Resources for Teachers

Using Outdoor Simulations for Instructional Purposes


Tell me.  I forget.

Show me. I remember.

Involve me. I understand.

Chinese Proverb

At the Elms Environmental Center, the students screamed excitedly as they were transformed into noisy Canada geese. Honking and flapping their “wings”, the students begin their fall migration through wetlands represented by scattered hula hoops. Stepping outside or on the hoops sent some of the students to the “goose graveyard”. As the remaining geese begin their spring migration back home, they discover a problem. One or more of their wetlands have been destroyed. Chaperones and teachers stand in the hoops and represent different reasons for the destruction of the wetlands such as some type of development, climate or weather events, or use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Through the use of this outdoor simulation game, the children learn the difficult challenges of migration and living in sensitive wetland ecosystems. They learn how ecosystems can be damaged through natural and human induced events. Brainstorming skills extend their knowledge of how to protect and restore our precious wetlands. This simulation models our natural world to teach and/or reinforce environmental concepts. A deceptively simple game can actively engage students in learning complex scientific skills.

By the very nature of the game, students come to understand the usefulness of model building. They begin to see the relationship between different variables in the natural world. As active learners, they use simulation to anticipate outcomes and formulate new questions to ask. Often the games can encourage students to extend what they have learned to a new problem or a different set of parameters. It is the job of the teacher to guide the students. To help students understand and refine their thought processes, it is important to require the students to reflect.  Students often get so involved in the competitive aspects of the games, they forget to focus on the concepts and processes that are modeled.

Although there are many excellent computer simulations, the advantage of these outdoor simulations is that they encourage an emotional connection with the natural world. A growing body of research suggests our “plugged in” generation seriously lacks direct exposure to nature and is linked to rise in ADHD, obesity, and depression in children. The term “nature-deficit” disorder was coined by author/journalist Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods”. The work of Louv and other researchers have helped sparked the federal legislation “No Child Left Inside”. This national movement has resulted in many states creating programs that addressed the concerns of children’s disconnect with nature.

Children may come to understand that environmental education can begin in their own school grounds or backyard. Their local environment is a small and important part of a larger regional system which in turn is part of a global system. They see that it is all connected from the rain that washes down the storm drain on the school parking lot, to the local stream, to the Patuxent or Potomac Rivers, to our Chesapeake Bay.

An excellent resource to help teachers get started is the Outdoor Biology Instructional Activities: Laurence Hall of Science website The site contains 97 activities that can be used outdoors to help students increase environmental awareness and investigate scientific concepts. The site requires a log-in but is free and offers the downloadable activities in PDF form. The activities are filtered by content, type of activity, and types of different places that can be explored. Many contain excellent activities that can be used as follow up or extensions after your trip to Elms.

Attached is an example of a simulation that is part of the Grade 5 unit “Decisions and Consequences”. It is directly aligned to our Grade 7 program at Elms. It can easily be modified for younger students.




Space Invaders Teacher Directions

Students play an interactive game to illustrate the threat of introduced non-native plants and species by humans.

Step One

Designate a playing area outside in the school yard. Scatter playing chips throughout the area (each different colored chip represents a different need for the plants: White =Shelter/Space, Red=Food/Minerals, Blue=Water). Be sure to provide enough chips so each player can collect one chip of each color during the first round in order to survive.

Step Two: Round One

All players are native to the specific area. Everyone lines up along the edges of the playing field at the start of each round. At the signal, players enter the playing field; collect one of the different colored chips; and return to the start of the playing field. After all the students have returned to the sideline, the return to the playing field and collect a chip of a different color. Once again they go to the sidelines, returning a third time for the third color chip. After a player has collected all three colored chips, he or she moves to the sideline to wait for the signal to end the round. All the players should survive the first round.

Step Three: Round Two

This round will be played the same as Round One but will now include non-native plants. Two players wearing colored armbands will represent a non-native plant. Explain that the non-native plants are more aggressive and will be allowed to collect two chips per trip into the playing field. The non-native plants will also be allowed to return as often as they are able but must collect three different colors to survive. The native plant will be considered a survivor if he or she collects three different colored chips as they had done in Round One. Give the signal to end Round Two. Identify the survivors. Evaluate by comparing population size and the impact of the non-native population on the native population.

Step Four: Round Three

Native plants that did not survive Round Two become non-native plants for this round. Give each new non-native plant an armband. Continue to play Round Three just like Round Two. At the end of Round Three, most if not all, of the native plants should not survive.

As a class, discuss why those students who played the initial non-native plants were not only able to survive but actually take over the entire playing field. Some appropriate focus questions may be:

How do native and non-native plants compete?

How do non-native plants affect the population of native plants?

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