Inquiry, noticing and the changing seasons… A tribute to the late Frank Ryan.

I have been meaning to post this all year.  I started planning it in January when I was holidaying down my beloved coastal town of Aireys Inlet.   Ironically, as the days have grown shorter, the pile of books I wanted to refer to has grown higher and I’ve scribbled bits and pieces here and there but failed to complete it.  Other posts have come and gone but, strangely, the impetus to write this one has taken time.  Perhaps it needed to wait. 

This post is about the desperate need for children to be encouraged and permitted to notice and inquire into the natural world around them. But now, it is much more than that.  It is written in honour of my beautiful friend of some 30 years and exceptional educator– Frank Ryan.  Frank died on the shortest day of this year, the winter solstice. I was honoured to be with him and some close friends and family as he left this world.  The world is poorer for his passing but in his time on this planet he touched the loves of thousands of children who may otherwise never have encountered the joy that is connecting with nature.

Frank was – literally and figuratively -  a towering figure in the field of Environmental Education. When I was still studying to be a teacher, I was fortunate enough to watch Frank at work at the Zoo Education School in Melbourne and I was hooked. There are a handful of educators I have come into contact with in my career who had a profound impact on me  - and Frank Ryan was one of them.  I watched him with us, I watched him with kids and  I felt him connect us to the environment. I was transformed. Frank helped make me the teacher I am today. 

It was Frank who helped me understand how to use the natural world as my classroom and how to bring nature into the classroom. Partly because of him, I spent many years actively involved in the Environmental Education field. I always had animals in my classrooms and that experience helped me learn how to engage children in inquiry. Kids I taught back then still say that they remember most vividly the learning we did through observing and caring fo turtles, lizards, yabbies, chickens - we even raised quail when I taught a beautiful class of year 3/4 students. The first book I ever published "Integrating Naturally" was all about basing integrative learning on big ideas about the environment. I still think fondly of that 'green book'.    My husband Steve Ray and Frank began an innovative company in the 90s called ‘Vox Bandicoot’.  Some Australian teachers may even remember having ‘Vox’ at their school. Frank and Steve created pop up ‘bush habitats’ In schools and introduced children to tortoises, lizards and snakes and performed theatre about environmental issues. Thousands of children benefitted from the opportunity to connect with nature. His death is a huge loss to the Education world but his legacy is mighty.  

So as I said, I have been working on this post on and off since Frank died a couple of weeks ago. It is longer than it should be but I hope you will give it your time.  And I also hope that you will take time in the coming weeks and months to do something to connect yourself and your kids with the natural world on which we all depend. There can be no greater purpose and no more engaging context for the inquiring mind. When you take kids out into the natural environment, you don't really need to fabricate complicated 'provocations' to lure them into becoming curious. It's all there: 

Inquiring into the changing seasons...

It is the shortest day of the year.  Outside my study window (the window I have looked through most days for 25 years) the Melbourne sky is at its best – clear, brilliant blue. The air is cold and still. It is the kind of morning that ices up your car window and where your breath fogs as you speak.  The walnut tree in our back yard – once a seedling from my grandmother in-law’s tree, acts as a kind of living calendar for me.  One of the last trees to lose its leaves, it is finally acknowledging the cold. It is almost stripped bare apart from a few desperate leaves. In the summer months, the towering manna gum we planted when we moved here is alive with the raucous sound of rainbow lorikeets and bossy magpies but on this clear, cold day all is quiet and still. Later in the year, I will keep a watchful eye out for the sacred kingfishers who occasionally gift us with a rare visit.  Across the road, my neighbour’s front garden proudly hosts a large magnolia tree.  It whispers secrets to me when I walk past. “Winter is coming” it says – when all the other trees are just starting to dress in their beautiful Autumn reds and oranges, the Magnolia has already lost its leaves. I know, one day soon, as the days begin to grow imperceptibly longer, she will tell me “Spring is on its way” and new buds emerge well ahead of any other flowers in an otherwise wintery landscape. 

