Tag Archives: EcoAdventures

Tree Murals and Foxes and Rabbits

Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine

The children’s program of the religious education conference continued this morning. Lisa and I are doing nature and ecology with rotating groups of children in grades 1-6. Some notes on Thursday’s activities:

We started off with the 1st/2nd graders this morning. It’s a small group (only 8 children), with mostly 2nd graders. They have been a very easy group — lots of sunny personalities, and no conflicting personalities. The weather was finally clear and dry, so at last we were able to do one of the lessons we had planned out in advance — the Tree Mural project, a way to help children appreciate a living thing (a tree) while learning about the ecological concept of habitat.

First we went out and “adopted” a tree. We lay around the base of it while Lisa read a sort of guided meditation to help the children get a sense of the tree (the complete lesson plan is at the very end of this post). It was a little hard for children of this age to focus on this part of the activity, but they did pretty well — especially when we all sat up and started looking for living creatures on and around the tree. The children found spiders, ants, caterpillars, a hole that might be a chipmunk hole, and other small creatures.

Continue reading

On film

Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine

The children’s program of the religious education conference continued this morning. Lisa and I are doing nature and ecology with rotating groups of children in grades 1-6.

This morning we had the grade 5-6 grade group for the entire morning. A film crew came to Ferry Beach today to film a short film to promote Unitarian Universalism. The film makers, David and Anne, felt that a key component of Unitarian Universalist religious education is our focus on Nature and respect for the interdependent web of all existence. They wanted to get some footage of children engaged in outdoors religious education, so they decided to film us doing religious education with the fifth and sixth graders.

Before the children arrived, I talked with David and Anne, and with one of the camera operators (also confusingly named David), about the kind of shots they were looking for. He wanted groups of children and adults close together, in a natural setting, looking at something together. Then I figured out how to adjust our lesson plan (we decided to use the same session plan as we used with the 3rd and 4th graders yesterday) so David could get the shots he was looking for.

All that was pretty straightforward. What really worried me was how the children would react with a camera looking over their shoulders all the time. When the children arrived, I started up my computer and showed them photographs I had taken of the Piping Plover sitting on her nest — I had promised a couple of days ago that I would do so.

We sat in a circle, and did everyone (including the film crew) introduced themselves. Then i reminded the children of the Piping Plover photos, and showed them my small video camera. I was sitting next to David with his big video camera, and we compared the two cameras. I told the children that I like to use my camera to help me observe and remember what I see in Nature. Then David talked about his camera, and the kinds of documentary work he does with it. These introductions allowed the children to become somewhat accustomed to the film crew.

We moved into the same basic lesson that we had done with the 3rd and 4th graders yesterday (“secret agents” and collecting things on the beach), and I set things up so that David got some great shots of children crouched on beach sand sorting through different kinds of seaweed. The film makers needed to do interviews with a couple of children individually, so to accommodate that, Lisa and I took the rest of the children down the road to see where the house had washed into the ocean last winter. I hadn’t really planned for these interviews, and this part of the session didn’t go as well as the “secret agent” activity.

After the snack break, the film crew was pretty much done. We all sat in a circle, and we went around the circle, allowing each child some time to talk about how it felt to be filmed. Many of the children said it was “distracting.” One or two didn’t really notice a difference. Several of the children pointed out how many in the group were kind of acting for the camera.

Then I gave them a couple of choices for activities that they could do in the second half of the morning. Nearly all of them wanted to spend alone time in the woods (just as we did last year). So we did that to finish out the morning.

Overall, I felt this morning’s session went very well indeed. The film makers were a little distracting, but in spite of that I felt that the children learned a lot, and had fun besides.

Winging it (successfully)

Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine

The children’s program of the religious education conference continued this morning. Once again this year, Lisa and I are doing nature and ecology with rotating groups of children in grades 1-6, and this morning we had the grade 1-2 group, followed by the grade 3-4 group.

We decided to take the 1st and 2nd graders down to the beach to see the fog. We collected different kinds of seaweed, and were having fun trying to decide where the fog began and ended, when it started to rain lightly. We headed back to our tent, and got under cover just before a downpour started. We compared the different types of seaweed, and decided which ones felt slimy, which ones felt slippery, which ones felt lumpy, and so on. The heavy rain put an end to rest of our lesson plan, so we decided to make time for free play in the sand in which the tent is pitched — but then the wind picked up, and it got cold, and we ran inside where it was warmer. It wasn’t a bad session — the children got time to get to know one another — but the heavy rain and cold winds prevented us from meeting some of our learning goals for the morning.

By the time the 3rd and 4th graders joined us, the rain had stopped and it was warmer. But the ground was still so wet that we couldn’t do our planned activities, which involved crawling around on the ground. So we walked down to the beach.

Continue reading


Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

The children’s program of the religious education conference started this morning. Once again this year, Lisa and I are doing nature and ecology with rotating groups of children in grades 1-6.

One of our groups this morning was filled with really great kids — I knew most of them from last year’s conference — and I was expecting the group to be lots of fun. But this group just didn’t come together. In fact, things started to fall apart, which meant that the children started acting out the stereotyped roles they have learned:– some of the boys started acting out, some of the girls sat there passively, one or two kids started acting like the good kids telling the others to behave. Nobody was learning anything. Nobody was having any fun.

It was raining off and on, so maybe the kids were cranky. Or maybe the chemistry just wasn’t right. I don’t know why things weren’t working, but I knew something had to change.

So I threw out the lesson plan we had written up, and did something that was more or less unexpected: “OK, everyone stand up. Make a line, and hold hands. Follow me.” The line broke down a couple of times, but finally we made it over to some trees. “Look at this…” We started picking up different kinds of lichen. “What’s it feel like?” Damp. Squishy. Soft. “Usually lichens are dry and crispy, but now they’re all wet from the rain,” I said. “It’s OK to pick it up, because wherever you drop it it will start growing again.” The kids started telling each other what they knew about lichen (these were 5th and 6th graders, so they knew quite a lot.) Lichen is fungus. No, fungi. It’s fungus and algae together. Look at this one growing on the tree! Look at this one, it’s completely different!

We ran back to our picnic table. Earlier, I had collected different kinds of seaweed down at the beach. We compared the lichen and the seaweed. “Seaweed is a kind of algae,” I said. Some of the lichen looked a little like some of the seaweed. Both the seaweed and the lichen felt damp, squishy, and soft.

By now, we were all re-focused. We sat down, and I asked them to come up with a list of ground rules that we could all live by. They came up with some good rules: No physical violence. One person talking at a time (they’re thinking of using a talking stick, but we’ll see). The Golden Rule: treat other people the way you’d like to be treated. And a few other common sense rules.

By the time we got the rules written down, and all agreed on, it was time to go to lunch, so we all went off to the dining hall.

Thinking back, I’m trying to figure out if there was anything I could have done differently at the beginning to keep things on track. I probably had higher expectations for the group than I should have had. Many of them are strong kinesthetic learners, and I probably should have had manipulatives for them to play with, or an immediate physical activity for them. I’m also not thrilled by having kids rotate through the different activities on such a tight schedule (I prefer spontaneous programming that arises from children’s interests, rather than schedules that force children to change to a different topic whether they’re ready or not) — and my negative attitude towards the schedule may well negatively affected how the group interacted.

But I suspect that in this case, there may not have been much that I could have done to change the way we started off. And it’s fine, because it worked out pretty well in the end — even though I never made my key point, that for many of us Unitarian Universalists appreciating Nature is a big part of our religion.


With the heavy rains last night, everything in the woods was soaked. We had planned an activity where the third and fourth graders would be crawling around on the ground, but it was too wet for that.

As we walked over to the Grove, we passed a running stream of water that had been a dry ditch yesterday. I said: Let’s clean out some of these sticks so the water flows better. Some of the active boys jumped down and started pulling out sticks and even small logs. The girls and other boys weren’t far behind. We dropped sticks and and watched how fast they raced downstream.

I asked: Where does the water go? “Down there!” Let’s follow it and see. They all ran off downstream, stopping to clean out a few more snags. “It flows into this hole!” That’s called a culvert. “It keeps going over here!” We ran over to a ditch by the side of the main road. The children discovered that the water seemed to disappear under the road.

We carefully crossed the road to see if we could follow the water down to the ocean, but there was no water on the ditch on the other side of the road. We crossed back over to look again. Where does the water go? The children imagined all kinds of things that might happen to the water. But what really happens to the water? Who could we ask? The children thought about that, and one of the children who has returned year after year said, “We could talk to the guy who runs the campsite.” So we walked over to the garage, where we found Ed.

I said, Ed, the children want to know where the water goes. Ed explained that it runs into a sewer under the road, and then is pumped up to the sewage treatment plant where they process the water to make it clean. “They take all the poop out of it!” “Yes,” said Ed, “and at the end the water is so clean that you can drink it.” That was a novel concept to the children, and we talked about that for a while. Then it was time to follow the water upstream, to see where it came from. “Thank you, Ed!”

We ran back to the stream, and followed it the other direction this time. “I know where streams start, they always start in a spring in the mountains.” Well, let’s see how far we can follow this stream.

We came to a place where the bottom of the stream was sand. The sand looked orange. The children and I pulled sand up off the bottom, but when we pulled it up the sand was white. That means the water is orange: why? “It’s the leaves, they make it orange.” “And the pine needles.”

The stream got wider and wider, and flowed more and more slowly. Soon there were interconnected puddles everywhere in the woods — in the same part of the woods where we had walked dry shod yesterday. I suggested that maybe the stream started with all the puddles. But the children weren’t yet sure. So we kept going deeper into the woods.

“We should go this way!” said one child. “No, this way!” said another child. I asked, Which way does water flow? “Up–” “No, it flows downhill.” So which way is uphill? We figured out which way was uphill, and went that way to see if we could tell where the water started flowing. There was water everywhere. If you slipped on a root, you’d get wet. All of us got our feet at least a little bit wet.

Finally we got to a place where there were no more puddles. But there was no stream, either. Finally the children figured out what was going on: The woods turn into a swamp when it rains, and the streams drain the water out of the stream. I told them that the streams were actually ditches that people had dug in order to drain the swamp.

We stood in a circle, and went over what we had figured out. At the end of that, one child said, “I think we should always learn like this — being outdoors, and not having someone just tell us.” I said that I believed that children could figure things out for themselves (with adult help and direction).

It was time to head back. I said I’d try to find a dryer path for us to follow back. But there was water everywhere. Eventually, we had to turn around and head back the way we came. We got a little wetter, and we were fifteen minutes late for lunch. But the children had learned a lot more about the woods, and water, and what happens when it rains, and where water goes. They’ve learned about the water cycle in school, but this time they really got to see it in action.

And this was completely unplanned: spontaneous programming, arising out of the interests of the children, and their interactions with their surrounding environment.

Alone in the woods

Today we had the 5/6th graders for nature and ecology in the hour just before lunch. “What are we going to do today?” “Can we do alone time again?” “Yeah, where we walk single file and you tap us on the shoulder.” “Yeah, and spread us out so we can’t see each other this time!” [See below for instructions of how we set up alone time two days ago.] Alone time wasn’t on our lesson plan for today, but since one of our primary learning goals is to have the children spend time alone in the woods, Lisa and I were actually very pleased that they asked to do more alone time.

So we said: Sure, we can do alone time again. Do you want to do it as long as half an hour? “Longer!” “Yeah, the whole hour!” Well, we can’t go that long because we have to be at lunch by noon. “OK, but be sure to spread us out so far that we can’t see each other.” Then a worried look: “What if something happens, though?” Well, Lisa and I will spread you out so you can just see each other.

We actually let them go a little longer than thirty minutes. Then I asked what they did with their alone time. Some of them couldn’t quite spend that whole time alone and six of the eleven children wound up hanging out with a nearby child: “We built a fort together,” said one pair. Of the ones who spent the whole time alone, some spent time just looking at what was around them: “I wound up in exactly the same spot as the last time, so I finished looking at the things I started looking at last time we had alone time.” One or two just sat and enjoyed being quiet: “I just sat there on the ground and didn’t really do anything.” I mentioned that being alone in the outdoors is one of my spiritual practices (just so they would know that it can be a legitimate spiritual practice).

Later today, one of the girls in that group made a point of stopping me and saying that she really liked being alone in the woods. Don’t let anyone tell you that kids today only want to play video games.


Alone time (with a group of children)

Give these instructions before beginning: “We’re all going to keep walking single file along the trail. One at a time, the Sweep will indicate to each child that he/she is to sit down in the trail, until everyone is spread out along the trail. Then we’ll all sit in silence of a time. When the time is up, the Sweep will start walking slowly, slowly, and gradually we’ll rejoin in a single file line again.” Sweep circles back around to be at rear of line again. Have children sit in silence for one to five minutes (depending on age and group chemistry). Older children can spread out quite far. Younger children will be more comfortable if they are closer together.

More eco-teaching

Religious Education Week, Ferry Beach Conference Center

Today we had the fifth and sixth graders first. We played the “Foxes, Rabbits, and Leaves” game that we did yesterday with the third and fourth graders — I learned from yesterday’s mistakes, and the game went much more smoothly today. After half an hour of play, the children didn’t want to stop, but Lisa and I eneded that game anyway because we wanted to give them some alone time in the woods.

