Studying the Natural World with Young Children


I’ve lived in Missoula for almost ten years now and each year I learn a little more about the local environment and that natural systems that govern this area. The more I learn, the more I appreciate the local animals, flora and fauna, geology and climate of this unique area and how lucky we are that our land is not covered with pavement. I’ve found that what I learn about natural systems is not only helpful for understanding the natural world, but that that information generalizes in ways I could have never imaged before.

Several years ago I found myself standing on thin ridge of rock four hundred feet above the ground preparing to climb the final pitch on a large chunk of granite called the Wedge in the Humbug Spires area north of Dillion. My partner was a good friend and experienced climber so my nerves were calm even though I’m afraid of heights and generally uneasy when rock climbing.

Just as my friend was preparing to lead the final pitch, he turned to me and said, “I don’t like the looks of that cloud. We’re going to have bail.” He then quickly and efficiently built an anchor and within a few minutes we were both rappelling down the rock. Half way through my last rappel the skies darkened and it began raining heavily. The granite beneath my feet became very slick, but we were both able to make it safely to the ground before the lightning and thunder started.

After that experience I became intrigued by weather patterns and how certain kinds of clouds can provide clues as to incoming weather systems. In 2009 my students and I began a year long exploration of weather and how we can make predictions by noticing the outside temperature, wind and clouds. Within a few months I had students who could predict the temperature within about three degrees during recess. Kids would tell me, “I think it’s going to rain in a few days because I see cirrus clouds in the sky.” After that unit of study I now know my friend had spotted a cumulonimbus cloud on the horizon with an easterly wind meaning that a thunderstorm was coming our way.

Photo by Brandon Kendall

The traditional wisdom of knowing the land and the natural patterns of our world is a true art form. Naturalism in a philosophy pioneered by John Dewey, the father of the progressive education movement, and others which describes our world through the scientific method.

Lessons learned from our observation of the natural world can also help to teach about human nature. For example, by observing water we can learn several social skills. Children can see how water’s fluid and yielding nature can wear away stone and how water penetrates deep beneath the surface of things.

We’re very lucky to live in place where the natural environment can easily be our extended classroom. By learning about how the natural world works, a child’s experience of learning can open into new worlds of thought about their environment and themselves.

Photo 2 by Brandon Kendall

The Weather Song by The Flying Narwolves 

Verse 1

Our earth’s weather

Begins in outer space

When the sun warms the water

Until it evaporates


It turns into a cloud

And gets blown into motion

Then that cloud rains and the water

Flows back to the ocean


The water always flows back to the ocean



I look around and see the clouds in the sky

Cumulus, stratus and cirrus clouds up high

Clouds help us know what the weather’s going to do

Like if it’s going to rain or if the sky will

Turn blue

Will the sky turn blue today?


Cumulus clouds may be out when it’s warm

And a cumulonimbus

Causes thunderstorms

Nimbus clouds rain and snow

And all of that water helps our roses

And tomatoes grow

The rain helps our gardens grown



Cirrus clouds tell us the wether might turn cool

And in a days there could be ice in your pool

We love clouds because they give us informations

And drift through the sky like a floating weather station

Clouds are like a weather station


Learn it BioAnnie Graham and Brandon Kendall are convinced that education can be fun, exciting, and meaningful. Brandon has been a teacher in Missoula for the better part of a decade. Annie is a proud parent of six children and a home school teacher. Check out their blog for fun (and educational) adventures around Missoula. Visit their Learning With Meaning website for ideas on dynamic and project based learning at home and in the classroom.