MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > Discovering Nature in our Neighborhood: An Investigation of Natural Communities around Our School

Discovering Nature in our Neighborhood: An Investigation of Natural Communities around Our School

Natasha Rubenstein, Ames Elementary School, Saint Paul, MN.
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In this unit, students will examine the natural surroundings through the seasons, around our school and identify micro-communities of plants, insects, and other animals through walks and nature journaling. Their work will be integrated with Nonfiction Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies Curriculum. Students will each contribute to the writing/illustration of a Nonfiction Narrative Class Book using their observations and research findings about specific organisms' interrelationships.. Through interviews, students will also gather oral history from their families or other resources through interviews to explore their ancestors' experiences of connection with the land and present this information to a larger school community through a project of their choice.

Learning Goals

This Unit is designed for students to have an opportunity to create their own relationship to nature in an urban environment familiar to them and to learn facts about the interrelationships of life in that area. Through close examination of a small area and research into the organisms and relationships there, they will develop observation, questioning, measuring, recording, research, writing and speaking skills through inquiry based learning. Higher order thinking skills such as knowledge, analyzing, and synthesis will be used. Methods of inquiry and ways of presenting their work will include and tap into Multiple Intelligences. In addition, students will explore stories of relationships that their family members/ ancestors/cultures have held with the natural community through learning skills of interviewing, recording, and presenting their findings. Through sharing in our school community students will learn about various cultures relationships with communities of nature.

Vocabulary words include: community, diversity, habitat, features, interact, adapt.

Concepts include:
- Structures of different animals/plants serve different functions in the growth, survival and reproduction.
- Plants and animals interact with one another in various ways besides providing food.
- Changes in a habitat can be harmful or beneficial to plants and animals.

Context for Use

The activities in this unit can be tailored to grades 2—6. The portion that class size affects most would be the outdoor walks and journaling time as it will be critical that students practice safe, on task work and be in the teacher's view at all times. Assistance during this time by another adult such as the ELL, SEM, Special Ed. Teacher would be preferable. This unit includes outdoor journaling around the school building and neighborhood, combined with integrated instruction in Reading, Writing, Science, Social Studies and Math, use of technology to research and print. The length of each project (Class book and Connection to Nature Story) each would take a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks. The Class Book could be limited to a month, a season, or a year depending on the amount of time available and

Equipment: a personal science journal, Magnifying glasses, clear tape to preserve samples (i.e. dried leaves or blossoms) on journal pages, class digital camera to capture pictures of the organisms found. Animal/Insect/ Plant/ Tree Field guides would be helpful.

Three valuable reading resources include:
  • Under One Rock: Bugs, Slugs and Other Ughs by Anthony D. Federick. Dawn Publications, 2001 (Read Aloud to introduce Unit prior to nature journaling)
  • Nature in the Neighborhood (Mentor Text for the Class Book) ISBN 0-618-35215-5
  • Tales with Tails: Storytelling the Wonders of the Natural World by Kevin Strauss ISBN 1-59158-269-5 (This book gives examples of Nature connection stories from various cultures).
It would be very valuable to have storytellers from the African American, Hmong, Mexican or other cultures represented by student backgrounds to come in and share stories about connections with the land and nature.

Skills or concepts that should already be mastered: have prior knowledge with vocabulary connected with animal and plant life cycles, needs, and basic parts, a base understanding of what a community is, be able to measure using a ruler, work with a partner or independently drawing and writing sentences at a second grade level.

Subject: Environmental Science, Biology:Diversity, Ecology
Resource Type: Activities:Classroom Activity
Grade Level: Intermediate (3-5)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science

Description and Teaching Materials

This unit consists of two main projects. In the first, students will learn to keep a nature journal on a regular basis and then focus on one space of their choice around our school where they have identified a plant/animal/insect "community" as they learn about asking questions as a scientist, research animal/plant life, and learn about what "community" means. The teacher will provide mini lessons in Language Arts, Science, and Math to support concepts that will be necessary for this inquiry process. These journal entries will become the basis for their contribution towards a Class Book that informs others about facts on the individual life forms studied, as well as a narrative describing the interrelationships we discovered around our school periphery. This class book will include features of a nonfiction book as well as a glossary of nature words in the native languages of the students making it. (This could also become the base for a Nature Game consisting of fact cards about plants/animals/insects teaching the names of these creatures in Hmong,Spanish or other native languages of our students.

The second project requires students to direct their focus to our relationship with nature as humans from multicultural perspectives and discover stories of their family members/ancestors or culture's relationship with nature. How have we as humans worked/interacted with, benefit from and steward the nature we depend upon? After researching this oral history through family or other resources (storytellers from other cultures) students will present their learnings in a form of their choice (publish their story, drama, etc.)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Possible issues or concerns: safety ability to follow teacher instructions while outside during nature journaling, possible plant allergies may interfere with comfort level outside, ELL students will need extra support/scaffolding with new vocabulary words.

How this activity is different from what our class has done in the past: In the past our class has not participated in journaling outdoors. We have experienced identifying aquatic insects using magnifying glasses and reference sheets but not journaled about them. Studetns have done a unit on writing a nonfiction book about an animal through research and reading but not through direct inquiry. Students have also interviewed parents to find out more about members personally, but have not inquired about experiences directly related to nature. We also worked on a plant unit using compare and contrast strategies and journaling indoors.


Overview of student work: Pre and post tests, freehand quickwrites, regular journal entries and observations, narrative/nonfiction essay for Class Book based on class generated rubric, family/resource interview report and presentation of findings using Multiple Intelligences


Grade 3 4.B,C
also Reading & Lit> 1.B.,C, and Writing 2A,D, and Speaking, Listening, Viewing 3A,B and Social Studies A.

References and Resources