From birth, children learn about the world around them through their senses, and these experiences are soon mediated through language. As kids enter school, their senses—particularly sight and touch—are key to learning and understanding the natural world and how it works. In our Field Studies programs at the Arnold Arboretum, we give children plant material to observe, smell, and dissect in the field, with support from an experienced Field Guide who helps them make sense of it all. How can we then, in light of COVID restrictions, continue our work of bringing nature, and the Arnold Arboretum, to the children of the Boston Public Schools (BPS)?
Enter Digital Nature Buddies, a weekly 40-minute program designed to share nature with children virtually. A BPS classroom in paired with several Nature Buddies (specially-trained Arnold Arboretum Field Guides) who explore a particular aspect of the natural world in small groups. One program focused on evergreen leaf shapes, allowing children to view a variety of evergreen leaves through a camera and use rich language to describe their observations.
A lesson on cones showed step-by-step how to take one apart to find the seeds inside, and included time-lapse videos of cones opening and closing in dry and wet weather. Yet another led students in a matching game, pairing the colors and textures observed in the bark of various trees with everyday objects like string cheese or camouflage pants. Students explain their choices and their reasoning may reveal multiple correct answers. These experiences are designed to nudge children into going outside and discovering for themselves what they learned about online, and to duplicate the experiments on their own.
Throughout the programs, children express their wonder, ask questions, provide evidence to support their answers, and form their own hypotheses about natural phenomena. These practices underpin good science and effective learning, and prove engaging even through remote learning sessions. It takes caring adults and carefully curated slides, along with a plan and sense of humor, to continue connecting with our students in ways that are relevant and meaningful.
To date, our Digital Nature Buddies program has connected with 13 classrooms in grades 2 through 5, representing some 235 students and their teachers. Teacher response has been overwhelmingly positive, but more important is the impact on students. “I learned some pine cones and leaves can be different than others depending on the tree,” said Isaiah, a second grader from the Bates School.
In an effort to bring this programming to a broader audience, we have transformed the Digital Nature Buddies content into a virtual offering called 30-Minute Nature comprised of Google Slides with extensive teacher notes. Now, any educator can download and use our carefully curated sets of images, video, and links for lessons with their students. Teachers may assign these decks as part of their science curriculum, English Language Learning classes, independent research projects, and more.
“You have made me so happy! The slides are PERFECT for enrichment, even for my 7th graders.”Ms. Baack, Science Teacher, Newton Public Schools
It is clear that this style of nature education is beneficial to engage students under current circumstances. While nothing can substitute place-based, hands-on field work, such virtual programs amplify our reach and create new ways to a bring children closer to the outdoors. As such, 30-Minute Nature will continue to be part of the Arnold Arboretum’s regular resources for educators.