Last Sunday, our group hiked down to the outdoor classroom on Shoal Creek. As soon as we arrived, the kids were already excitedly hiking all over the creek area looking for critters. The first find was a snake – one of the 9 yr olds quickly identified it as a red striped ribbon snake. I used the (half dead) snake to give a quick lesson on reptiles and being ectothermic on an unexpectedly cold day.

The snake was most likely dead when we picked it up, but it was so unseasonably cold that it was hard to tell for sure. But dead or not, I held it up and taught the kids about snakes with our specimen that was clearly unable to slither away or fight back. Despite it’s mostly dead status, we put the snake back and then started our activity for the day.

Our goal was for each kid to make a sound map in his or her nature journal. (real goal: to teach kids to sit silently and listen to the world around them – a very difficult skill to master, but a helpful skill for developing focus, attention span and awareness to the world around you.) The many values of this exercise are explained in “Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature.”

The kids were to sit farther than arms length from any other people, close their eyes (or cover them with a bandana), and listen silently while sitting completely still for 2 minutes. Then they were to open their eyes, but remain still and silent and draw a sound map for the next 3 minutes. A sound map is a blank piece of paper with an X in the center marking the person drawing the map and a small mark for each sound they hear in the rough direction and distance from the X. The mark should signal what the sound was (a bird beak for bird call, wavy lines for wind, tree leaves for rustling, etc…) The marks should be simple and quick to draw.

I signaled the start of each segment of the exercise (so that I could make the time allotted actually match their ability rather than the clock.) I wanted to see how long I could stretch them to be still and silent. Amazingly, the kids sat still with eyes closed for almost 10 minutes and silent with eyes open for another 10 minutes. That was almost 20 minutes of complete silence for a large group of kids ranging from 6 to 12 years old. Many of the parents also participated in this activity – sitting still and silent while listening carefully. Most parents rarely get a moment to sit still and quiet, so I was thrilled that parents joined in with their kids.

The challenge of this activity was to keep the 3 toddlers in the group from being the focus of everyone’s sound map. Some parents took them over to the edge of the creek to take turns throwing rocks into the water. “Many lessons in physics can be learned from throwing rocks into water.”

After they made sound maps, I had them draw a rough sketch of a map of the area they were sitting in on the facing page so that they could find the same spot again.

Once the activity was over, the kids shared their maps with the group and looked up any animals they had found in the guidebooks I had brought with me. We ended the afternoon with the kids playing in the creek, hunting for fossils, and marveling at the extremely slow and still ectothermic turtle in the creek until it was time to leave.

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A wonderful poem written by one of the kids in his nature journal after the aquarium overnight: