The Promise of Place: a wonderful list of place-based education resources

 

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