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Taking Aim at a Moving Target

Objects such as turtles, squirrels, and woodpeckers are among the best part of our nature trail tours at Camp Tyler, an outdoor learning center that is located in the East Texas piney woods. Unfortunately, we just don’t know from one time to the next which objects will be available. Most of the plants and animals along the trails are seasonal. In addition, the animals are mobile and, in many cases, nocturnal. Even the level of the lake and the habitats it creates rise and fall as rainfall varies.

If you teach in a botanical garden, park, zoo, aquarium, or nature center, you probably experience similar challenges. Your “collection” changes, moves, hides, or otherwise is predictably unpredictable. Without proper planning, such comings and goings can really throw tours for a loop. However, it needn’t. Docents who work with third graders visiting the nature trails at Camp Tyler have developed “generic” object-based activities that meet state-mandated goals in our changeable environment and get the children learning and excited.

Third grade teachers bring their students to Camp Tyler to give them hands-on experiences with a specific goal in the mandated Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Science (TEKS). The student knows that living organisms need food, water, light, air, a way to dispose of waste, and an environment in which to live. The student is expected to:

identify and describe the habitats of organisms within an ecosystem;observe and identify organisms with similar needs that compete with one anotherfor resources such as oxygen, water, food, or space; describe environmental changes in which some organisms would thrive, become ill, or perish; and describe how living organisms modify their physical environment to meet their needs

Good Clues and Red Herrings

“Good Clues and Red Herrings” takes advantage of 8- to 10-year olds’ budding interest in mysteries. We explain that mystery writers usually give us lots of clues to help us solve the case along with the hero, but they also put in “red herrings,” false clues that deliberately lead us in the wrong direction. In this activity, the children are asked to answer a question and then give either a good clue or a red herring as to why they decided on that answer.

For example, if we come across a newly-downed tree along the trail, we ask them whether the tree fell through natural forces or was cut deliberately. Some of the answers might be, “It fell naturally because the stump is ragged on one edge.”

“It was cut deliberately because the stump is smooth across most of the surface.”

“It fell naturally because I can see a large lightning scar along the trunk.”

“It was cut deliberately because lightening had damaged it and it might have fallen across the trail.”

After a number of good clues and red herrings are offered, we decide which clues we think will tell us an accurate answer. If the tree was cut deliberately, why was it cut? Why was it left in the woods instead of being hauled away? Why would we leave any dead trees in the woods? All of these questions lead us back to the TEKS objectives.

Although the questions we ask do have “correct” answers, the process of “Good Clues and Red Herrings” encourages students to hypothesize (to make guesses based on evidence they discover). It is this process of hypothesizing — looking, finding evidence, considering the implications of the evidence, and justifying any conclusions made — that is of primary importance. The activity allows for a multitude of possibilities and allows for “wrong” answers that are well justified to be just as welcome as “right” answers. (Often, the “wrong” answers are possible and sometimes display evidence of highly creative thinking.)

Take a Closer Look

Third and fourth graders are expected to learn to use a variety of scientific “tools,” including magnifying glasses. We use this need, and the students’ natural interest in making things appear bigger than they are, in another object-based activity that can be used whatever the season, whatever the place.

We select a rather large area that, nevertheless, has clearly defined boundaries. It might be a clearing in the woods, or the lakeshore from the dock to the boathouse. We ask the children to guess how many animals they think live within that defined space. Of course, they rarely can see any from our vantage point. When we suggest that there may be thousands of animals living there, the children begin to understand that we’re going to have to “take a closer look.”

Each team of two to four children is given a magnifying glass and instructed to find, and count, as many animals as they can. Naturally, we define “animals” in the largest sense, “members of the animal kingdom.” After discussing a few safety rules about turning over logs with sticks rather than hands, and keeping the sun’s rays from being focused by the magnifying glass, the teams are released to the hunt. When their enthusiasm begins to lag, or after 15 to 20 minutes, whatever comes first, we gather the teams and begin to collect their data. We do a little math, such as estimating and rounding, and keep a running total “in our heads” as each group reports their findings. Sometimes, if they happen to uncover an ant bed or termite mound, the figures can run into the thousands!

Follow-up questions take us, once again, back to the TEKS goals. How are the habitats we uncovered within this small ecosystem alike and how are they different for the different “animals” we found? How might the habitat be different later in the year, or after a hard rain? What did each of the animals do to change the environment?

While determining the “right” answers, we leave lots of opportunity for divergent thinking. What are some ways we might protect animals in this environment? In what ways is this environment like the one in which we live? What might happen if we removed one of the types of animals living in this environment? The children’s imaginations allow them to take a closer look at more than just a small clearing in the woods.

“Sponge” Activities

Some of the object-based activities we use at Camp Tyler are designed to “soak up” the time while we are waiting for someone to catch up or while we are moving from place to place. These transitional moments can be used to motivate a group or to help them focus. They are not only useful with any sort of object, they can be stretched or shortened as time allows. Because they soak up time, we call them “sponge” activities.

ABC Hunt

This activity combines observation skills with language arts. The children try to find one or more objects in nature to correspond with each letter of the alphabet as we take our nature hike. A variation has them find specific letters while we move from one point to another, e.g., find as many things as you can that begin with A,B,C, or D before we get to that tall pine tree.

Paint Sample Hunt

Before the hike begins, children are given paint sample cards (available from most home decorating or hardware stores) and asked to find the exact colors in the surrounding environment that correspond to the ones on their cards. Another variation of this idea asks children to find a particular color (red, for example) before they reach the next stop along the trail, or to find as many things as possible that are not green or brown.

It’s always fun to share our resident corn snake with the third graders, but he’s one of the few objects that we know will be where we want him, when we want him. (There was, of course, the day he escaped into the Camp office!) Because docents must be flexible and be prepared for the unexpected – – including the times when objects don’t stay put — it’s nice to have activities that are suitable for any object, or lack thereof, that may happen along the way.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Taking Aim at a Moving Target,” The Docent Educator 11.4 (Summer 2002): 16-17.


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