What’s Out There? The Making of a Schoolyard Field Guide

Michael Milliman

Teacher, Amherst School District, Amherst, New York

I wanted an open-ended question to focus my students on their first outdoor investigation, one that would challenge them to look at their surroundings through naturalists’ eyes. So, gesturing to the schoolyard, I began with the question, “What’s out there?” Not surprisingly, the kids’ immediate answer was “grass.” Situated in a first-ring suburb, our school is typical of its kind, surrounded by a large, well-groomed lawn that is dotted with trees. At first glance it appears a pretty sterile place. “Is that all there is?” I asked. The students agreed that they’d need to do a more detailed survey to know. “We could write down what we see in our journals,” Emma said. So we grabbed our field journals—the ones they had used to sketch the reproductive parts of flowers, describe mammal sign, and record many new questions—and headed outside.

Faced with the wide-open space of our school grounds, I wondered aloud how we could be sure that we would have a complete survey of the site. After a debate about the merits of various surveying and sampling techniques, the students agreed to divide the area into three zones. Each student was assigned to a zone, which they mapped in their field journals. I modeled some techniques for judging distance and for representing tree trunks versus tree canopies, but mostly I wanted the students to make a map that made sense to them.

Back inside after this initial outing, we compared everyone’s maps and filled in some details. The discussion was lively. “Oh, that’s right, there are three trees, not two!” “There was a flower growing by the playground benches? I didn’t notice.” After the class reached consensus, I asked, “What should we do next to find out what’s really out there?” The general response was, “We need to go back outside! We need to look more closely.”

I was pleased with their enthusiasm and the next day I sent them back to their zones to start looking for a living thing. I suggested that they search out an organism that they couldn’t identify. Some kids caught insects. Some hunched down over weeds that the groundskeepers had missed. Some sat under a tree. Some even tried to squint at a bird flying from tree to tree, others at a squirrel chattering at them from a branch. Of course, some wandered aimlessly, but with a little guidance, they too began to find intriguing things emerge from the homogeneity of the grass. I think this was a key moment in their investigation. Now most of the students were hooked. They had found mysteries in the mundane, had detected the unknown and strange lurking in the known, and now they were primed to ask questions.

It was at this point that I realized that students were using the skills we had practiced in every science unit, and doing so independently. Driven by their curiosity, they were taking careful notes, incorporating measurements, and making detailed sketches from multiple points of view. They requested hand lenses, tape measures, and—most of all—answers.

Armed with their journal notes, students combed the library for information that would help them identify their specimens. We soon discovered the limitations of our otherwise well-stocked library’s field guide section. The “tree sleuths” grinned, but everyone else grumbled. The sources we had were too basic. Our taxonomists were not satisfied to know they had spotted a beetle. Like all good detectives, they wanted names. Our elementary-level field guides just did not deliver. We were all sent scrambling to local libraries and our home bookshelves to find better resources. The students were on a mission, fueled by the idea that perhaps they just might have discovered a species of insect or weed heretofore unknown to science.

This convinced us we needed a field guide of our own, so that if someone else stumbled on a bug or a weed, or picked up a leaf, they would have a resource to use to identify the living things that make our schoolyard a home. The students set about designing the pages, discussing the information they would include to make this guide easily useable. Like many field guides, their pages had color illustrations showing defining characteristics, like leaf shape, coloration, and distinguishing marks. Students also chose to include a detailed map, locating where to find the plants identified, and where the animals had been spotted. Finally, each page listed information about the organism that they had researched, as well as measurements gathered from their investigations.

The students were very proud of the resulting field guide, especially when a copy of it was placed in the school’s library, alongside the other natural history resources. I was really pleased to see how easily and well this project addressed so many learning goals in a thoroughly integrated way. Now I am looking forward to expanding this project each year with new classes. I can see that over time we will have a wonderful store of information that will allow us to explore new questions about our site. “Are the same things in our schoolyard today that were there three years ago? What’s changed? Why?”

The experience of discovering something by themselves, for themselves, was empowering for my students. It taught them about the nature of science and themselves, as well as the schoolyard. What’s out there? It turns out to be a lot more than grass!