Nature in Your Classroom

If you just can't get outdoors, bring nature inside!
Student love exploring real objects. Provide natural objects such as pine cones, acorns, leaves, plants, and animals.

Ideas for creating a nature-friendly classroom

How to collect natural items
boy sitting at table with skulls, deer horns
  • Collect items no bigger than your hand. Optional: Give young students paper lunch bags. If it doesn’t fit in the bag, it’s too big. (You may want to give younger students clear plastic baggies, which allows you to see what they’re collecting. Using paper lunch bags reduces plastic waste.)
  • Don’t collect live animals or whole live plants.
  • It’s OK to pick a few leaves, but don’t uproot plants.
  • It’s OK to pick up pieces of bark and twigs that are on the ground, but don’t remove them from a living tree.
  • It’s OK to pick up garbage and bring it to a central collection place (garbage bag). Have kids report broken glass or other hazards to an adult.
  • Don’t touch scat – but show it to other people if it’s interesting!
  • Know where the plants with burs (“stickers”) are located. Avoid those areas. If kids get burs on clothes, tell them to put the burs in the garbage bag. (Burs are seeds-don’t throw them on the ground unless you want more bur plants there later.)
  • Know what poison ivy looks like and where it grows. All parts of the plant are toxic all times of the year.
Create a classroom nature corner
table covered with birch bark, stick, pine cones and book

Designate an area of your classroom for exploration about the natural world. Bring the outside in!

Preschool ideas

  • Provide costumes of animals and plants that live in your area.
  • Set out puppets or models of animals and plants that live in your area.
  • Provide tree building blocks.
  • Make a sensory table filled with corn, water, sand, or even snow!
  • Collect or build child-friendly instruments that replicate natural sounds (e.g., rainsticks, drums, or birdcalls.)
  • Provide fat crayons without wrappers to make rubbings of natural objects like leaves and bark.
  • Arrange “bouquets” of branches for children to explore. Fragrant evergreen branches are especially welcome in the winter.
  • Grow potted plants, such as rosemary, mint, thyme, basil, sage, and lettuce.
  • Set up a woodworking center with a child-size workbench equipped with a vise. This is a great way to develop large and small motor skills, solve problems, encourage creativity, build self-esteem, and practice social skills. Introduce tools one at a time; by the end of the year, the center could feature:
    • Safety googles
    • Sandpaper and files in a variety of grades and sizes
    • Wood glue
    • Lightweight hammers
    • Large-headed nails
    • Short screwdrivers
    • Large screws
    • Hand-drills
    • Pliers
    • Tape measures, rulers, and squares
    • Carpenter pencils and notebooks
    • Vises or C-clamps
    • Small whiskbroom and dustpan for cleanup
  • Project Learning Tree’s Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood book has more rules and suggestions for young children to build something useful with real tools.

Elementary/Middle School ideas

  • Set out baskets of nature items: acorns, pussy willows, tree cookies, interesting stones, pine cones. Collecting eggs, feathers, and nests for educational purposes requires a permit.
  • Create a Terrarium
  • Provide books about nature. Project Learning Tree (PLT) has a great literature listing.
  • Learn about animals and plants for your area.
  • Make and display a poster of items students collect in the schoolyard. Class nature poster lesson
  • Display and label "trail treasures" your students find when outside.
  • Display drawings, paintings, and other artwork
  • Learn about nature sounds by playing bird songs
  • Get a class pet. Pets can help children get over their fear of animals and allow students to observe behavior, physiology, and habitat. Tips for keeping classroom animals.
  • Hang up some colorful nature posters.
Set up a nature exchange

Set up a Nature Exchange

A Nature Exchange is a student or whole-school activity that allows kids to trade things made by nature, such as rocks, shells, fossils, pine cones, or bones. Trading is based on points awarded by teachers and given to student traders. In searching for things to collect and trade, students will learn how to observe, ask questions, and think independently. Students will also learn conservation ethics, practice a culture of care, and learn about laws protecting natural items.

How it works

  • Students bring items for nature to school. The teacher asks the student:
    • What is it?
    • What do you know about it?
    • What makes it similar to other items like it?
  • The teacher awards the student points based on the traders’ enthusiasm, initiative, or other criteria.
  • Track points on a board, in a book or other method that allows both the teacher and student to see how many points each child accrues.
  • Students can use their points to trade their item for another already in the exchange, or bank them for later use.
  • Teachers may want to discuss with students about not trading protected, rare, or endangered species, or objects of historical value

Sample trading rules for students

  • Only items from nature are allowed.
  • Take only one of each of the different things you find. You will get the same number of points for 1 item as you would for 10.
  • Do not collect nests, eggs, or feathers.
  • No stuffed animals, taxidermy, pelts, dead animals (except insects), or live animals.
  • Rubbings, drawings, sculptures, books, stories, photographs are OK depending on how easy they are to store or trade.

Sample point ranges

  • Dragonfly (50 – 100 points)
  • Snail shell (20 – 70 points)
  • Polished stone (50 – 100 points)
  • Gravel from the driveway (5 – 10 points)
  • Spruce cone (10 - 20 points)
  • Dinosaur bone (1,000 points)
Attract wildlife outside your window
cardinal at bird feeder
  • Plant native trees and shrubs that bear nuts, berries, or fruit. Tell the grounds staff to not mow in your planted area. Trees and shrubs planted for wildlife will attract wildlife all year long (even in urban areas) without having to buy and provide birdseed.
  • If you want to feed birds, see these bird feeding tips.
  • Set out a heated water dish and keep it filled with water all winter.
  • Keep a camera, binoculars, and field guides handy.
  • Set up a whiteboard for recording observations and dates.
Set up a nature reading area
bookcase with large number of reading books.

Books and magazines are a great way to connect readers to nature. Here are some suggestions.

Use the windows, ceiling, floor, and airwaves

Use windows

  • Set up a sundial next to the window. Teach students to mark the time.
  • Set up a shadow observation area. Place a stick or ruler in a vase that’s on a large sheet of white paper. Make sure the vase and paper never moves from its spot. Over the course of the year, mark the length on the ruler's shadow on the paper at noon. Students will find that objects cast longer shadows in winter than they do in spring or fall.
  • Establish a potted herb garden for pleasant indoor smells. Rosemary, mint, thyme, basil, and sage grow well indoors. If you don't get enough sun, you can install a Grow-light above the planting box. A key to growing herbs indoors is keeping the roots moist by placing pots in a tray filled with rocks and water.
  • Set up an indoor vegetable garden. Lettuce grows quickly, and the class can eat it.
  • Place solar-related experiments in the sill. Good PLT activities include, "Sunlight and Shades of Green," "How Do Plants Grow," and "Air Plants."
  • Hang up a weather calendar. Set up a thermometer outside the window, record temperatures, and make weather observations.

Use your ceiling

  • Make mobiles out of twigs and other natural objects and hang from the ceiling.
  • Arrange glow-in-the dark stars into real constellations and stick to the ceiling.
  • Hang cut-outs of clouds, birds, bats, bugs, and other airborne inhabitants.

Use the floor

  • Have students cut out animal tracks and tape to the floor in the pattern the animal would make.
  • Use tape or other craft supplies to create a stream across your floor. Tape grey paper “rocks” to create stepping stones for crossing your classroom creek.

Use the airwaves and provide nature sounds

When students arrive, play a different animal song for each day of the week. For example, play cardinal songs on Mondays, play chickadee calls on Tuesdays, etc. After a while, students will be able to identify the songs in nature.

Ready to head outdoors?