What can I observe in the outdoors?

NSTA Daily Do - Tuesday, April 7, 2020

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Welcome to NSTA's Daily Do

Teachers and families across the country are facing a new reality of providing opportunities for students to do science through distance and home learning. The Daily Do is one of the ways NSTA is supporting teachers and families with this endeavor. Each weekday, NSTA will share a sensemaking task teachers and families can use to engage their students in authentic, relevant science learning. We encourage families to make time for family science learning (science is a social process!) and are dedicated to helping students and their families find balance between learning science and the day-to-day responsibilities they have to stay healthy and safe.

Interested in learning about other ways NSTA is supporting teachers and families? Visit the NSTA homepage.

What is sensemaking?

Sensemaking is actively trying to figure out how the world works (science) or how to design solutions to problems (engineering). Students do science and engineering through the science and engineering practices. Engaging in these practices necessitates students be part of a learning community to be able to share ideas, evaluate competing ideas, give and receive critique, and reach consensus. Whether this community of learners is made up of classmates or family members, students and adults build and refine science and engineering knowledge together.


Spring is here! The month of April holds two days dedicated to the environment - Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 24) - which traditionally encourage students and their families to get outside and become more familiar with their local environment.

In today's task, What can I observe in the outdoors?, students and their families take a closer look at their local green spaces by describing the rocks, soil, moving water, plants and animals found there. Noticing the parts (components) of these green spaces (systems) using science and engineering practices and the thinking tools of systems and stability and change (crosscutting concepts), is the first step in understanding how these parts interact in an ecosystem.This task is based on "Exploring Your Environment" published in the NSTA Press BookTeaching Science Through Trade Books.

Note: Teachers and families should follow all national, state and/or local guidelines for being outdoors. If this task is being used in a classroom setting, teachers should check their district policies on taking students outside during the school day before heading outdoors.

NSTA Daily Do Teaching Science Through Trade Books

Engaging Children in Science through Children's Literature

Using children’s picture books is a great way to engage students in science learning because they create opportunities for students to share and build on their ideas and ask questions they can investigate at home and school. These investigations may raise new questions. As their curiosity about a subject builds, students are likely to want to read more (and more!) books thus starting the process over again.

Watch the video above to learn more about using children’s literature to engage students in science, finding recommendations for science trade books and books about STEM, and facilitating today’s Daily Do What can I observe in the outdoors?

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Investigation 1: A Rainbow Hunt

In this activity, students use their senses (seeing, listening, and smelling) to explore nearby natural areas. Students use a field journal to record their observations in words, drawings, and/or symbols. (Upper elementary students may use tables.)

A field journal is a notebook that allows scientists, naturalists, and everyone interested in nature to record or sketch what they see. Anything can be used to create a field journal - notebooks, sheets of paper stapled together or attached to the top of a book with a binder clip (makes a good surface for writing), etc. You may choose to print the field journal pages included in the How do I describe my environment? collection of resources, but using these pages is not required.


  • construction paper (variety of colors) cut into 2 in x 2 in squares
  • colored pencils, crayons or markers
  • field journal (1 per student)


Ask students to think about a green space familiar to them (back yard, local park, window box, tree square in the sidewalk, field, woods, etc.) and then share all of the things found there (grass, worms, birds, bugs, garbage, rocks, etc.) Ask them, "Does your green space have any smells? Are their any sounds you've heard coming from the green space?"

Ask students, “If we wanted to learn how an area (green space) changes over time, how could we figure it out?”

Students may suggest taking pictures of the area or going back and looking at the area. Tell students scientists do take pictures and revisit areas they are studying season to season and year to year. Then ask, "How do you think scientists (naturalists) compare the sights, smells and sounds in the area they are studying from one visit to the next visit to the next visit?" Guide students to the idea scientists or naturalists record what they see, smell and hear and may make sketches or drawings of things they are most curious about in their field journals. (You'll return to the idea of an area changing over time in the second investigation.)

Read the Story: I Took a Walk by Henry Cole

A young boy takes a walk through the woods on a spring day. During his journey, he makes observations about the different animals, birds, and insects he sees. Pages in this book feature exquisite paintings that fold out to be a double-page spread, which allows the reader to make their own observations about these animals.

Pause each time after you read “I saw..." and ask students to predict what the little boy saw (complete the sentence) before turning the page. When you finish reading the story ask, “Would you like to take a walk and look for different things like the little boy did? Do you think we'll find interesting things like the little boy did in the story?

Exploring the Outdoors:

Before heading outside, ask each student to choose one colored square of construction paper. Tell them this is the color of objects to look for on their walk. For example, if a student selects a red square, they will look for objects that are red or have red in them like flowers, leaves, rocks, etc.

Take your students for a walk. You might ask them to create a list of all the objects of their chosen color they find or to make quick sketches of each object in their field journal. After students have had a chance to explore, ask them to choose one of the objects they found to more closely observe.

Ask students to make as many observations of their chosen object as they can. Is it big or little, hard or soft, smooth or bumpy? How many leaves, petals, eyes, legs, wings, etc? Is it one color or many colors? What are the colors? Students may write their observations in their field journal independently or with assistance from an adult or older sibling.

Next, ask students to draw their object. Help ensure they draw the object large enough to add details. Compare the students' drawing with their observations and ask questions such as,

  • How can you show that your object is bumpy?
  • I see three leaves (legs, petals) on your drawing. How many did you say the object has? How could you add to/take out leaves (legs, petals) from your drawing?
  • You described your objects as soft. How might you communicate your object is soft in your drawing?
Students may want to communicate the color of their object using colored pencils, crayons or markers. Make sure coloring the drawing won't hide the details students included.

