The pandemic has placed stressors upon students, parents and educators alike. What if we could engage students more deeply in the books that they are reading while helping them reduce stress? Research overwhelmingly shows that spending time in nature and exposure to natural elements reduces stress and promotes mental and physical health. Exploring the natural world in which books are set can help students achieve some of the benefits of exposure to nature. It also helps readers make cross-curricular connections and allows students’ natural curiosity to drive them to seek out non-fiction resources.
Below are six easy ways for you and the students in your life to get started.
- Begin by collecting several books in which a significant part of the action takes place outdoors. Research shows that students are more engaged when they have a choice in their reading. Allowing them to select a book with a setting that they’d like to explore also sets the groundwork for their natural curiosity to drive their inquiry.
- Ask students to read with nature in mind. As students read, invite them to take note of details of the natural world of the book’s setting. What do the characters see, hear, smell, taste and touch from the natural world in that setting? How do these interactions affect character development, story arc, plot, pacing, and other elements of the story?
- Take nature journaling to the next level. Begin by providing students with a notebook and challenge them to create a day-by-day or week-by-week nature journal from the point of view of a fictional character in the book they have selected. Students can make notes about what would most likely be of interest to the character at each point in the story action. Students can use non-fiction resources to answer questions about plants, animals, geography, weather and other elements of the fictional character’s world at that time of year in that location. They can add drawings and notes about those elements to their journals. You also might challenge students to consider how these elements affect the main character’s ability to achieve their goal. For example, does the weather present an obstacle? If the character is surviving on their own in the natural world, what plants or animals present opportunities or contain threats? If the setting of the book is similar to the natural world found in your community, you might invite students to go on a field to a local park to explore that environment and add to their nature journals.
- Invite students to create a diorama of their favorite part of the natural world of the book’s characters. As students read, you might invite them to select their favorite part of the natural world described in the story. You can challenge students to create a diorama of that setting, with footnotes about how each element in the setting affected character development, plot, pacing, and the overall story arc. This provides additional motivation to access non-fiction resources and to expand student knowledge.
- Create a guided outdoor scavenger hunt featuring natural elements mentioned in the book. Many items are common across ecosystems. You might select several items mentioned in the book your students are studying and create a scavenger hunt of those items. For example, in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, the main character created whistles out of willow, made salt from hickory limbs, and ate parts of wild violets. You might challenge students to see if they can find those things at a local park or other natural area where they have permission to take small samples of natural materials. You can find an example of a book-inspired scavenger hunt list here.
- Create a discovery center and a tradition of a nature wonder hour. Once students have found items from their scavenger hunt, they can create a discovery center to house them. You can make a discovery center out of an old printer’s tray, a box, a basket, or another item that you have on hand. Invite students to consider the questions they have about those items. They can then explore answers in non-fiction resources during a regular Nature Wonder Hour. That time can be as long or as short as you’d like. The key is to let student curiosity guide their research. You can find a sample set of questions here.
Whatever activities you do, I hope that you and the students in your life enjoy diving even more deeply into the world of book settings. You can learn more about new releases at https://fromthemixedupfiles.com/mixed-up-files-book-lists/ and find a list of books by Mixed Up Files contributors at https://fromthemixedupfiles.com/about/contributor-books/. I’m wishing you and the students in your life lots of reading and outdoor adventures.