Compelling Input and Authentic Output Through Nature

by Dr. Michelle Yzquierdo

We are definity a family of biophiles! And no, I did not just make up that word. Admittedly, however, I only recently discovered this term that perfectly describes my husband, Carlos, my sons, Kai (5) and Karsten (1), and me. Dr. Edward Wilson, a biologist, naturalist, and author, coined the term “biophilia” in his book by the same name, characterizing what he observed as humanity’s “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes, and to be drawn toward nature, to feel an affinity for it, a love, a craving.” Do we humans have an innate connection to nature? Lots of researchers think so. I have also become increasingly interested in the work of Ricahrd Louv, who writes extensively about what he refers to as nature-deficit disorder: the combined negative effects to our health and well-being from limited exposure to nature and the outdoors. I have read most of his work and highly recommend his books to teachers, parents and caregivers, especially The Last Child in the Woods, Vitamin N, and The Nature Principle

Compelling Input and Authentic Interaction

Knowing how significant our human connection to nature can be and how important it is for children to spend time in nature, how does this relate to our work with English learners and developing academic English in our students? Stephen Krashen asserts that “input must be comprehensible to have an effect on language acquisition and literacy development.” Still, for optimal language acquisition, “input needs to be not just interesting but compelling.” Compelling input is input that is so interesting the learner forgets it is in a different language. Participating in outdoor activities and spending time in natural settings are perfect ways to combine compelling input and opportunities for students to engage in content and conversation authentically. The following are examples of how I use the outdoors and nature as a springboard to introduce compelling science concepts and develop academic language with my own kiddos. Simply asking my son what he sees, hears, or smells and then asking him follow-up questions or questions that elicit elaboration from him has sharpened his conversation skills and vocabulary considerably. This questioning has taught him how to make observations, draw conclusions, and make predictions, among other skills that will serve him well in school. 

The Setting

While our children are young, impressionable, and forming lifelong habits, Carlos and I make spending time outdoors with them a priority, hoping that  love and appreciation for the natural world follow them into adulthood. Although we do not live in the “country,” per se, but rather a suburban area of greater Houston, we are fortunate enough to have found a great deal on a fixer-upper on two acres. The house was in very poor shape when we purchased it, but I instantly fell in love with the yard, envisioning all of its potential. When we first moved in, our property was a relatively lifeless sea of St. Augustine grass with little more than a couple of oak trees. After five years of planting over 50 trees and shrubs and countless other small plants, the property is definitely now more biodiverse and attractive to wildlife. 

The Pond

In addition to all the new plant life (Hello, Lowe’s plant sale rack!), we also have a small pond that I single-handedly dug out myself. (Who needs to go to the gym when you can dig a pond?) The pond is home to several species of amphibians who have since moved in, including one rather large grass snake appropriately named Mrs. Snaky—previously Mr. Snakey until my herpetologist friend helped us ID her and told us she was a she. My oldest son spends countless hours hanging out around the pond, making observations and being completely enthralled by the small universe that thrives there. And we are close enough to Galveston Bay that our little pond is frequently visited by herons, cranes, egrets, and sometimes spoonbills looking to munch on our amphibian friends. Interestingly, the pond is only about a foot deep and still has no liner or landscaping. At this point it is literally just a large hole I dug out. It fills with water when it rains, or we add water if it gets too low, but it is teeming with life. Besides talking through the observations we make while visiting our pond, I have also introduced several related topics of discussion:

  • Animal identification
  • Food webs and food chains
  • Habitat needs
  • Conservation
  • Amphibian life cycle
  • The water cycle

The Meadow

The pond is adjacent to a patch of grass that we stopped mowing about two years ago and that we refer to as the meadow. We often take walks around and through our meadow, making observations about the secondary succession taking place there or checking the progress of the wildflower seeds we tossed out early in the spring. It has been an exciting experience for all of us to see what pops up in our meadow and how nature reclaims this small patch of land—and all we had to do is simply stop mowing. The meadow, too, has been the site of discussions on a wide variety of topics:

  • Plant and animal identification
  • Food webs and food chains
  • Habitat needs
  • Conservation
  • Secondary succession
  • Changes in the seasons
  • Plant biology and ecology
  • Invasive species

The Butterfly Garden

Another favorite spot of ours in the yard is a small butterfly/pollinator garden near the house—yet another small patch of grass we converted to something more conducive to wildlife simply by planting milkweed and other pollinator-attracting plants and forgoing the use of any pesticides or herbicides. Last year we hatched over 100 monarch butterflies and were able to observe the entire life cycle over and over! My son still talks about the days when we were able to see them eclose (emerge from their chrysalis), and yes, he knows the word eclose! Our butterfly garden provides us with more opportunities to explore and discuss nature: 

  • Plant and animal identification
  • Food webs and food chains
  • Habitat needs
  • Conservation
  • Importance of pollinators in the ecosystem
  • The butterfly life cycle

The Vegetable Garden

I certainly don’t claim to have a green thumb. If my family actually depended on my gardening skills to eat, they would most definitely starve. Nevertheless, I dutifully plant a fall and spring garden every year, with the help of Carlos and Kai (and now Karsten, if help means just digging in the dirt). Carlos built me the most amazing raised beds, encircled by a gravel path and fenced off so the dogs don’t wreak havoc. Sometimes we start seeds indoors, and sometimes we directly them directly in the garden, and occasionally we are rewarded for all our hard work by actually growing something. My son loves the vegetable garden! Want to get a kid to eat his veggies? Have him grow them himself. Besides all the academic language and vocabulary practice he gets while helping in the garden, we also get to hone planning skills such as shopping for seeds, deciding where to plant different items, reading seed labels for spacing information, and storing and preparing the veggies we grow. 

Getting Students Into Nature

Teachers could easily recreate all the ideas above at school. The content that can be addressed in a natural setting is exciting, whether it’s in a science classroom or any other content-area class. A quick Google search will bring up an abundance of curriculum ideas from other content areas. Additionally, lessons can be enhanced with other language components, such as total response signals, ideas for structuring and targeting academic conversation, vocabulary support, and sentence stems, among others, increasing the language output opportunities and providing authentic language experiences for students. 

Build a pond. A school pond can be as simple or complex as you want. It can be built to any size or shape using a flexible pond liner, or you can choose a preformed pond liner for an even easier install. Pumps and filters are also an option but not required. Even a small, still body of water will attract wildlife. Build it, and the frogs and other critters will come!

Let it Grow. This one is easy! Coordinate with your school’s groundskeeping crew, pick a patch of school lawn, and let it grow. There are even hashtags on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook where folks share the treasures they find in their “meadows.” This is a great ongoing, long-term project for your students or even the whole school as you can track the progress of the secondary succession. Have students take good notes and pictures so the process can be recorded for reference the following year(s) with new students.

Invite the Pollinators. Planting a pollinator garden of any size creates valuable habitats for bees, butterflies, and other essential pollinators. There are many sites where you can get inexpensive or even free seeds. You can even have your school’s pollinator garden certified and registered as a Monarch waystation! We did (Casa de Yzquierdo Pollinator Paraiso)!

 

Plant (and Eat) Your Veggies. A school vegetable garden has so many benefits, and there are countless ways a garden can be planned and built, from container gardening and raised beds to more traditional in-ground planting. There is even a site where you can apply for grant money for your school garden. 

Get Certified. In addition to the Monarch waystation certification mentioned above, you can also get your school certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. There are specific criteria you need to meet to be eligible, but what a great project and goal for you and your students!


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