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One for each season, nature kits help teachers get kids outside

The winter nature kit prepared by the Vancouver Botanical Gardens Association
The Vancouver Botanical Gardens Association has started distributing nature kits to students in schools across B.C. in an effort to connect plant life to climate issues.

Vancouver Botanical Gardens Association uses BC Hydro grant to get kits to schools

Second in a series of stories about BC Hydro community grant recipients. Applications for this year's grants are open until March 31, 2024.

There's nothing quite like a visit to Vancouver's VanDusen Botanical Garden, where there are more than 7,500 plant species from around the world. But there's still a world of wonders outdoors across B.C.

That's why the Vancouver Botanical Gardens Association (VBGA) has put together nature kits, one for each season, for elementary school teachers to use as they take students outdoors. It's a new initiative, partially funded by a BC Hydro community grant, with the first batch of 12 kits sent to teachers last fall.

"We've designed four different nature kits which are basically field trips in a box that can be done from your own classroom," says VBGA youth programs manager Dennis Chen. "Teachers can take them to schools to do a variety of activities related to each of the four seasons. The activities cover topics similar to what they'd experience on a visit here, but often at greater length and from in and outside their classroom."

Designed with elementary age students' essential learning objectives in mind and with reference to the B.C. school curriculum, the seasonal kits contain prompts and materials for crafts, activities, and experiments that can help students primarily in Grades 1 to 4 discover the natural world around them.

Asked if the kits are more geographically specific to plants found in the Lower Mainland, Chen said the association has tried to include plants you can find throughout B.C.

"We do a lot of stuff with conifers, looking at the Douglas fir or different pines that are found throughout most of the province," says Chen. "We also have a terrarium activity that can be done in any class."

We offer community grants of $2,000 to $10,000 to B.C. non-profits and registered charities who successfully apply for funding for new programs or the expansion of existing programs. To qualify, a group's program must align with one of three focus areas: building a STEM workforce of tomorrow, safety education, or developing a clean and sustainable future.

Last year, 90 B.C. groups received grants.

Even in winter, kits can engage kids in nature

The Winter Nature Kit concentrates on three themes: winter plant adaptations, winter wildlife, and rain. Students learn about the fascinating world of winter plant adaptations, explore the resilience of winter wildlife, and gain an appreciation for the significance of rain in Earth's water cycle.

Kids might observe and study the cones they find and collect items to help create a terrarium in the classroom.

"For the terrarium, they go through the whole process," says Chen. "They put the charcoal in, they put the soil in, they plant their seeds, they watch the seeds germinate and grow. There's a thermometer so that they can monitor temperature and see how that affects the water cycle."

The Spring Nature Kit covers the themes of plant parts, flowers, and pollinators. Students delve into the various parts of plants and their functions, learn about various Coast Salish Indigenous peoples' uses of plant parts, and uncover the essential role played by pollinators.

With the Summer Nature Kit, students develop their naturalist skills, discover the diversity of bird species, and explore the vibrant world of soil life and insects.

For the Fall Nature Kit, students discover the significance of the fall harvest, observe and study the intricacies of trees and leaves, and uncover the secret world of seeds.

Kits going mainly to teachers… but there are options

Kits are made available for student groups visiting VanDusen Botanical Gardens, and there's one kit in the VanDusen garden that can be loaned out to teachers. Teachers can learn about the kits by attending professional development workshops at VanDusen Garden or the annual big teach open house event at the end of the summer.

If you're a parent or someone else in the community interested in the kits, you can order one to four kits, priced at $250 each or $900 for a four-season set. But they're only available for pickup at VanDusen Botanical Garden, and you'll need to schedule a pickup time.

Taking the mystery and fear out of climate change

Chen says that at VanDusen Botanical Garden, educators try to connect plant life to climate issues in an attempt to make those issues easier to digest and understand.

"What does climate change really mean to a student in second or third grade?" he says. "On visits here, and on field trips in nature, we can showcase what actually happens as the climate change. We often hear a lot of really interesting questions, and the discussions that come out of these really shows that they're getting a much stronger understanding of what's really going on and what the impact would be rather."

And there's room for hope.

"We know the reality of climate change is quite grim and that it's difficult to process," he says. But one of the goals with these conversations is to also project optimism. A bit of a plan with our programs is that when we introduce a topic and do an activity, we also at the end, provide a call to action or some kind of solution to it that we can work towards."