For the past 6 years, educators at the Arnold Arboretum have contributed to the science training of undergraduate and graduate students in Boston University’s Early Childhood Education program through a course titled Curriculum and Practicum in Early Childhood: Kindergarten. Currently taught by Dr. Nermeen Dashoush and Professor Jan Nagler, the course includes a focus on teaching science to young children, both in terms of content and pedagogy.
BU students come to the Arboretum twice each semester—September/November in fall or February/April in spring—to immerse themselves in the rhythms and patterns of nature and consider the concept of change over time. For many, this is not only their first experience of our landscape, but also their first experience truly interacting with trees and the environment. In our outdoor classroom, students engage in a series of small explorations using their senses. They listen to the wind gusting through trees, rub leaves together for sound, and crinkle them to orchestrate music. They squish juicy fruits to discover the pulp and seeds inside, and release their pleasant citrus smell or pungent turpentine-like odor. Their feet discover the presence of hard, bumpy horse chestnut seeds hidden among the leaves. They look closely to examine the various layers found within a leaf bud, or the arrangement of tulip tree seeds in their pod. They marvel at seeing a flowering witch hazel in winter, and trace the shadows cast by the sinuous branches of the cork tree.
Students are constantly asked to make predictions (“What do you expect to see?” or “What will happen when…?”), and then asked to test them out immediately to find amazing surprises! Throughout the class, students experience the wind, sun, soil, water, and animal activity in the landscape. They consider this space and how it feels, and then later, compare how the space and feelings have changed over time. Many open-ended questions are posed during the session to encourage a sense of wonder and elicit curiosity. This gives students a chance to imagine and create teachable moments that can help children find the answers; or at the very least, come up with more questions to investigate!
Following their outdoor exploration, students continue their observations indoors. Using a bin containing soil, plant material, and various invertebrates, student have opportunities to observe, draw, make connections and comparisons, experiment, refer to reference materials, converse, and reflect upon what they are seeing. These activities can prove incredibly effective in offering new insights and a deeper appreciation for the natural world. Teachers in training gain a great deal experiencing these investigations for themselves, often becoming strong advocates for scientific learning in the outdoors in their schools and classrooms. Young children need many repeated opportunities to be outside to play, question, imagine, discover, and make sense of how nature operates and changes over time.
“The visits help me to see the types of natural science lessons I can implement with the children. It really helped me to see how you can take a lesson and bring it one step further with first-hand experiences in nature.” Sarah, Boston University student “Visits like these not only can enrich children’s scientific knowledge, but also their literacy and math skills.” Win, Boston University student
Collaborations between the Arnold Arboretum and Boston University School of Education are part of our mission of educating the next generation of scientists. Teachers can help children instill values of stewardship and agency in caring for the natural world. The best part: it’s free!
“Nature exploration is often free. Most cities and town have public parks. These visits provide a reminder to take advantage of these resources more frequently. Visits to sites like the Arboretum provide a budget-friendly way to incorporate more science education into your school year.”H Wen, Boston University student