Exploring the 5 Senses on Nature Walks
Nature as Inspiration for Oral Storytelling with Preschoolers
by Nicole Fravel
When other preschool teachers and parents hear that I run a nature school, their first reaction is “how wonderful!” The second reaction is usually a set of questions about how we spend all of that time in the forest, what we are learning and what we need to bring into the forest to aid that learning. My philosophy is that the forest and the children themselves provide most of what we need, so we don’t bring that much with us on our excursions. I always have a first aid kid and water, and sometimes that is it.
There are times, however, that we do add tools to our forest play. I use the term “tools” loosely to mean anything that can enhance our experiences in the woods. A tool could be a guidebook, crayons and paper, magnifying glasses or even an actual tool, like a trowel or a rake. Usually, the ideas for tools come from what the children are playing, noticing, or expressing interest in. For example, if the children start using bark pieces as treasure maps for pirate play, we might introduce traditional maps and compasses.
At the beginning of the school year, I introduce tools to focus on the 5 senses. As we are getting to know each other and the routines at Wildwood Nature School, these tools help children learn how to observe and explore in nature and, hopefully, to transfer those skills to other areas inside and out of school.
Preschoolers are generally tactile by nature. They learn through hands on experiences, touching, tasting, and manipulating the world. They don’t need much encouragement to touch everything along the trail. The children love to find furry lamb’s ear leaves and soft baby maples. They touch rough bark and collect spindly helicopter seeds.
One of my favorite activities to jumpstart a conversation about texture is to bring playdough into the forest. Each child gets a small ball of playdough to carry on our hike. As we walk, we press the playdough into the bark of trees or onto leaves to make impressions. Then we talk about the correlation between what the impression looks like and how something feels.
A number of years ago, a parent led us on a tree identification walk around our site. We have plenty of evergreens surrounding the school and were noticing that they were not the same kinds of trees. We have Douglas firs, cedars, hemlocks, and spruce. The parent taught us that one way to tell the difference between the trees is to rub the needles between your fingers to release the scent. For example, hemlocks can smell sour and unpleasant – much like the poisonous plant from which it gets its name – while firs and spruce have a citrusy smell.
A beginning of the year smell exploration is to mix our own “smell jars.” While on a hike, the children are encouraged to “scratch and sniff.” Smells that they like (leaves, berries, buds, bark) go into their own small container. Repurposed empty plastic spice containers work well. After the hike, the children choose short, thick sticks to crush the contents of their jars to release the smells, adding a teaspoon or so of water if necessary. Before capping the jars, we sniff each others’ creations and talk about the aromas we are sensing from each. At the end of the day, each child gets to take home their own personally curated smell.
I often introduce the sense of hearing with “The Listening Walk,” by Paul Showers, about a young girl listening to sounds in the neighborhood as she and her dad walk to the park. Afterwards, we go on our own listening walk, paying attention to the leaves crunching under our feet, birds twittering in the trees and planes passing overhead. Sometimes we try to count how many different sounds we can hear.
To enhance our listening, we make “listening tubes” out of recycled cardboard toilet paper and paper towel tubes that we hold next to our ears to focus on listening. We usually decorate the tubes with craft tape to practice tearing and cutting, but any art medium will do. We keep the tubes at school and bring them out throughout the year to listen to sounds at different seasons. Children swear they can hear mice under the ground, bees buzzing and sometimes even what their parents are doing at home or work at that very moment!
Vision is the most relied upon sense for most children, so they don’t necessarily need much encouragement to use it. Instead, like with the listening tubes, we try to use some tools to focus their attention. Small frames made from four craft sticks glued together to make a square help and magnifying glasses help children look closely at one small area at a time. The tools can also be used to focus attention on places children are not usually looking – on the ground and above their heads. We borrowed an idea from Hoyt Arboretum to wear magnifying glasses on strings around our necks for easy access.
Taste is the most difficult sense to cover on a hike, and the decision to do so depends on the maturity of the children in the group and the teachers’ own comfort with exposing children to the idea of safe foraging. At Wildwood Nature School, we restrict our foraging only to the garden and the schoolyard, where we have fruit trees and berries. Even in those contained and controlled areas, the children are instructed that they must ALWAYS gain permission from an adult before tasting anything – even the herbs and berries that they have sampled every day.
Other programs have different parameters, and there are indeed ways to forage safely in the forest. Dandelions are probably the easiest and safest edible plant to recognize, and as a child my friends and I enjoyed the lemony tang of wood sorrel. Another option for safe tasting is to go ahead and let the children forage while on a hike, but not to eat anything along the trail. Once the group returns to school or on the next day, after the ingredients have been inspected by adults, the group can make pine needle tea, shortbread cookies or another forager recipe.
When using the senses to observe in the forest, I find it easiest to guide children to focus on one sense at a time. Whether you bring tools to aid the exploration or just teach children how to use their own bodies as tools, showing them how to gather information through their five senses is an important life skill. Through these experiences, children learn to make observations and use the information they gather to make inferences about their world.