So we lined them up single file, and walked out into the woods. One by one, Lisa seated each child along the trail, so they were all spread out — within sight of one another, but too far away too talk. After about seven minutes of quiet time, Lisa and I circled around and picked the children up one by one, and we all walked back single file, in silence, to a comfortable place in the woods, where we sat in a circle.

I asked: What did you do with you time alone in the woods?

“I picked up a big stick and I hit it against a tree again and again until it broke.”

“I sat and meditated for a while, then I opened my eyes and looked around.”

“I let an inch worm crawl on me, but then I squished it by mistake so I buried it.”

“I picked up a big stick and hit it again a tree too.”

“I swatted mosquitoes. Oh, and I listened to a bird that was nearby.”

I said: I love to spend time outdoors, and I’ve done all those things myself.

One of our goals is to give each group plenty of unstructured time more or less alone in the woods. A big part of our goal is to help children feel comfortable outdoors, in a natural environment — we want kids to like Nature and the outdoors. If they feel some spiritual connection with Nature, great, but just liking it is enough at this point.

When things really soar

Here at the annual religious education conference at Ferry Beach Conference Center, I’m one of the adults leading the children’s program. Along with Lisa, I’m doing nature and ecology with the elementary age children. At the end of the morning today, we had the third and fourth graders for an hour. The plan was to play a game for half an hour that would teach about cycles of life, and then going out into the woods and giving the children some alone time. As can happen with children, we went astray from the plan.

The children were feeling active today. We started playing the game, called “Foxes and Rabbits,” and the children got so excited and were having so much fun I had trouble getting them to transition from one round to the next. I didn’t want them to descend from excitement into chaotic lack of structure, so I really worked hard to get them to stay focused. I was getting a little frustrated with them. Fortunately, they’re a cheerful group so they tried hard focus a little more even though they were getting a little frustrated with me. It was one of those teaching situations where the children were pulling in one direction, and I was pulling in slightly different direction.

But we were all having fun, in spite of the frustration. I looked at my watch and fifty minutes had gone by — we had to wrap things up pretty quickly. So I asked the children to sit in a circle, and we talked about the game. And they came up with some wonderful insights about the cycle of life, about what might happen if humans destroy part of the web of life, about birth and death, just a wonderful free-for-all discussion. It was one of those times you sometimes get while teaching:– with the whole group, kids and adults, soaring together.

Fifty minutes of frustration for ten minutes of soaring. That’s the way it goes in teaching.


If you’re curious, below are the rules to the game. It’s both simple and really quite complex, and part of the frustration we all experienced was my inability to explain the game quickly and concisely.

Game: “Foxes and Rabbits” adapted from Steve van Matre’s book Acclimatizing

Divide the group into Foxes, Rabbits, and Leaves. (If you have a group of ten, a good proportion would be 4 rabbits, 3 leaves, and 3 foxes.) Give the Rabbits tails (pieces of white cloth to stick into back pocket).

The Rabbits start out crouched down in the middle. The Foxes start out in a loose circle around the Rabbits. The Leaves stand (with their hands in the air so everyone knows they are Leaves) in a loose circle outside the Foxes.

Each round begins when a signal is given. During each round, the Rabbits try to “eat” (tag) the Leaves. The Foxes try to catch and “eat” the Rabbits (by pulling tail). The Leaves are are rooted in place and cannot move.

During each round, Rabbits are safe and cannot be tagged when they are frozen in a crouched position. However, the Rabbits may not move or “eat” Leaves unless they are standing up. Each Rabbit must get food in each round, or s/he will die from hunger. Each Fox, too, must get food in each round or s/he will die from hunger. A Fox may only catch ONE Rabbit each round.

The round should last no more than five minutes, or when all the Leaves are eaten. The Leader calls out “End of Round!”, all play stops, and then you tally up those who got eaten or who starved to death:

  • If a Leaf is eaten by a Rabbit, in the next round she becomes a Rabbit.
  • (All other Leaves remain Leaves.)
  • If a Rabbit is eaten by a Fox, in the next round she becomes a Fox.
  • If a Rabbit is does not manage to eat a Leaf during a round, he “dies” and becomes a Leaf.
  • (All other Rabbits remain Rabbits.)
  • FOXES:
  • If a Fox fails to catch a Rabbit within the round, he “dies” and becomes a Leaf.
  • (All other Foxes remain Foxes.)

Play three to five rounds (or more, if it’s going well).