Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Ask the BEETLES: Nature Exploration With Young Students

Question from a Program Leader: “I run an outdoor education program for families with children ages 2-5. I love everything you all do and am working on incorporating the learning cycle strategies onto our lessons more.  I am reaching out to see if you could suggest any resources or have examples of utilizing ‘I notice, I wonder’ with early childhood audiences, and how to make adjustments.”

BEETLES approaches to student and nature-centered learning can work well with younger students with some scaffolding and some understanding of child development. Here are some tips, strategies and ideas from the BEETLES team, outdoor science program leaders, and early childhood specialists at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

Stages of Childhood Development

Younger children are becoming aware of their senses and developing their language. 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds are very tactile, just learning how things feel and learning the words for different textures and sensations. Students at this age are also developing visual perception and acuity, learning how to understand what their eyes are seeing, and often just beginning to learn words for colors. 4 and 5-year-olds can start talking more about visual perception and what they can see.

According to The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), “Young infants (0 to 9 months) seek security. Mobile infants (8 to 18 months) are eager to explore. Toddlers (16 to 36 months) are working on their identity; they want to know who they are and who’s in charge. Preschool children learn best when they have positive and caring relationships with adults and other children; when they receive carefully planned, intentional guidance and assistance; and when they can safely encounter and explore many interesting things in their environment.

In child care programs, relationships with families are critical. Caring teachers and caregivers learn from the experiences, knowledge, culture, and childrearing beliefs of family members.

(Read the Full NAEYC Position Statement on Developmentally Appropriate Education to learn more about how to structure teaching to different development stages.)

Scaffolding observation skills in I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of

“With the littlest students, they could say ‘I see’ and, with examples, say things like, ‘I see the leaf is green AND yellow. I see it is TWO colors! [With] ‘It Reminds Me Of,’ The connections the kids made were amazing, and the teachers loved it. One [student], around age 5, told me that his leaf reminded him of a tree, and that the long stem was like that long part of the tree and the lines (veins) on the leaf were like the branches of the tree.”  -Teresa Martin, Environmental Education and Curriculum & Evaluation, Alice Ferguson Foundation

I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of is a great activity that works with a wide range of ages. It teaches a simple framework for learning how to observe, ask questions, and make connections in nature, and can drastically change a group’s experience of outdoor science (for the better) by giving them a way to engage and learn from their surroundings. This framework can be used for anything, not just looking at nature– reading text, looking at art, trying to understand ours and others’ feelings, etc. We routinely use it with adults, and with a few modifications, it works well with younger students, too. Younger students can often easily start using the sentence frames “I Wonder” and “It Reminds Me Of. “I Notice” can be a harder word and concept for them to understand and apply. To scaffold observation skills:

  • Talk about the senses, explaining you will use your senses as observation toolkits. For example: “We are going to observe things we find around us. That means we’re going to use our senses as tools to help us learn. We will use our eyes to look at shapes and colors, our sense of touch to feel things, our ears to listen, and our noses to smell.” (Be clear: students should not use their sense of taste in this setting)

“I’ve used visuals with this group- a big eye for ‘I Notice/I See,’ a big question mark for “I Wonder.’ Kids within this age range naturally want to tell stories (i.e. ‘One time…’). I provide them with opportunities to represent their observations, questions, and connections in any form in a field journal, then share and discuss in partners and groups, using the specific sentence frames to focus them. Simple hand lenses or binoculars transform the exploration experience, because they focus children on the moment and the natural phenomena”  – Monique Navarro, Education Coordinator, Channel Islands National Park

  • Focus on one sense or category of observations at a time. Share this intention with students: e.g. “Right now we’re looking at everything around us and the colors we see.”
  • Young children are building out categories (like size, colors, textures) through language development and touch. Ask questions to help students think about contrasting categories and classifying things. Ask, “Is this big or small? Is it rough or smooth?”

“The tactile experience is very appealing at this age. And, they LOVE becoming an official explorer by wearing a hand lens necklace.” – Julie Hartman, Slide Ranch

  • Stay with the category or sense you are focusing on. Younger students are just beginning to build and understand categories, so if you are talking about colors, don’t suddenly start asking them about sizes. Stay on colors, then intentionally switch to another category or sense (i.e. “Now we are going to look at size. Is this leaf bigger or smaller than the tree?” or “Now we are going to listen with our ears. What do you hear?”)

