Back to School with Nature

It is that time of year again – back to school time! As children are picking out new backpacks and sneakers, teachers are preparing themselves and their classrooms for another year filled with growing and learning.

This year, as you are preparing your classroom, try to incorporate nature into the overall design and layout of your room. There are many ways that you can create a nature-themed classroom.

  • Find the crossover in your curriculum and nature! Review your benchmarks and objectives for ideas. Here are examples!
    • If the standard says, “count to 10,” then go outside and have your students search for 10 sticks in the school yard.
    • If the standard says, “retell a story,” then have circle time outside and read a book to your children. Have them act out the story in small groups.
    • If the standard says, “compare weight and length of various objects,” then have your students find three sticks or three leaves and line them up smallest to largest. Students could find three rocks and decide which is the lightest and heaviest.
    • If the standard says, “to read and spell words” with a certain sound combination, have students write these words in the sand / dirt or “paint” them on concrete with water.
  • Combine outdoor time with other activities
    • Can parts of your time together be modified to be done outside?

Classroom Design

Choose a nature-theme for your classroom and incorporate it throughout. Your theme can change as the seasons change. Your theme can simply be “nature.” Use your theme for bulletin boards, newsletters home, name tags for students, and cubby spaces. Base centers on nature, encourage students to share stories, objects and/or pictures based on nature. Display their contributions in your classroom.

Fill your classroom with living things such as plants, fish tanks, ant farms, or worm farms. Set up bird feeders outside your classroom windows for children to observe daily. Plant seeds (bean, sunflower, or other easily grown plants) together as a class and watch them grow.


As you prepare centers for the new school year, set up a center or table for nature objects – bring nature in. This is a center that can change as the season changes. At the beginning of the school year you can have objects such as flowers and leaves. As the year progresses into autumn you could have pumpkins, apples, or fall leaves. Encourage children to bring in natural objects that they find as well, treasures like an acorn, fun rocks, or sticks that they find. Allow children to look at, touch, smell, and explore the objects.

If a student finds a bird feather, nest or egg; this is a teachable moment to help them understand that some of nature’s things cannot be physically kept but enjoyed first hand or through drawings or photographs. This is never an easy concept to teach, but is federal law. In the early 1900s, birds were hunted for their feathers. The beautiful plumes and showy feathers were used to decorate women’s hats. Some species, like the snowy egret, had very low populations and the hunting of birds just for their feathers or through over-hunting, or shooting of birds that are predators hurt the population of many birds. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 that prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Nature objects are great for sensory tables as well. Leaves crunch, moss is soft, rabbit fur is fluffy.

Outside Play

students on logPlan outside time for students into your day every day as weather allows. Think of your outside play area as an extension of your classroom. Have a place for children to play with dirt, sand, sticks, and other natural objects. If you do not have an “outdoor classroom” you can still incorporate nature into your outdoor play area. Sandboxes can be filled with sand, dirt, or nature objects (or even mud!). Logs can be brought in for children to climb on, sit on, build a fort beside, or even to peel the bark back to look for insects.

You can plant flowers, seeds, and even small trees in pots and create your own “natural” setting. Put out bird feeders for children to watch birds eat. Provide children with binoculars, magnifying glasses, and other “explorer gear” during outside time. Remember that children are fascinated by even the smallest insect they find!

County Conservation Boards (CCB) and other non-formal educators

Iowa educators have wonderful resources in your local environmental educators. Staff from CCB, natural areas, zoos, aquariums, and museums are usually more than happy to come into your classroom and present programs on various subjects. These educators may have education animals suitable for early childhood programs – such as snakes, salamanders, and owls. They can also bring in animal furs, owl pellets, animal bones, and many other nature and wildlife items. These groups may also have various natural items that they may be able to loan you.

Find staff (likely a naturalist) from your local Iowa county conservation board or search this web page – Guide to Interpretive Services, maintained by the Iowa Association of Naturalists for folks in your county that includes camps, private nature centers, museums, and more!

Classroom Animals

Animals can be a wonderful resource to enhance learning and understanding in the classroom. Many children today have limited exposure to wildlife. Having an animal in the classroom allows children to observe and study an animal first hand. They allow for the observation of animal life cycles, characteristic, habitat needs, and behaviors. Classroom animals also teach students responsibility as they care for the needs of the animal. It teaches students to treat animals with respect, understand their needs and meet those needs.

Classroom animals must be chosen with care and consideration:

  • Safety of your students is first and foremost, chose an animal that is appropriate for the age-level of your students.
  • Consider the needs of the animal and whether or not you and your class will be able to provide what the animal needs.
  • Keep in mind the logistics of keeping a classroom animal. Is it an animal that can be left at school during weekends? What is the plan for holidays? Who is going to provide veterinary care if the need arises?
  • Is there a permit required to obtain and/or keep your chosen animal? What are the regulations of your school district? (For example, in Iowa, you may collect and keep tadpoles and frogs if you have a valid fishing license. Research your state laws and regulations before you obtain any animal.)

Fish, frogs, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and small mammals are common classroom pets. Also consider ant farms, worm farms, and insects. Consider having an “observation” tank or aquarium that can house various animals through the year on a revolving basis. For example, use it to observe grasshoppers for a week in the fall, spiders during the winter, and tadpoles in the spring.

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