Tired of Google Classroom? Try connecting to nature’s classroom

Published: January 22, 2021 · Updated: January 27, 2021

school girl learning from a computer Google Classroom concept Photo by Maria Symchych/Shutterstock

Remember when Google Classroom was just a portal kids used a few minutes a day to track assignments and share the writing pieces they typed at school? As schools have shifted to remote learning, kids across the world have taken up temporary residence on Google Classroom. Students and their teachers deserve credit for their flexibility in making everything from PE to ceramics work from home.

Parents have adapted too, even finding after-school virtual activities to fill in for in-person sports and classes. Drama class, piano lessons, origami workshop, religious school, all online. Holiday dinners with grandparents and cousins on FaceTime? Yep, that too. We know it’s too much screen time. And we know what’s missing most from Google Classroom and all our online interactions: nature’s classroom.

Just get outside

When my kids were younger, the three-hour trip to the lake used to be full of singing, I Spy, and a nap. Now, they are six, 11, and 14, and my husband and I have seemingly given up on limiting the screens on our road trips. A recent winter weekend was no exception: devices in use in our car included three phones, two iPads, three computers, three sets of air pods. Predictably, none of these fostered conversation or connection.

As soon as we unloaded the trunk, though, we layered up to go explore. My 14 year old, who hadn’t built a snowman in years, created a giant one with my husband. The kids slid on the ice that had frozen close to the shore, peering into a crystal-clear view of the sand and rocks, as the day’s rainfall sloshed around their boots. We tossed snowballs towards the lake, targeting the rock furthest from the jetty. The kids noticed the wide rings the snowballs left in the ice when they landed. They invented a new game we all played: tossing snowballs to make happy faces in the slush cover.

It’s easiest for parents to provide both their time and attention — and easiest for kids to accept — when spending time outdoors without digital distractions. To boot, the whole family can get the fresh air and exercise experts say we need even in colder weather. While impromptu adventures work perfectly, we’ve gathered the ideas below to foster learning in nature’s classroom.

Open-ended STEM learning

Sledding science. Challenge your kids to think beyond the shed full of inflatable tubes and foam sleds. Kids can create their own sleds from duct tape and cardboard, or experiment with garbage bags, plastic lids, baking trays, or other materials. This Science Through Sledding guide prompts discussion about gravity and friction while testing out different materials and theories, like whether heavier adults move faster than lighter kids, how to make a sled slipperier, and why sliders move faster and further the longer they ride the same track.

Build a catapult. Begin indoors by helping your kids construct a simple catapult model using popsicle sticks, and rubber bands. Identify the fulcrum point, discuss force and potential energy, and test out your machine with pom-poms or marshmallows and cups as targets. Then, challenge the family to scale the project to a bigger build outdoors, like this one that uses dowels and rubber bands or this giant catapult that uses sticks and elastic tubing.

Frozen bubble science. You’ll need extra cold (-10°C, 14°F) but calm weather to test out this magical bubble solution and an accompanying bubble blaster that the parent-bloggers at Steam Powered Family promise will make perfect frozen bubbles.  The tutorial uses household items (corn syrup, sugar, and dishwashing soap) and includes engaging prompts to consider the science behind this project.

No instructions-needed explorations:

  • Play a round of snow golf by burying tin cans in the snow to be your holes and using shovels and other gear as obstacles.
  • Measure your body length or a tree’s girth with snowballs.
  • Map your backyard. Younger kids can draw their home first, then map the surrounds. Older kids can use their footsteps and graph paper to attempt to draw to scale. Be sure to have fun naming your family’s special landmarks.

Winter wildlife observations

The pandemic pressed many families to discover trails and hikes beyond their usual outings. To add focus and education, bring along a printable guide like this exploring the senses scavenger hunt and discuss how to learn about nature by using sight, listening, smelling, and touch. Pack a surprise treat or let each hiker bring a snack to share for your sense of taste.

Geocaching reliably makes longer hikes a bit more interesting. Set the filter on the geocache app for geocaches that are accessible in winter or for those in Highlands East, the geocaching capital of Canada.

Let kids take photographs and use a guidebook, or download one of these tracking apps to identify trees and plants, birds, prints, scat, and more. On a night hike, try the app Sky Safari to help identify constellations.

Try to catch wildlife in action like snow geese migration, which you can track here. Check out ecological reserves, like the Maplewood Conservation Area in North Vancouver where you’ll find waterfowl in the winter, or Boundary Bay (Delta BC) with its blackbirds and European starlings.

Continue learning about wildlife by having kids consider how animals adapt to survive cold weather (migration, hibernation, insulation) and the ways humans do the same. This blubber experiment is often done in elementary school classrooms. Try it outdoors by filling a zipped bag with shortening, add another plastic bag, and have kids slip their hand in. Test the insulation against your warmest winter gear or a kid-designed hand-warming tool using this great glove and marvellous mitten challenge.

Art

Photography. Winter landscapes and dramatic natural light provide a perfect space for kids to practice their photography skills. You can discuss framing, timing, focus, and positioning while kids capture signs of wildlife and details set on icy backdrops. Photography helps kids develop concentration and attention to the perspective between viewer and subject. Make sure each child has a camera to use and set up a print (or digital) gallery of the photographer’s favourite works.

Ice sculptures, sun-catchers, and lanterns. On a chilly afternoon, have artists experiment with water and ice as a new media, then freeze overnight. Let kids fill balloons, assorted recyclables, muffin tins, and baking pans with water and food colouring. Add natural items like pinecones, evergreen springs, and citrus slices, or decorative items like pipe cleaners and beads. Add a loop of twine before freezing for hanging sun-catchers. To make lanterns, fill the space between two different sized cups and later add battery powered lights.

Reading nook

Pull out hammocks, blankets, cushions, and tents, and see if your kids can make an outdoor spot cozy enough to enjoy winter-themed books like these: Over and Under the Snow, Cozy and Winter Sleep: A Hibernation Story. Older readers might like Spy Ski School or Brian’s Winter.

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