Why Explore Nature?

In recent years, youth have been spending less time outdoors and are becoming relatively unacquainted with the happenings of the natural world. They are less acquainted with natural habitats and living things compared with previous generations. This appears to be particularly true for urban youth. Although they may have some exposure to the natural world by way of schooling, this is often very limited. Few teachers are able to take students outdoors on frequent field trips to observe changes in their immediate surroundings, and fewer arrange field trips to a forest or a pond. Various efforts in recent years have been started to address this problem. Exploring Trees and Ponds: Informal Life Science Activities for Youth has been designed to provide a way of structuring an extended exploration of the natural world for youth (ages 10–14 years) in informal programs with particular attention to trees and pond organisms. With some adaptation and additional content, the activities can be carried out in the context of formal schooling. The activities can also be supplemental to environmental education projects that address environmental problems.

Out-of-school programming offers a special opportunity to engage youth in exploring the natural world. The informal nature of the activities and the fostering of close relationships between adults and youth provide a situation where youth can explore in a more open-ended manner. As they grow more comfortable with the activity leader and other youth, they will feel more open to trying new things and developing new skills.

There are several special features about the approach taken in Exploring Trees and Ponds. The overall structure is designed for extended explorations. Long-term observations need to happen if youth are going to gain a real sense of the happenings in the natural world. They need time to witness these happenings and process them in a meaningful way. These experiences include indoor as well as outdoor investigations. Special attention is given to promoting drawing and the use of digital cameras. Research in recent years suggests that the use of visual representations are an essential part of learning. Digital cameras provide an engaging way of recording observations and providing starting points for generating and answering research questions. The activities in Exploring Trees and Ponds are meant to be models for carrying out investigations with youth; they are meant to ultimately move youth toward generating their own questions and designing their own investigations.