What’s In Your Backpack?

Socrates once said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.” So why not be ready when you’re hiking along and one of your students expresses wonder or curiosity? Having a backpack of readily available and easily accessible tools can support child-directed learning and highlight the wonderment and awe of the natural world.

Tools provide children the opportunity to do serious work which shapes how they define and interact with the world. When children use tools, they build on their life experiences and grow their knowledge base. Together, tools and nature have the ability to create a kind of community where every child is an active member in their own pursuit of knowledge.

Every morning at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the children and teachers come together and practice yoga with Yoga Pretzels cards before heading out on the daily hike/exploration. In this setting, yoga is used as a tool to calm the body and strengthen the mind. After ringing the yoga bell and practicing the Mountain pose the children are asked, “What does your mountain look like, can you describe it?” A girl in pink sparkly rain boots shoots her hand up in excitement, “I’m a sparkly, rainbow, glitter mountain.” Another boy tentatively raises his hand, “I’m a smooth mountain.” And after all the children have had a turn to share, it is time to head out on the hike – the students with a calm mind and their teacher with a backpack full of literal tools.


So what are the tools that the Directors of NINPA recommend? A take along tool that weighs almost nothing but can be utilized throughout the year are play cards. To create the following play cards simply print, cut, laminate, hole punch and connect to the outside of your backpack. Try using the perspective cards as a kind of game where children draw a card, one by one, and follow the written directive!  Do you have a child who loves carrying sticks or one that enjoys engineering? Try using the building cards as springboard for creating and building cooperatively with sticks. Need an ambulator to get you from one place to another? Use NINPA’s common plant identification cards or create a set related to your outdoor space for a take-along kind of scavenger hunt! Are you in a more urban setting? Try taking photos of the hardscape or various structures close-up. Then print these images off and use them as a tool to investigate a familiar space with an up-close view of the parts that create the whole!

Looking for a more hands-on kind of tool? Ever thought of making your own magnifier? These light weight and free magnifying lenses can be used in several different fashions. Try adding a drop of water to the “magnifying end” to create real magnification; or use an expo marker and draw a shape, letter, or number onto the “magnifying end.” These can be used again and again in any weather or season!


What about various tools that help children focus? Create your own “nature pointer” by painting one end of a long stick. Take this simple tool along on your excursions to assist you in pointing out natural wonders to students! A great way to look for colors is to collect and pre-punch old paint chips! Toss this light weight tool in your backpack and when spring or autumn rolls around, you’ll be ready to support looking for and matching colors.

Ever thought about carrying along multifunctional wooden peg dolls or story rocks? wooden peg dolls can be found on Amazon and can support storytelling and the creation of miniature worlds. You can also create your own story rocks/ wood cookies, by painting a picture or printing and modge podging a picture onto your desired surface.  Then place a handful of them into a bag and into your backpack! Try having everyone sit in a circle, taking turns pulling a rock out of the bag and using that picture to come up with a sentence or two to create a communal story!  

Whatever the tool, no matter the season, you’ll be ready to explore the great outdoors both in urban and rural settings! Good luck out there and may the power of tools inspire you!

About the Author

Sarah Sheldon is a Lead Teacher at the Chicago Botanic Garden Nature Preschool and Advisor of Professional development for NINPA.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s