Environmental Basics

Environmental Basics

Big Backyard

Environmental Basics


“This seems clear enough: When truly present in nature, we do use all our senses at the same time, which is the optimum state of learning.”

― Richard Louv, The Nature Principle

By Beverly W. Morrison

©Beverly W. Morrison

September, 1989

Revised and Reprinted 1994, 1998, and 2015

All Rights Reserved.

The author grants permission to Lexington Public Schools to reproduce this book for use within the educational program of the Lexington Public Schools.

“Our children no longer learn how to read the great book of nature from their own direct experience, or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet.”

– Wendell Berry

3. The development of good observations skills is critical for effective learning in science. Outdoor explorations develop skills in the science practices.

They help children:

a)sharpen observations using eyes, ears touch, smell.

b)ask questions based on experience.

c)discover comparisons and observe and describe similarities and differences.

d)develop and expand their ability to categorize (ex. Leaves differ by shape, size, color, texture).

e)developthe ability to observe details so discoveries can be accurately communicated by verbal means, drawings, recording data, or keeping a journal.

f)developthe ability to identify natural objects from field guides or using a key.

g)discover connections based on observations and logical reasoned thinking.

h)observe interactions and patterns of interdependence.

i)make logical reasoned predictions, draw and test conclusions.

j)develop confidence in testing what they have read or been told against their own careful observations and evidence.

4. As children observe, discover, and make connections, they will begin to understand how nature works. Teachers and Big Backyard volunteers can often stimulate learning by asking thought-provoking questions. The content discovered observationally by elementary children and which supports classroom learning is generally in the following areas:

a)Difference between living and non-living

b)Different plant parts and how each functions so the plant can grow

What plants need in order to live

What seeds need to germinate

c)What animals need in order to live and grow

Different native animals, how and where they live

(Birds and small invertebrates are the easiest to find and observe)

d)Characteristics of different habitats for plants and animals

Concept of adaptation

e)Effect of seasonal changes on plants and animals and how they cope

f)Awareness of interdependence throughout nature

g)Food chains and food webs


h)Nature’s cycles – water cycle, plant, (life cycles), animals (insects and metamorphosis), food/energy cycle (decomposition)

i)Photosynthesis – plants creating their food from the non-living world

j)Ecosystems – producers, consumers, decomposers

k)Earth Science – weathering and erosion, formation of soil, how rocks are made, glacial and other land forms, sense of geologic history

Many of these content areas are touched upon in developmentally appropriate ways at all grade levels, although more complex concepts such as photosynthesis, ecosystems, food/energy cycle, and much of the earth science content are usually best left for upper elementary students.

5. Above all, don’t forget schoolyard BBY walks are based on:

a)Environmental Awareness

b)Sensory exploration/sense of wonder

c)Discovery/joy of learning

d)Sharing the excitement/communicating discoveries

e)Experiencing nature’s rhythms and cycles

f)Appreciation of and interest in how nature works

g)Respect for nature and themselves

h)Love of learning, discovering that they can teach themselves


6. Major challenge is helping children learn how to behave on a BBY walk, how to slow down, focus, observe, wonder, and thereby enjoy exploring, discovering, learning, and sharing.

IV Working in your school

  1. Work through your coordinator.
  2. Establish a rapport with your classroom teacher(s).

a)BBY walks are tied to classroom curriculum. Walk leaders should befamiliar with the walk, basic concepts, and vocabulary.

b)Pre and Post activities, done in the classroom by the teachers, link outdoor activities back to classroom investigations.

  1. Consider logistics of the field trip.

a)Find out how long the BBY walk should last. Does the teacher wish children to collect? Generally not but when collecting is planned, be sure it is done with respect for the environment. Have children or BBY volunteers return collected material.

b)Help children to leave and re-enter the school and classroom quietly.

  1. As necessary, pre-walk the area to be used.
  2. Come to training sessions having read the walk guides. Teachers need well trainedwalk leaders.
  3. Finding enough volunteers is sometimes challenging. If you are willing, let the coordinator know if you can assist in other classrooms at your grade level.