Students will likely need less time and scaffolding to create scientific drawings with practice.

Once students are back inside (and they've washed their hands), put them in small groups and ask them to take turns sharing their drawings. While sill in small groups, ask students to find things that are similar between their walk and the little boy's walk in the story. Then ask them to find things that are different between the two walks.

Describing and drawing their objects and then sharing them with a small group, may make students think of questions they want to answer. Record these questions and then ask, "How might we investigate these questions?" See the What can I observe in the outdoors? collection of resources for investigation ideas and/or books to read to help answer students' questions.

Investigation 2: Finding your Own Secret Place

Whether in the city, country, or suburbs, students observe the plants and animals in an area over time to describe how that area changes..


Locate an area close to home or school that students will be able to visit several times during the spring, summer, fall and winter.

Share the Story Secret Place by Eve Bunting

Secret Place is a beautifully illustrated book that tells the fictional story of a young boy who finds an area of outdoor tranquility in the heart of a big city. The book begins by describing the massive buildings, freeways, and smokestacks that are found near where he lives. However, through careful observation, the young boy finds what he describes as a concrete river, where a variety of different birds and animals come to nest and drink throughout the day. Other characters in the book have noticed this special place as well and explain, “Before the city grew there was wilderness.” The young boy refers to this place of quiet as his “secret place.”


After reading the Secret Place, connect the story to students’ own experiences through the use of "Text to Self-Connection" which is when a reader connects something that they are reading or hearing in the story to their own experiences of life. Consider using the prompt, "This story reminds me of the time I visited….”

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Venture outdoors:

Tell students they will be making observations about their own (or the class' own) "secret place" over time to see if and how it changes. Ask students, "We are going visit this place to make observations many different times. How will we be able to tell which notes and drawings we made during each visit?" (We could write things down about our visit next to our notes/drawings like the date, day, time, and weather.) Then ask, "How can we represent our observations in our field journals?" (writing, drawings, symbols, lists, tables).

Tell students where you are heading together (playground, creek, garden, woods, etc.) Ask, “What are some things you would expect to see in this environment? Why do you say so?"

Provide ample time for students to explore the "secret place," and describe the area in their field journal (what do they see, hear, and smell). Questions such as, “Has anyone looked up from where you are standing? Has anyone scrunched down and looked at the ground?" help children make observations from different points of view." Next, ask students to draw the secret place (or mark off part of the secret place with a rope or hula hoop if it is a large space).

Students' observations (writing, drawings, symbols, lists, tables) of the secret place will change as the secret place changes over time. It's likely changes in recorded observations will also become more detailed as students gain practice. An activity of longer duration could be the creation of an illustrated book similar to Secret Place that uses the student’s notes and drawings.

Writing Opportunities:

Students field notes and drawings can be used to support language arts lessons through writing samples, poems, and even letters requesting further information about the park or other area from local sources.

One example of students using the observations in their field journal to write a poem comes from Outdoor Science by Steve Rich. "Poetry in the Great Outdoors" encourages students to select something they closely observed and then create an acrostic poem. An acrostic poem uses each letter in a given word to start a sentence. The example provided below uses the word bugs.

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Background and Safety Notes


The investigations inspired by I Took a Walk and Secret Place bring students and their families outdoors and immerse them in their local environment - whether city streets or neighborhood parks or country fields or woods or carefully shaped and manicured suburbs. Like the characters in the books, students make observations about the things they find on their journeys and communicate those observations (through lists, notes, and drawings) to others. Students begin to understand how the individual parts of their environment interact with each other and their role in caring for this system.

There are more opportunities for students to interact with the stories than the ones described in the above investigations. Students can make additional observations and predictions based on the illustrations and prompting text. For example, while reading Secret Place, students could make predictions about the animals that visit the river and observations about the pictures of the city or compare the animals that visit a meadow to the ones that visit a wooded area. Providing students with these opportunities not only improves observation and communication skills, but also improves reading skills by helping students connect the text to their own world and experiences.

Safety Notes:

  • Students should keep a safe distance from all live animals. Do not let students try to touch, catch or pick up animals.
  • Students should not touch flowers or other plants.
  • Students should remain with an adult at all times. Do not let students run ahead or visit locations with water without adult supervision.
  • Students and adults should wash their hands after being outside.

NSTA Collection of Resources for Today's Daily Do

NSTA has created a What can I observe in the outdoors? collection of resources to support teachers and families using this task. If you're an NSTA member, you can add this collection to your library by clicking ADD TO MY LIBRARY located near the top of the page (at right in the blue box).

Check Out Previous Daily Dos from NSTA

The NSTA Daily Do is an open educational resource (OER) and can be used by educators and families providing students distance and home science learning. Access the entire collection of NSTA Daily Dos.


Teaching Science Through Trade Books introduces readers to 100 wonderful children's books in 50 chapters. Each chapter features two activities or investigations - one for early elementary students and one for intermediate elementary students. Today's task, How can I describe my environment?, is adapted from the chapter "Exploring Your Environment" by Christine Royce.

The book is co-authored by Christine Royce, Emily Morgan, and Karen Ansberry and is a compilation of columns that have appeared in the NSTA journal Science and Children.