Written by Mark Walter, K-12 STEM Director
When it comes to engaging your elementary schooler with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) this summer, think ‘go outside!’
This year of social isolation and technological integration has been a lot to digest for all of us! It’s time to put down those screens and get outside with your young learners.
During my time as a STEM teacher, I have had the privilege of speaking with many scientists, teachers, professors, and engineers. They all agree that a strong STEM education begins with observing, interacting, questioning, and making connections with the natural world.
Why Does This Matter?
Simply put, humans have drawn upon lessons from nature since the earliest of ancient civilizations. From philosophers to artists and scientists to mathematicians, humans have always studied natural phenomena as a way to ask and answer some of our greatest questions about the mysteries of life and the universe. What’s more, children love interacting with nature, especially with a caring adult. Nature does not judge. Nature just is.
Explore and Connect with Nature
Connecting with nature is a breeze, the trick is to let it just happen. Go where your child’s (or your own) interests take you. What makes you wonder? What makes you curious? Surrender to it and go there.
Climb a tree, go fishing or hiking, play in the waves, harvest from a garden, fly a kite, enjoy a summer breeze beneath the shade of a tree, lift up a rock to find a micro-environment full of ants, or explore the life cycle of the brood X cicadas this year. These are just a few of the endless possibilities for both exploring and connecting your child with nature.
The best part is, all of these activities are accessible right outside your door at any time of day or night and can also be enjoyed as part of a summer vacation.
Here is a list of activities that might pique your interest for a summer that supports integrated STEM learning for your child.
- Make a Nature Exploring Kit.
Organize the following items into a backpack and your little one can head out for a fun adventure:
- Nature Journal
- Pencil and Colored Pencils
- Magnifying glass
- Field guides for birds, insects, reptiles & amphibians, scat, tracks, and signs, to name just a few.
- Don’t want to carry a field guide? Try the inaturalist app on your smartphone which allows you to use the camera to help ID various species of plants and animals.
- Other items that might be helpful: binoculars, ruler, pad to sit upon, compass, the possibilities are endless.
- Look for animal tracks in the area around your home.
Use a field guide to help identify what kind of animal it is. Once you’ve found the tracks, follow these directions to make a Plaster of Paris Animal track. There is some nuance to this, so here is a grizzly track video to support your efforts. If it doesn't work the first time, try, try again. You can always practice with a print of your own making.
- Try the artistic and fun activity of Solar printing.
Simply find natural objects, flowers, cones, shells, you name it, put them on the solar print paper and you’ve got the makings for a memory.
- Build a nature sculpture inspired by Andy Goldsworthy.
This is a great activity for a walk to the woods or down by a stream. Endless possibilities and endless fun!
- Build a sundial in an outdoor space.
This is an ancient method for tracking time and it will surely bring up questions about the length of day. You can make a sundial out of just about any materials once you know the parts needed and the orientation. Here’s a great kids book, Anno’s sundial to supplement the experience.
- Star gazing-need I say more?
There are guides and apps to accompany this activity as well, one of my favorite apps that works well is: Night Sky
- Design and engineer a stick fort.
If you are around some trees this summer, who doesn’t love the challenge of building a fort made of sticks!
- Kiwi Co and Tinker Crate kits.
For those rainy days, well, we all have those things we love to do inside as well. My daughter has really taken to the Kiwi Co and Tinker Crate kits. These can be purchased individually or as a subscription for deliveries every six months.
If you are an adult who’s interested in connecting your child with nature and giving them experiences they will cherish for a lifetime, here are a few books to fuel your own fire on this topic.
- The Geography of Childhood by Gary Paul Nabhan (1995). Nahban argues for the need for children to fulfill through exploring wild places.
- Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv (2008) makes a strong case for the need to get children connected with the natural world as our very future may depend upon it. Louv writes, “Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and therefore for learning and creativity.”
- And finally, you’re never too old to learn and keep your own nature journal. You may recall Claire Walker Lesley, who visited Bullis in 2017-18, has an updated version of her famous Keeping a Nature Journal (3rd Ed. 2021).
So if you can get your child outside this summer, you will not only be giving them a break from the screens, but also feeding into their natural instincts to observe, wonder, listen to and connect with the world around them. Be brave, be curious, and get outside!
Mark Walter strives to get students excited to learn and connect with the natural world through the lens of science and STEM. He has taught Lower School STEM to grades K-5 and serves as the K-12 STEM director for the Bullis Signature Programs. Entering his eighth year at Bullis, he returns to Lower School as a 3rd-grade homeroom teacher with a renewed sense of creativity, wonder, and empowerment for the students. Mark loves animals, food, family, and friends, and getting outdoors whenever possible.
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