Basic Science Concepts and Information

For Teachers of Young Children

  1. The Non-Living World
  1. Air

a)Is a mixture of invisible gases

Oxygen, necessary for all living things

Carbon dioxide, breathed out by animals, used by plants

b)Water vapor (invisible)

c)Other gases, primarily nitrogen, make up our environment. Over 70% of air we live in is nitrogen

d)There is constant interchange of gases between living and non-living world

  1. Water

a)Exists in three states on planet Earth

Liquid-fluid (includes drops in clouds)

Frozen solid-ice, snow

Gas – water vapor (invisible)

Is essential for all living things

  • 99% of Earth’s water is in oceans or frozen in polar ice caps and glaciers.
  • 1% of water is both fresh and accessible to living things and is continually recycled in the water cycle.
  1. Rocks

a)Rocks are made of minerals.

b)Bedrock, or the Earth’s crust, underlies all surface features, fields, forests, houses, lakes, oceans.

c)In some places, bedrock sticks above the surface.

d)Surface rocks are constantly being broken into smaller particles (weathered).

e)New rocks are constantly being made, both from molten magma inside the Earth and from eroded older rocks.

f)Soil is partly composed of minerals in tiny particles and partly made up of decomposed leaves, roots, and animal remains.

  1. The amount of matter on the Earth is finite. The building blocks, which combine to make up everything on Earth (living and non-living), are constantly being recycled and used over and over again.
  2. Sun

a)The sun’s rays provide the warmth essential for living things.

b)The sun’s rays provide energy for all of the Earth’s activities and processes.


  1. The Living World
  2. All living things, plants and animals, share certain characteristics. They all need:

a)Source of energy – sunlight or food




  1. All living things:

a)Grow and move

b)Excrete wastes



Living things depend on the non-living world to meet their basic needs.

  1. Plants

a)All green plants need the following things to survive:

  • Air – both oxygen and carbon dioxide
  • Water
  • Minerals/soil, dissolved in water, absorbed by roots
  • Warmth
  • Sunlight, shining directly on leaves

b)Plants grow, respire, move, reproduce, and need food to carry out all their life processes. Using the sun’s energy, green plants make food from non-living parts of the environment. This process is called photosynthesis.


Image from Kids Discover

  1. Flowering Plant Parts and Their Functions


  • Obtain water and minerals from soil
  • Anchor plant to ground


  • Transport water and minerals (sap) to leaves and transport glucose (food made by leaves ) to all parts of plant


  • Take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen when making food and take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide when using food
  • Absorb sunlight so chloroplasts (green structures within the leaf) can make food from air, water, and minerals


  • Enable plants to produce seeds
  • Pollen spread by wind, insects, or small birds


  • Start new plants


  1. Basic Understanding of Photosynthesis for Walk Leaders

Knowledge of photosynthesis is basic to an understanding of the natural world. Plants not only provide food, shelter, medicines, and other direct benefits, but plants also release great quantities of water vapor and oxygen into the atmosphere. All animal life is dependent upon this renewal of the Earth’s oxygen supply and the release of water vapor is an essential part of the water cycle. Plants use the sun’s energy to convert raw materials, non-living elements from the ecosystem, into food energy.

What are the raw materials plants use and where do plants get these raw materials?

a)Water – in the ground

b)Minerals – in the ground. Rocks are made of minerals; rocks disintegrate and erode into tiny particles, which are a major component of dirt.

c)Air – plant leaves have tiny holes on their undersides called stomata. Air passes into and out of the leaves through these holes which can open and close as needed.

These are the raw materials, but the energy to convert them to food comes from the sun and this chemical process is called photosynthesis.Photosynthesis may sound like a big word, but it's actually pretty simple. You can divide it into two parts: "Photo" is the Greek word for "Light," and "synthesis," is the Greek word for "putting together," which explains what photosynthesis is. It is using light to put things together.

When the sun’s rays strike the leaves of a plant, tiny green structures called chloroplasts convert air, water, and minerals into glucose or food for the living plant. To do this, air and water are changed into their basic elements.

Air is composed of several gases, but we are concerned with only two – carbon dioxide and oxygen. Animals breathe in air, use the oxygen, and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants exchange gases through their leaves. During the daylight hours, plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen as they make food. At night, plants take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide when using food.



Students in K-5 do not need to know the specifics of photosynthesis but rather need to understand that plants are an important part of a much larger system.

