An energizing inquiry opportunity as the year wraps up

After reading the book, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv last year, it struck me how differently (or not at all) kids today interact with nature compared to when I was growing up. My fondest childhood memories stem from the times when I was outside exploring, playing and being a part of nature. It would be such a shame for this to be lost on our ever increasing tech-savvy, plugged-in generation that we are teaching today.

I brought this concern to my grade three team a couple of months ago, when we were beginning to plan our final unit of inquiry for this year, Sharing the Planet. I wanted to re-connect our students to nature. It started innocently as saying, “I want to try to get my class outside a little bit more for this last unit” and since then, it has spiraled into something that could become incredible.

Since the day that I brought my concerns up to my team, we have had a wonderful man by the name of Steve, who works for the Rocky View Schools Grounds Department come out to initially talk to us about our ideas and ambitions. He was on the same page as us, that if this was going to take off with the students, it had to be student-driven. Sure, it would be easy for him to come out and plant some more foliage on the school grounds, or bring out some wood so that we could start constructing a school vegetable garden, but who would be the ones to end up taking care of everything? Certainly not the students if they had no involvement from day one of even thinking about the idea. So through our class discussions, we talked about what it means to be a steward, and why it’s important to be as knowledgeable as we can about things like, where does our food come from? Why should we plant gardens with plants that are native to the area? Through these discussions, we invited Steve out to the school again, only this time, he was going to take the students out on a tour of the school grounds to talk about some of the greenery that was planted around the school, what their function are, and why they chose those plants in particular. For some of the students, the look in their eyes just when they were able to touch the spruce tree needles, or pick up a pine cone and inspect it carefully, or split open the small fruits from the wild rose plant from last year that didn’t fall off and realize that they can see the seeds inside…it was all so foreign to them! It was amazing to watch. The questions and wonderings that they generated were truly rooted in a genuine keen interest in learning more. The Hook!

While Steve took questions from the students, I slowly raised my hand. He called on me next and I asked him, “I noticed from our classroom, when we look out the window, there is a burm behind the school that only has a few little trees planted in it. They don’t appear to be thriving very well” Steve’s response was, “Yes, but I noticed the weeds are thriving very well back there!” So I continued by asking, “Is there are reason why there is nothing growing out there?” Steve told the students that a few years ago, the burm was put there so that a grade group could do something with it, but that it never panned out, so it’s just stayed the same since then. Of course, one curious voice chimes in, “Could we do something with it?” Steve eagerly acknowledged this question and said, “Of course! I’d be more than happy to help you out with that!” So I asked the whole group, “Grade three’s, who might be interested in taking this on and making that burm as beautiful as the front of our school grounds?” The hands shot up like wildfire! Excitement buzzed around the kids.

And I have to share…somehow…I cannot for the life of me remember how it was brought up (through all of the excitement, I must have missed a question or a comment), but the topic of rhubarb came up. Steve asked the kids how many of them had ever tried rhubarb. Of the approximately 55 kids outside, 3 of them put up their hands. I was shocked! So was Steve! So of course the questions come streaming…what does it taste like? What does it look like? Is it a berry? What colour is it? After our time ran out with Steve, I took my class back to our room, and I sat them down at the carpet. I told them that I still couldn’t believe that so few of them had never had the opportunity to try rhubarb. I continued to explain that when I was their age, one of my most vivid memories of summer was when my friends and I would raid my Grandma’s rhubarb patch, find the brightest red, most succulent smelling pieces of rhubarb, grab a bowl of sugar and head out to the park. We would lay in the grass near the merry-go-round (don’t even get me started that most of them didn’t know what that was!), pour the sugar in our belly buttons, watch the clouds float by and talk about all of the animals we could see in the clouds, as we dipped our rhubarb in the sugar in our belly buttons and ate it all. The kids were fascinated by this. So now, they all want to try rhubarb. They have decided that they want to plant, grow and eat rhubarb!

Of course, our talk was ended abruptly by the end-of-the-day bell, but as the students packed up and left the room, I could hear them meeting up with their friends from other classes, telling them about the childhood summer experience that Mrs. Friske had and how cool it was. Spreading the word, getting other students excited about the idea of, “Hey! we can plant our own food and gardens so we can experience these things too.”

We are now into the research stage. In class, we wrote down all of the burning questions that they had about Steve’s visit, the plants that he talked about, what would work well in the burm behind the school, keeping in mind that we are trying to be environmental stewards, so researching plants that are native to our area, not introducing invasive species that will take over and require a lot of work to maintain. Once the students have made their list of plants that they think will works, we will contact Steve again to see if he’s in agreement, and then we’ll get the ball rolling. I hope it continues to roll with these students as they move up into grade 4!