Get Those Kids Out of the Room: Books to Get Your Students Outside and Immersed in Nature by Sarah Gross
The onslaught of testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act has resulted in schools pressuring teachers to prepare students for tests, and time spent outdoors has suffered as a result. Nature-deficit disorder is a term used to describe the loss that children and teens experience when they are not given opportunities to have direct contact with nature. Richard Louv coined the term when researchers began to realize the impact that nature had on children’s health and ability to learn. Unfortunately, one way that schools have found more time for academics is by cutting recess and physical education, according to the National PTA survey. Packed schedules after school, rigorous homework, and extracurricular activities too often keep my students inside, bound to their computers and cellphones, rarely giving them the time to be outside.
I am passionate about the need to do more interdisciplinary work in the classroom as a means to give more students the chance to spend time in nature. I get a lot of strange looks when I tell people I am pursuing a degree in biology. Once they get over their surprise they assume I am planning to leave the English classroom to teach biology. This could not be further from the truth. I really want to help English teachers feel comfortable bringing science into their classroom. This comes naturally to me, as does co-teaching with my biology colleague, but I’ve learned this is not the case for others. Science is scary for many “English people”, but there is no reason for this. Using novels and nonfiction we can easily bring interdisciplinary work into our classrooms and citizen science, service learning, and/or advocacy can extend this learning into the field.
Nature writing is a great way to get students outside. And being outside has important benefits for students of all ages! According to the Children & Nature Network, spending time outdoors can improve children’s sleep, increased time outside has public health benefits, and childhood nature exposure can help predict adult mental well-being. There are many other benefits, too!
So how can an English teacher get students out of their chairs and into nature? Through books, of course! Luckily, there are plenty of picture books, middle grade books, and YA books that can inspire nature writing and time outdoors for students of all ages. After reading these, you will find it hard to stay indoors (no matter the season!).
Top Ten(ish) Books that Encourage Kids to Get Outside (No Matter the Season)
Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner
Kate Messner’s gorgeous picture book combines poetic descriptions and scientific language as readers explore the creatures that live, hunt, and sleep under the snow. This is the perfect book to read before taking students outside in the snow. Who knows what lurks beneath the snow on campus?
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
This middle grade book will prompt lots of deep thinking about the intersection of technology and nature. Can we strike a balance between the two? Brown’s story is peppered with observations of many animals that students could use as mentor texts when making their own observations outside.
Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari
Eastern coyotes have always fascinated me and when I share their story of possible hybridization and recolonization with students they are equally as fascinated. Gianferrari’s tale of a mother coyote surviving in the suburbs is a great introduction to the wildlife in our own backyards.
Maybe a Fox by Alison McGhee and Kathi Appelt
Have the tissues handy for this delicate middle grade story. The Vermont woods and the creatures that lie within them play the main role in this story of a girl who loses her sister. There’s a little bit of magic but this story will make you stop and pay attention to the creatures that live among and around us, often without getting noticed by us.
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
Ignotofsky has packed this nonfiction book full of the stories of women who have changed the world through science and research. The illustrations on each page are stunning and the list of women featured will amaze readers. There’s no better way to inspire students than to share the stories of those who have come before them.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Hope Jahren has studied plants, trees, flowers, seeds, soil, and much more in her life. This book, published for the adult market, has a lot of crossover appeal. Readers will be inspired to take a closer look at the plants that surround them and may be inspired to break some rules (like Jahren has throughout her life!).
The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell
This is the book that inspired my love of nature writing with my students. My biology colleague and I use this as our joint read with the freshman class every year. Haskell’s book is comprised of essays he wrote while observing a square meter of space near his university in Tennessee. Because the essays are short they are easily digested by my students and serve as nature writing mentor texts.
Before We Go Extinct by Karen Rivers
This book takes us out of the forest and into the ocean. Rivers’ has crafted a grief story that includes snippets about global warming and the population losses suffered by sharks. Readers will love the descriptions of the Pacific Northwest and may want to spend some time at the beach after reading.
Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard by Loree Griffin Burns
If reading about nature doesn’t inspire you and your students to get outside, Loree Griffin Burns’ nonfiction book will inspire you to get involved with citizen science projects. These projects can be done in your own backyard, in the school yard, or at a local park. I love that four projects highlighted in this book coincide with the four seasons. Outdoors time isn’t just limited to the warm weather!
The Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley Lenz
Lenz has crafted a beautiful story of grief and coming-of-age through the lens of competitive mountain climbing. I was inspired to find a local climbing gym after reading this book! However, my favorite aspect of the book is the use of Muir, Thoreau, and other nature writers sprinkled throughout. This would be a great way to introduce students to some of the great American nature writers.
Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd
Nature isn’t just in rural areas. This picture book helps readers see wild, or nature, in the smallest spaces. Whether you live in the city, the suburbs, or the country, this book will inspire you to take a closer look the natural world.
Little Owl’s Day by Divya Srinivasan
The companion to Little Owl’s Night, this story follows a baby owl as he sees his forest home during the day. Full of observations of the natural world it will inspire readers listen to the sounds of the forest (or the field) around them.
Full of activities that parents and teachers can do with kids, this is a must-read book for anyone hoping to get their kids outside!
Sarah Gross is an English teacher currently getting a graduate degree in biology. She loves spending time outside and wants to encourage more non-science teachers to get outside with their students. She can be found on Twitter @thereadingzone and she blogs about the intersection of nature and English class at WildDelight.