Dawn Publications
Lessons from an Orca Grandmother: Eco-Literacy Pt 4

– by Sally Hodson, Ed.D.

Part 4: Explore & Experience
Planet Earth is home whether you’re a plant, an animal or a human. Our Earth is the only place in the universe we know for sure that can support life. So how do we prepare young people for the 21st century challenge of caring for our planet so that it can sustain future generations of plants, animals and humans? In short, how do we educate our kids to be eco-literate?

Think of this as learning the language of our planet. To be literate in Earth–speak, we need to understand how life on Earth functions and how we interact with it. And we need tools to help our heads to think, our hearts to feel, and our hands to act.

This month, we’ll add Explore and Experience to our Eco-Literacy Toolkit

Explore & Experience
I’m sitting on a whale-watching boat surrounded by a group of kids. We’re observing a family of killer whales swim past us. Our boat is stopped, with engines off to give the orcas space and quiet. We all hear the WHOOSH! of each orca breath. These orcas are familiar to us – they are part of Granny’s clan. One young orca leaps out of the water. Another slaps his tail against the surface with a loud crack. Without taking their eyes off the orcas, kids ask rapid-fire questions or sit enthralled by the magic of being so close to these majestic animals. On the return trip, we talk about how orcas live in the sea. Many of the kids draw pictures about their experience meeting this wild orca family. Most have decided to become marine biologists.

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Baba Dioum, Senegal environmentalist (1968 speech to the International Union for Conservation of Nature)

Kids learn to love and care for the earth by spending time getting to know the natural world. Most kids know more about a Smart phone, iPad or video game than how a tree breathes or a water drop finds its way to the sea. The lives and habitats of plants and animals are far removed from the everyday experiences of most young people.

How do we change this? Open the classroom door. Take your class outside to experience the natural world in your own neighborhood. No matter where you live, there’s an adventure waiting for you to explore with kids. A local field, pond, woodland, park or seashore can provide a wonderful place to try out lots of great nature activities. Watch a spider spin its web or a follow a bird’s search for seeds and insects. Try different activities that encourage kids to explore the natural world with their minds, senses, imaginations and emotions. As kids observe nature, they begin to ask questions and want to investigate further. The following is one of my favorite activities, adapted from Joseph Cornell’s classic Sharing Nature with Children.

Meet a Tree
A tree is a living being that eats, rests, circulates and breathes.
  1. Choose a large deciduous tree. Spend some time getting to “know “your” tree.
  2. Use all your senses. Look at your tree carefully. Use a hand lens. Describe how it looks. Smell your tree. Touch and feel your tree’s bark.
  3. Close your eyes and hug your tree. Sit quietly with your tree. Imagine how old your tree might be. Talk to your tree. Give your tree a name.
  4. Listen to your tree’s “heartbeat.” Place a stethoscope against tree to listen to sounds of sap flowing up the tree to its branches.
  5. Breathe with your tree. Air that you breathe comes from your tree. People breathe oxygen that trees breathe out. Trees use carbon dioxide that people breathe out. We need each other to live.
  6. Who are your tree’s neighbors? What animals and insects live in your tree? Who visits your tree?
  7. What questions do you have about your tree? (e.g. what species is your tree? how does it make food? survive storms, cold and drought?) How can you find the answers?
  8. Write story about a day in the life of your tree. Draw a picture of your tree.

Use technology to connect kids to places and animals that you can’t visit.
  1. Remote wildlife cameras allow us to watch the lives of animals such as eagles, owls, seals, bats, salmon or whales without disturbing them. Examples:
http://wdfw.wa.gov/wildwatch/about.html and
  2. You-tube videos provide great field observations of many species of wildlife taken by scientists and amateur naturalists. Example:
  3. Documentaries provide close-up encounters with wild places and animals throughout the world. Example: Call of the Killer Whale: http://video.pbs.org/video/1095936179
  4. Role-play lets kids use their imaginations to understand and experience the lives of other animals. What’s it like to be an orca who “sees with sounds?” or salmon that smell their way home?

Many free downloadable activities are available at this website relating to Dawn books. (Go to the Teacher’s/Librarians tab on the website and select Downloadable Activities from the drop-down menu). Here are a few activities related to Granny’s Clan: A Tale of Wild Orcas that encourage kids to Explore and Experience:
   – Salmon Journey (see Smelly Fishy)
   – Seeing With Sounds (see Echoes Show the Way and Who’s Out There?)

Next month we’ll look at the last installment, Act as a Steward, to involve students in action learning projects in your own community.

Dr. Hodson is a K-12 teacher and a trainer of teachers, and was executive director of The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, WA.