Students in grade 5 should understand that green plants use the sun’s energy, or light, to make their food. The green parts of a plant trap sunlight and use it to turn air and water into food for the plant. This is called photosynthesis.

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Leading Nature Walks

General Observations:

For Specific Information, See Grade Level Walk Guides

Why Nature Walks?

  1. Exploration, discovery, wondering, asking questions, searching for answers, seeing connections to their lives, enjoying, sharing the excitement, and realizing that their observations and ideas have value, are the key to nature walks with children.
  2. Facts are not important, and indeed are soon forgotten but the wonder of discovery stays with a child forever.
  3. Children understand vocabulary words better after first hand experiences. Encourage exploration of natural processes and relationships before using vocabulary words.

How to Engage Children

  1. Listen to their ideas and questions.
  2. Encourage them to discover and wonder.
  3. Show them you value their observations, questions, and ideas.
  4. Honor and appreciate what they already know and also what they wonder about.
  5. Be curious and excited yourself. Share their enthusiasm.
  6. Don’t lecture and try to “teach” facts. Offer interesting bits of information as children demonstrate interest in a plant or animal or other discovery.
  7. Know your schoolyard and the specific places to explore which will be interesting to children and stimulate their questions.
  8. Have in hand materials and activities that will help children to focus and be engaged in discovery.
  9. Honor the child who questions. This is the child who is thinking and wondering. “What’s makes you think that?” “How could we find the answer?”

“Most teachers waste their time by asking questions which are intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of questioning has for its purpose to discover what the pupil knows or is capable of knowing.”

-Albert Einstein


  1. What if I don’t know the answer? Even if you do know the answer, better to ask a question that helps the child to explore further, discover relationships, and perhaps figure out the answer.

Materials and Activities

  1. Hand lenses are a good learning tool but can also be distracting, especially with young children who focus on the lens rather than the environment. Also beware the lens is not used to direct the sun’s rays to ignite a leaf.
  1. Bring out the tools when needed and pack them away when they are not being used.
  1. Bug boxes with magnifiers are valuable for the unexpected discovery. Keep one handy for viewing tiny creatures such as a sow bug or an ant. These animals can be clearly observed by children without danger from curious fingers, and then can be safely returned to its habitat.
  1. String circles are an effective way to help children focus. Being outdoors is often so stimulating to young children that it is difficult for them to focus for careful observations. String circles about three feet in diameter are invaluable. Spread circles on the ground and ask children in pairs how many different colors they can find how many different leaves, what non-living things are in the circle.
  1. Trowel for digging up (and replanting) plants to study roots.


  1. Tongue depressors with key words written on them are effective in both interesting children and in reinforcing learning visually. Be careful to use them to help children focus and to show off their knowledge, not as a test ofvocabulary. Examples include:
  2. Plant parts: roots, stem, leaves, flowers, seeds
  3. What plants need to grow: air, minerals, sunlight, water, warmth
  4. What animals need to survive: food, water, air (oxygen), warmth, shelter, protection
  1. Activities include sitting in a circle with eyes closed and raising one finger for every sound heard. Can also be done for everything children feel. This is a useful activity to reduce visual over stimulation.
  1. Trivia. Children will long remember something illustrated by a bit of trivia. Store up odd and interesting facts that you can use in talking with children. For example, telling children that trees produce water vapor goes in one ear and out the other. Tell them that a mature oak tree gives out 300 gallons of water vapor on a sunny day. Have them imagine 300 gallon bottles lined up in their classroom, and they will never forget that trees give out water vapor.


6. Use children’s observations and questions to reinforce key focus concepts.

You can learn from children’s questions how they are thinking and how they view their world. Listen for misconceptions. All children try to construct their own image of the world. Never tell a child he or she is wrong, but praise the thought that went into searching for an answer. Then gently re-examine the situation and revisit the concept.

7. As a group, record children’s discoveries and their questions as well as things they wonder about. Complete worksheets if they are part of the nature walk. Encourage children to talk about what they enjoyed most. Did they discover anything that surprised them? Could they explore and discover interesting things in their backyard at home?

C. After the Nature Walk

Leave the list of children’s discoveries and questions with the teacher and add any comments on which will help the teacher integrate children’s experiences into classroom activities.