“When you give instructions, give examples of how students might follow them by thinking aloud and narrating your actions. For example: ‘OK, I’m going to observe this leaf. I notice it is green, and when I touch it, it feels pokey.’” – Allison Billman, Director of Early Elementary Curriculum, Lawrence Hall of Science

  • Act out or show how to follow instructions. When you ask “how does it feel,” show what it is like to touch the object. If you ask “What do you hear,” touch your ears so the students connect the word “hear” with the part of their body they use to sense sound.
  • Scaffold observations even more with very young children. Say, “I see this leaf is green, and this one too. How about this one, is it green too?” Very young students (ages 2-3) are often just learning the words for colors. Go step by step, repeating a color or other descriptive word as you refer to different objects.
  • Use words like “curious” to describe your actions, and students’ behavior when you are exploring nature. This will help students to connect what they are doing to an idea of what curiosity is.

Other BEETLES Activities & Recommended Resources for Younger Students

Similar scaffolds can work with several other BEETLES student activities to make them accessible for younger students. See the text below for accommodations for specific activities or types of activities.

Discussion Routines: When using discussion routines like Turn & Talk with students, keep discussion questions simple. Ask students about observations they have made, or experiences they have had that relate to what you are doing in the moment, and don’t give too much time before moving on to the next question. To use Walk & Talk successfully with younger students, tell students to find a partner to walk and talk with (don’t worry about setting up two lines of students, assigning partners, and orchestrating rotations, which can be unnecessarily challenging for young students. The informal version works great, too!).

Exploration Routines: Hand Lens Introduction is a great activity to begin with. It is a simple, short way to teach students how to use their hand lens and give them practice using the tool. Be sure to use Hand Lens Introduction before Exploration Routines or Focused Explorations, so students are ready to use their hand lenses during future nature explorations.

In the Exploration Routine Discovery Swap, students begin by observing several things within a category (like leaves, insects, etc.), following their interest, then choose one item in the category to focus on and study in depth. Then, students share what they have learned with each other. This structure of activity supports younger students in practicing making observations and classifying parts of nature into categories, and could be a great follow up to I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of. Simplify discussion questions to focus on things students have directly observed and experienced, and scaffold instructions by acting out what it will look like for students to follow them.

Focused Explorations: Younger students could participate in many of the initial phases of some BEETLES Focused Explorations. In these early phases of BEETLES activities, students often observe one facet of nature, like lichen, spider webs, or fungi, noticing differences and similarities between samples they find. This can reinforce key skills of observation younger students may just be starting to develop. For example, in Spider Exploration, students look for different shapes of spider webs, describing what they notice about each type. While some of the discussion questions in the activity would be too advanced for younger students, they can deepen their observation skills by practicing looking for different shapes of webs and discussing what they saw. Spider Exploration and Fungus Exploration have a field guide students can use to identify what they find. Each of these field guides have a front page with just pictures, intended for younger students.

Sensory Activities: The sensory activities in the BEETLES Professional Learning Session Making Observations is another resource for ways to focus younger students on using their senses.

Night Programs: Night Hike Scavenger Hunt and How Big, How Far could also work for night programs with young learners. Make sure to choose a simple set of scavenger hunt cards for younger students, and to pick just one or two new vocabulary words to introduce and use throughout the activity.

Including Parents & Families

Including parents and caregivers in programs with early childhood audiences is an opportunity to model ways of engaging with nature that families can do together. See the BEETLES Guide, Preparing Chaperones for Outdoor Science, for talking points to talk about student and nature-centered education, and to give parents and family members guidance on how they can support the goals of your program when they are present as chaperones.


“Above all, be present. Young children are VERY in the moment, so meet them there and give them time to follow what they are interested in. They will have ideas of where they want to go and what they want to look at, so let them follow their impulses. This will give them confidence and buy-in to want to keep exploring.” – Cassia Izaac, School Programs, Lawrence Hall of Science


2 Responses to “Ask the BEETLES: Nature Exploration With Young Students”

Craig StrangSeptember 28th, 2018 at 12:29 am

What a sweet little article. Most of our curriculum development at Lawrence Hall of Science is focused on very specific grades and content aligned to standards. We typically develop, for example, a module for 5th grade life science on ecosystems. We develop, test and revise with just that grade, so went it’s finished we know it will work! BEETLES is different. Since most outdoor science programs work with a variety of ages/grades, and most residential programs serve 4th-8th grade, we’ve developed “activities” that work across a wider range, but mostly in that upper elementary and middle school grades. So, it’s really helpful to hear from the field how you might adapt our materials for younger and older audiences. Thanks so much to Teresa, Monique, Julie, our own Halleague Allison (get it, halleague, from The Hall?), and our very own BEETLE, Emilie, for putting this together!

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