While we are born with curiosity and wonder and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned to flame again by awareness and an open mind.
- Sigurd Olson
Observation is how people learn; it involves using the senses to gain a deeper understanding of the world and to start asking questions about it. While this is a necessary skill for all successful adults, from scientists to artists, it is important for children as well. Active observation sparks curiosity and a sense of wonder to ask more deeply probing questions. This is a natural way to begin to understand the scientific process, by asking observation-based questions and seeking answers through simple experimentation. One question often leads to another and soon children find themselves connected to their world with a deep sense of place. The end result is a child that approaches the world with an open mind and a curious heart. Sigurd F. Olson, renowned environmentalist and writer, believed that approaching nature with love and curiosity is the only way to truly create a lasting environmental ethic, and thus to create civically engaged citizens. “What civilization needs today,” he wrote, “is a culture of sensitivity and tolerance and an abiding love of all creatures including mankind.” It may sound simple, but it all starts with learning to effectively observe the world.
At Phipps, while we often call it “being a plant scientists” or “solving a nature mystery”, but what we really mean is using observation skills. There are many ways that we encourage the growth of these skills; often, we create “tools” that allow us to turn learning a skill into a game. We make these tools out of repurposed materials, so they are both sustainable and easy to create at home. We encourage parents to duplicate these items and use them to work on observation skills at home with their child.
Here are some of the ways that we use these tools in our programs:
Using a view finder is a way to narrow and focus your eyes on a particular thing. Often used in teaching art or photography, looking through a view finder teaches students to look closely at a small area. View finders provide a frame and give children a defined space to observe. We make view finders out of repurposed cardboard; there couldn’t be anything simpler – just cut a 3″ square out of cardboard and then cut a 1″ square out of the middle and you have a view finder. We challenge our students to use view finders to observe and draw small squares of nature or to take “mental photographs” of what they see. Students can share their favorite “photographs” with the group and then use them to draw pictures, write stories or create art.
Our version of binoculars is really more of a fun view finder for toddlers. The same principles are true – narrowed and focused field of vision – but the idea is simpler; using binoculars is a way to encourage small children to use their senses with awareness. Very small children are natural observers, as this is a large part of development, but using a tool like binoculars is a way to teach the idea that we use our senses with purpose to observe. Even without any real context, they are fun tools; kids feel like explorers and love pretending they are on a safari. We make our binoculars out of repurposed toilet paper tubes and yarn. To begin, punch a hole in one end of each tube; glue the two tube together side-by-side, keeping the ends with the holes facing up; cut a piece of yarn to fit over your child’s head and tie one end into each of the holes; go play.
Color matchers turn observation exercises into a game; our students carry a color matcher through the Conservatory, trying to match the colors of the plants they see to those in the tool. We make our color matchers out of paint chips – simply gather the colors that you want and then punch a hole in the corner of each, attaching with a ring clip. We make version for younger and older children; for our youngest, we use chips of a single color and create a rainbow and for our oldest we create a rich palate of different nature colors for them to choose from. We also have some with brighter colors for matching with flowers instead of foliage. These are a fun companion to take on nature walks or even just into backyard.
We use colored “worms”, pieces of yarn or string, to teach about observation and adaptations. Worms can be made out of anything; we use donated yarn in various colors, but pipe cleaners, ribbon or string would also make great worms. We scatter our worms in the outdoor flower gardens and have children find them. To make this more fun, we have the children pretend to be mother birds who need to find worms to feed their babies in a “nest” that is carried by an instructor. Our oldest children even get clothespin “beaks” to make the task harder. Some worms are harder to find than others, based on how they blend into the garden, and this teaches an easy lesson about camouflage. For our toddlers, we scatter lots of bright colored worms and just have them find as many as they can. You can make this activity difficult or easy, based on your child, and can use it in the context of a lesson or just for fun. Any way that you use them, colored worms can help children learn to look closely and improve their observation skills.
Un-natural nature trail
An un-natural nature trail is an old nature center game that works well with older children. This take some preparation time, but can really be done anywhere outside – a yard or a trail both work. Gather a number of man-made items, from big to small, and scatter them around a prescribed area. Anything will work as long as it is obviously man-made; choose smaller items to increase the difficulty of the challenge. Tell children that they will be looking for things that don’t belong and have them spend a significant amount of time observing the site to find all the objects. This can be done numerous ways; children can count as many objects as possible, pick them up as they find them, or only look for a period of time and have to remember. This is a fun activity for a large group and could be a great party game as well.
Using tools is a helpful way to increase your child’s observation skills, but they are also pretty fun to use! Playing and learning together outside with your child is a great way to connect both of you to nature and to each other. To quote Olson, “Awareness is becoming acquainted with the environments, no matter where one happens to be.” Use your own sense of wonder and curiosity and spend some time outside with your child; it will have a lasting impact on your family and you world.
To read more about the importance of observation, check out our blog post.
Learn more about how we repurpose cardboard, plastic, and glass.
The above photos were taken by Cory Doman and Christie Lawry.