Despite the fact I live in an inner, urban suburb of Melbourne, nature has its way of nudging me to notice my world on a regular basis. Whether it is the presence or absence of certain birds, a possum scuttling along the powerlines at night, the smell of a jasmine in early spring or the blissful sound of the first cicada that sends us all the message that those long, lazy days of summer are not far away.  in Melbourne, it is hard NOT to notice the changes in weather but it is the subtle, cyclical patterns of change that I find endlessly intriguing and strangely comforting. 

Ever since I began teaching, one of the most common topics in the primary classroom has been ‘the weather’ or ‘seasons’. I even had someone tell me not long ago that they were going to ‘do the seasons’ with their kids next term. That makes me cringe.   Here in Australia, the science curriculum requires children to know that “observable changes occur in the sky and landscape and daily and seasonal changes affect everyday life.”  Too often, this profound truth – that the environment around us is constantly changing – is reduced to a shallow topic or, worse still, we serve up to our kids the view that there are four stereotypical seasons without any acknowledgement of the incredible diversity of seasonal change across our land and indeed across the world. And we ‘do’ seasons without ever stepping outside the classroom!!

The changing environment offers an incredible opportunity for inquiry. But why limit that inquiry into one stand alone unit when, in fact, the opportunity to learn about, notice, anticipate, observe and record change is available to us every single day?   Inquiring into the environment is SO much better as an ongoing experience. And I am not just talking about a filling in a weather chart each day!  On a regular basis,  take your kids OUTSIDE to observe and record what they see, hear and smell. Take time to record, to photograph, to draw – and simply to BE in the outdoors.  Have each child find their special spot  - a place they will return to all year and document change.  Find a window in your school through which to see the outside world. Watch the way the view out that window changes over the year. Draw it, write about it, capture it in a diary that will be used again next year to anticipate change. Our kids spend more time indoors than any previous generation and yet this can be the context for some of the most engaging, focussed learning. There are dozens of ways you can use the outdoors as a context for inquiry.  I am only mentioning a few here: 

  • Connect with places around your school in which you and your children can spend time in more natural environments. Build a relationship with your local parks, waterways, beaches, gardens.

  •  Go for walks. Walk slowly and learn to notice the small things. Nature is everywhere…even in the cracks of the footpath of the most urban street. Record what you see on your walks and take the same route each time to notice the subtle and more dramatic changes.

  • Create a timeline in the classroom that depicts what you are noticing each month about the environment around you. Include photos, sketches and observations on the timeline. What birds are in the school yard at different times of the year? Which plants are flowering? Where are the shadows falling in the school yard?

  • Encourage your kids to get to know nature in their neighbourhoods or back yards. Have them keep diaries or journals, take photographs and track the way that places change over a year.

  • Find out what kinds of plants there are in your school yard. Keep track of how they grow and change over time. 
  • Start noticing the birds – what species are in the school grounds? Does it change over the year? Which birds are native? Introduced?  What are their habits? Where do they prefer to hang out? Why? 
  • Connect with kids in other parts of your country or even state. What is their experience of the environment at simultaneous times of the year? 
  • Find out about the ways the indigenous people of your area identify seasonal change. 
  • Talk to your kids about what YOU notice as the days pass over the year.  Model what it means to be fascinated by and connected to your environment. Marvel aloud at the changing seasons. 

Finally, a post about connecting with nature and noticing the changing seasons without reference to at least a few of my favourite resources and books…

 This beautiful book depicts the seasonal calendar of the Gundjeihmi-speaking people of Kakadu.

This beautiful book depicts the seasonal calendar of the Gundjeihmi-speaking people of Kakadu.

 A book that tracks change from month to month  - a lovely example of noticing small changes over time. 

A book that tracks change from month to month  - a lovely example of noticing small changes over time. 

 I adore this book and the simple way it depicts change over time with one word per page. It is a work of art. 

I adore this book and the simple way it depicts change over time with one word per page. It is a work of art. 

 A year on our farm is a lovely insight into the impact the changing seasons can have on our daily lives - so much more the case when living on a farm. 

A year on our farm is a lovely insight into the impact the changing seasons can have on our daily lives - so much more the case when living on a farm. 

 Such a beautiful book. This says it all really - step out, take time to notice and be delighted by what you discover, if only you take a moment to look. 

Such a beautiful book. This says it all really - step out, take time to notice and be delighted by what you discover, if only you take a moment to look.