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Oregon Family Magazine

Back to School in Nature

09/01/2021 ● By Beth Stein
Regardless of whether your child is returning to school in person or schooling at home this fall, nature can be part of your teaching team. There are countless ways you can prep for “back to school” as well as complement a traditional curriculum while having healthy outdoor adventures in nature.

With kids of any age, it’s fun to review (or even learn) the alphabet by looking for letters in nature. There are tons of Ts and Ys in the trees, for example. And what about all those Os in the water after you plop a rock? What letters can you find in your yard? On a walk in the park? On a bike ride by the river? A fun book to check out at the library that will get kids excited about going on an ABC walk or ride is Discovering Nature’s Alphabet (Krystina Castella and Brian Boyl). Nearby Nature is also working on its own collection of natural ABCs that may inspire young seekers (see Take pictures of your own finds so you can create your own book or poster eventually.

 For readers or kids ready to sound words out, you can make spelling activities entertaining by looking for natural things that begin with each letter of the alphabet. This can as simple as Air, Beetle, Cone, Dirt, and so on. Or you can dig deeper and go the library to find resources that will help you learn the ABC names of the trees, flowers, birds, or bugs you encounter on your adventures. Birds of Lane County (Alan Contreras) and Birds of the Willamette Valley Region (Harry Nehls, Tom Aversa, and Hal Opperman) are advanced identification guides that will be of interest to curious older children as well as adults. Other excellent guides to local critters include Dragonflies and Damselflies of Oregon (Cary Kerst and Steve Gordon) and Butterflies of Lane County (Marta Makarushka). Trees to Know in Oregon and Washington (Edward Jensen) will help you find names for our tall green natural neighbors and Oregon Wildflowers: A Children's Field Guide to the State's Most Common Flowers (Beverly Magley) will get you started on blooming discoveries.

As for the 123s, have little kids look for examples in nature of every number up to ten. How many living things in your yard or a nearby park can you find with two parts? What about three? Four? Five? How far up can you go? Inspire investigation by asking: How many wings on a bird? Points on a leaf? Legs on a spider? Petals on a flower? If you need more inspiration, check out the Numbers in Nature Scavenger Hunt in Nearby Nature’s Explore Activities collection at (April 2020). Note that other fun nature learning activities, especially for little ones, can also be found on in our Explore pages, including Color and Shape scavenger hunts (May and November 2020).

For math with older kids, look for examples of symmetry and balance in nature. Make crayon rubbings of tree leaves. Cut open fruit. Check out the shapes of cones or shells. Balance rock towers. And don’t forget that big kids can handle big numbers. Count the seeds on a sunflower or the rings on a tree stump. (Note that there’s an amazing old growth “tree cookie” at Mount Pisgah Arboretum that provides an impressive opportunity to count rings!) For some tasty fun, count the seeds in watermelon. And finally, remember that math in nature doesn’t have to happen sitting still. See how many times you can skip a rock in the river or how many steps it takes to climb Spencer Butte!

Finally, for days when you can’t get outside with your kids for nature schooling, start a collection of natural objects that they can use themselves as art materials to “naturebuild” everything from letter lessons to counting collections. Check out our tips for this project and more at Enjoy!

Beth Stein is the Executive Director of Nearby Nature, a non-profit education group dedicated to fostering appreciation of nature nearby and providing tools for ecological living. The organization hosts COVID-safe outdoor daycamps, school year programs, field trips, special events, and restoration projects. For more information, call 541-687-9699 or see