Midwest Region


Unveiling the Stories

First graders exploring the prairie while on a fieldtrip to Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo Credit: FWS/Darla Madsen

It’s a crisp calm autumn morning while gathering program materials for a class of inner-city 1st graders.  They are eagerly awaiting their morning field trip to Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge).  This will be their first time out to the Refuge for this school year. Their program is on the scientific study of changes in nature-phenology.  Prior to their field trip I went into their classroom with myriad of items that signify change; snowpants, colored leaves, umbrella, nuts, picture of a snowflake, sunglasses, model of emerging green grass.  The students had to categorize these items into three groups: plant, animal, or weather.  Once this was completed we then reorganized the items into the seasons of when they would be used or seen.

Change is inevitable in nature. People have been studying the changes in nature for centuries. It is how our ancestors were able to gather and hunt for food and keep tack of time. The biggest change that has everyone conversing is climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency defines climate change as “any significant change in measures of climate (such as temperature, precipitation, or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or longer)” (2009). Climate change may result from:

·    natural factors, such as changes in the sun's intensity
·    natural processes within the climate system, such as changes in ocean circulation;
·    human activities that change the atmosphere's composition (e.g. through burning fossil fuels) and the land surface (e.g. deforestation, reforestation, urbanization, desertification, etc.)

Scientists are tracking changes in the environment at an astounding rate.  They are researching the widespread melting of glaciers, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and changes in rain and snowfall patterns.  Still they are people who question climate change.  Is it happening? How can we stop it? What is going to happen?  Who is responsible?  These questions are what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with numerous other agencies and non-profit organizations are trying to answer.

Information on climate change is being inundated every second due to our profound connection to technology; including children. Our newest generation – currently in K-12 – is demonstrating for us the impact of having developed under the digital wave. These youth have been completely normalized by digital technologies—it is a fully integrated aspect of their lives (Green & Hannon, 2007). Many students in this group are using new media and technologies to create new things in new ways, learn new things in new ways, and communicate in new ways with new people—behaviors that have become hardwired in their ways of thinking and operating in the world. Green and Hannon give an excellent example of this, “Children are establishing a relationship to knowledge gathering which is alien to their parents and teachers” (2007, p. 38).

Being an educator, the question in my mind is how do I teach this topic to students without leaving a “doom and gloom” image?  While doing some research I concluded that there are several curriculums, activity guides, and papers available and possibly more impending. The problem, most are written for middle school and high school levels. Is the subject of climate change is too grave for elementary student comprehension? A person would be amazed at what information children ages 6-12 can comprehend. A study conducted by Yurki Hirsoe concluded that knowledge of stories aid children in becoming aware of the factual information contained in a sentence (1993, p29).

Stories are used throughout the world to convey messages of culture, values, and traditions.  Nature provides stories everyday about the coming and goings of plants and animals.  People of all ages can actively observe and learn about the seasonal changes of the ecosystem around them. This is a perfect solution for elementary students to learn about changes in the environment-climate change. Once students have learned about how to observe nature, go outdoors and explore. They even have the opportunity to submit their findings to research.  The USA National Phenology Network,, brings together citizen scientists, government agencies, non-profit groups, educators and students of all ages to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States through phenology.

While preparing for the 1st graders, I ensure that nature is ready to unveil her stories. Today, students will record the phenological events they observe during a hike on the Refuge and discover how scientists use phenology to track the impact of changes on the behavior of plants and animals. They take this knowledge and record their daily observations in the classroom throughout the school year and on-line through the citizen science; The USA National Phenology Network. In winter, they will come out again to observe and learn about changes animals perform to survive our harsh, cold Minnesota weather.


Students recording their observations in nature.
Photo credit: FWS
First grade students exploring the forest floor at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo credit: FWS

Environmental Protection Agency. (2009, October 23). EPA. Basics of Climate Change. Retrieved from

Green, H and Hannon, C. 2007. Their Space: Education for a digital generation, Retrieved on October 26, 2009 from

Hirose, Yurki. (1993). World Knowledge in Children’s Sentence Comprehension. MITA Working Papers in Psycholinguistics, 3, 17-31. Retrieved from ERIC Database. (ED 35872S)



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Last updated: June 15, 2016