4 Outdoor Inquiry Learning Experiences for Students in the Autumn

students observing a river

Learning and exploring outside has limitless benefits; it helps students interact with the natural world and make valuable learning connections. For example, observing different types of leaves helps students make connections with shapes, colours, and sorting. Furthermore, some students find being outdoors a source of inspiration for things like visual art, poetry, and storytelling. Spending time in the outdoors can easily provide the inspiration to dive into an autumn inquiry!

With autumn’s arrival and an inclination to avoid small spaces, many teachers and parents are taking their kids outside for some socially-distanced outdoor fun. Not only is it a good way to get fresh air and exercise, but it is a great way to keep students engaged and learning in a socially-distanced way. Autumn provides a great opportunity to explore the natural beauty of the season and learn about autumn weather, traditions, and changes. Below are five ideas for conducting an autumn inquiry with your students.

Create an Outdoor Nature Table

Bring your provocation table outdoors. Fill it with leaves, pinecones, acorns, feathers, rocks, and anything you can find outside that relates to autumn. Set out some provocations about autumn and see what students notice. Provocations can include books (“Leaf Man” by Lois Ehlert is a class favourite), photos, artwork, artifacts, and even art supplies or a camera. Additionally, provide tools and equipment for students to pick up and use to explore the outdoors. (A colleague of mine used this table for her outdoor play table as it’s super easy to collapse, fold out, and move around). For example, lay out a magnifying glass so students can inspect the textures and patterns on the leaves; or leave a small bucket out for students to collect acorns, pinecones, and other autumn foliage.

Book suggestions for your nature table:

Allow students the choice to stay at the table or take what they need and engage in their own autumn inquiry. Some students will be more inclined to sit at the table and write, draw, record, and observe, while others may prefer to walk around, explore, and inspect the signs of autumn all around them.

How to Create Learning Provocations That Get Students Excited

It could also be fun to write some autumn inquiry questions on strips of paper and stick them into piles of leaves, on trees and stumps, benches, or simply place them onto the nature table. Students will naturally be drawn to them and to exploring the answers. The following are some great question prompts: 

  • Why do leaves fall off the trees?
  • What signs of autumn can you see around you?
  • Why do plants die in the autumn?
  • Are all the trees the same? Why or why not?
  • What makes some leaves one colour, and others a different colour?
  • Why do leaves change colours?
  • How do animals change in the autumn?
  • Do all insects die in the autumn?
  • Why do leaves get crumbly?
  • How many different leaf colours can you find?
  • What happens when the leaves fall on the ground?
  • Why might animals hibernate in colder weather?
  • Why do some leaves stay the same colour?
  • Do tree needles change colour? Why or why not?

Autumn Textures Inquiry

This activity is similar to activities like leaf-rubbing because they encourage students to examine the patterns and textures of trees, branches, and stumps. Set up a station outside with crayons, paper, and buckets. Encourage students to collect a variety of leaves with different sizes, shapes, and colours in their buckets, and bring them back to the table. Lay the leaves upside down, one at a time, placing a piece of paper over top. While holding the paper and leaf in place, model how to use the side of a crayon to rub across the leaf, making sure to rub firmly to colour over the entire leaf. Then, repeat this process with the other leaves.

You could even go a step further by composing your leaf rubbings on a piece of graph paper, and asking students to count how many squares high their leaf is. Students could then compare the height of their leaves (which introduces or reinforces the concept of area) or sequence their leaves from shortest to tallest, or widest to smallest.

Another autumn inquiry idea is to encourage students to pick up pieces of fallen bark to examine their lines and textures. Ask students to use touch and sight to describe the direction of the natural grain and examine the bark’s patterns and any designs they see. Encourage students to use a variety of art materials (pastel, crayon, or paint) to see if covering the bark hides the grain lines, or if colours mix easily on the texture of the bark.

Some questions to ask students include:

  • What are the parts of the tree?
  • Can you see/count the rings on the tree trunk?
  • What textures can you feel on the bark?
  • How does your ___ (crayon, marker, paint) stick to the bark?
  • What does adding colour do to the bark? Is the bark absorbing the colour?
  • How do you think Indigenous tribes used these trees?

Nature Journaling

Nature journals work in a variety of outdoor settings – parks, forests, streams, ponds, your backyard – anywhere. Journaling can happen during a simple 15-minute walk around the backyard or it can take the form of a two hour morning hike through a forest. It is a great activity that can be done in autumn when parents or teachers want to keep their kids focused on a task while enjoying nature.

Nature journaling is inherently related to inquiry learning in a few ways:

nature journal
  • It involves continual observation and reflection
  • Being in nature prompts questions and discussion about broader interconnected subjects
  • Journaling involves recording and referencing, much like inquiry does

Inexpensive nature journals for your students:

Autumn is the perfect time to take students on a walk to the park, a hiking trail, or just around the neighbourhood. Encourage them to observe the spaces around them using all five of their senses and to focus on the process of observing, recording, and reflecting as opposed to making perfect drawings.

How to Use Nature Journaling with Inquiry Learning

Autumn Traditions Inquiry

Finally, this inquiry is geared towards older students (I’ve used it with students in grade 5 and up) and, although it requires some reading and research, can be completed mostly outside. If your school has a mixed schedule, this can also be done partly at home. Students explore traditions and celebrations by different people and cultures around the world. They are encouraged to think outside of their typical traditions and celebrations, and consider how other groups welcome the autumn season, celebrate, and prepare for the transition into winter.

Some questions students may want to investigate include:

  • How do other cultures celebrate the autumn season?
  • Why might other countries have different traditions during autumn?
  • Does every country celebrate autumn in the same way?
  • How do the differences in season in the Southern Hemisphere impact celebrations?
  • Why do Canada and the U.S have such deep cultural traditions?
  • How did Indigenous groups welcome the autumn season?
  • What is the history behind ___? (Oktoberfest, Diwali, Dia de los Muertos, etc)
  • What connections are there between ___ and ___?

How to Teach Effective Questioning Skills for Inquiry-Based Learning

Students begin by coming up with a question they want to investigate, then creating a plan to gather their information and answer their smaller questions. Along the way, students may tweak or alter their question depending on the information they find. Next, students begin to put together a plan for how to showcase their findings, create change, or bring awareness to an issue related to their questions. The goal of the inquiry is to help students understand the differences among traditions in other countries, and to explore the ties we have to other cultures around the world. Perhaps students will be moved to adapt or change their own traditions, or begin to include elements of other cultures’ traditions to their own.

Final Thoughts

The autumn season brings wonderful opportunities for students to explore and question the outdoors. In the era of socially-distanced learning, taking students outside can provide valuable cross-curricular learning connections and inspiration for things like visual art, poetry, STEM learning, and storytelling. 

Drop a comment below to share your outdoor learning experiences, or post some photos on our Facebook page.

Other Ideas for Outdoor Learning:

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