Sensory Nature Walk
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Sensory Nature Walk

How do we learn to detect nuance in urban ecosystems?

“What counts here—first and last—is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision—seeing. Seeing here implies world view and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination.” - Josef Albers, Interaction of Color

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This workshop is part of the 🌱Urban Ecology workshop series from PLIX.

Background & Materials

Workshop at a Glance

In this workshop, we will work to establish a keen eye—and nose, ear, and hand—when evaluating the qualities of our living world. We will use these observational skills moving forward in our continued exploration of the urban environment.

  • Age Range: 8–13 years old
  • Group Size: 5–15 participants
  • Number of Facilitators: 1–2
  • Session Length: 2 hours
  • Cost: $3–$5 per participant
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PLIX Tip: Remember, like all PLIX activities, we encourage you to use this guide as a jumping off point — feel free to remix it to suit your local community! And if you try something new, we'd love to hear about it on the PLIX Discussion Forum.

Supply Kit

field sites—pre-select two for the sensory nature walk field exercise
PLIX zines — cut & folded Getting Started with Urban Ecology printouts (one sheet per participant)
PLIX prompts — cut Sensory Nature Walk printouts (one half-sheet per participant)
field journal (or any notebook) with zine holder (one per participant)
viewfinders (one per participant)
pens and pencils (one per participant)
images that capture "nature in the city / the city in nature"—3-4 printed
tape — to affix clippings in field journals
outdoor protection: sunscreen, water bottles, hats, shade structures—or ask participants to bring their own!
optional: Nature Field Guides (we love the field guides on tree classification🌳 )
optional: Polaroid Zip Wireless Mobile Photo Mini Printer, photo paper, and smartphone

Getting Started with Urban Ecology Zine

The Getting Started with Urban Ecology zine introduces a working definition of ecology, as well as a city scene in which to practice looking for interactions. Finally, it includes information about setting up and using the field journal.

Download here →

PLIX-Urban-Ecology_Getting-Started-Zine_v0.01.pdf310.8KB

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A note about zines: Our PLIX zines are designed to be supplementary resources for patrons and librarians to refer to during workshops. They're a quick and easy way for people to learn some fundamentals. You can print them on 8.5x11" paper, and they're easy to assemble. Here’s a resource that shows you step-by-step how to cut and fold them after printing!

Sensory Nature Walk Prompts

The Sensory Nature Walk prompts are guides for the nature walk you'll be doing as the field exercise in this workshop. They can be helpful tips if participants get stuck and are unsure of what to sense! All of these prompts can be used as discussion points, and there are more prompts that you'll likely have time to explore, so you can let participants explore the ones that seem most compelling to them!

Before the workshop, you'll want to print this document and cut it in half (one sheet of 8.5x11" paper will give you two prompt sheets). You can choose to affix these with some tape in the field journals yourself or ask participants to do it during the introductory activity.

Download here →

PLIX-Urban-Ecology_Sensory-Nature-Walk_v0.01.pdf48.5KB
A field journal with a folded up
A field journal with a folded up Sensory Nature Walk prompt sheet taped to one page...
... and it easily unfolds for participants to consult while in the field!
... and it easily unfolds for participants to consult while in the field!

"Nature in the City/The City in Nature" Images

Below are some examples images that show nature in the city (or the city in nature...)! You'll use these images as part of the introductory activity for this workshop— helping participants to begin noticing the various ways that nature and 'the city' interact with one another. Feel free to use the images below, or even better — take some photos of your own local community to use for the activity (you'll want about 3-4 photos in total).

A lush, curated urban garden in the suburbs — nestled between two apartment buildings.
A lush, curated urban garden in the suburbs — nestled between two apartment buildings.
Small herbaceous plant species overtake a vacant home.
Small herbaceous plant species overtake a vacant home.
Spontaneous urban vegetation grows next to a telephone poll and within cracks of the sidewalk.
Spontaneous urban vegetation grows next to a telephone poll and within cracks of the sidewalk.
A newly developed park offers an escape from the city in Charlotte, North Carolina (photo by Aubrey Hedrick, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library).
A newly developed park offers an escape from the city in Charlotte, North Carolina (photo by Aubrey Hedrick, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library).

Workshop Flow

Workshop Musings

  • What is ecology?
  • What is urban ecology?
  • How do I learn to see or uncover interactions between living things and their habitats or ecosystems?
  • What are things I’ve started to notice that I didn’t before?
  • What can my senses tell me about the place I live?
  • How can I share this information with others?
A leaking fountain provides water to spontaneous vegetation.
A leaking fountain provides water to spontaneous vegetation.

Introductory Activity: What is Ecology?

Suggested Timing: 40 minutes

Getting Started (15 minutes): Ask participants to work together in small groups of 2-3 to review the Getting Started With Urban Ecology zine, which presents working definitions of ecology and urban ecology, and also includes an example setting (a bustling city street!) in which to notice interactions between ecosystem components. After a few minutes, bring the group together for discussion:

  • Who can explain the definition of ecology? Of urban ecology?
  • What types of interactions did you notice in the illustration?
  • What are some other interactions you’ve observed in your neighborhood that capture or convey urban ecology?

Group Exploration (15 minutes): Shift attention to the "nature in the city/the city in nature" images that you printed out. Talk through each image as a group, using the following prompts for discussion:

  • Whats sorts of interactions do you notice in these photos?
  • How do nature and ‘the city’ come together in these examples?
  • In what ways might nature and 'the city' be working together or against one another in this photo?
  • Do these images inspire any other thoughts or reflections? Have you observed similar interactions in your neighborhoods?

Setting up the Field Journal (10 minutes): After the short discussion, distribute field journals—the urban explorer’s most important tool! Discuss what you might choose to include in the journal, like drawings, words, observations, interviews, reflections, and even samples or specimen (this information is also presented in the zine). Give participants some time to setup their field journals. Make sure they add their name, 'zine holder', and Sensory Nature Walk prompt sheets. Then, on a blank page where they'll start their observations for the day, make sure they make note of the date and location. Introduce the idea of capturing information that comes from your senses. This process is what we’ll test in the field.

Sample materials for this workshop: a field journal, viewfinder, and pencils.
Sample materials for this workshop: a field journal, viewfinder, and pencils.

Field Exercise: Sensory Nature Walk

Suggested Timing: 60 minutes

Participants explore a field site located immediately outside a library building.
Participants explore a field site located immediately outside a library building.

For this field exercise, participants will visit several field sites and attempt to tune their senses of sight, smell, touch, and hearing to gather information about the local environment and try to uncover some of its mysteries.

We recommend having your group divide up into teams of two or three. Make sure participants bring their field journals and pencils with them to record observations at each field site. As a facilitator, you may also want to have some nature field guides and a camera (and mobile photo printer, or Polaroid camera, if you have one!) for snapping some photos (see Materials List).

Head to your first field site. Before allowing groups or individuals to explore on their own, come together first as a group outside. Remind participants of the following: Your body is a sensor; a tool for gathering information, or data, about the world around you; an instrument to understand the environment. To become an expert urban ecologist, you must train your body—your sensor—to notice different phenomena, or unique aspects (maybe problems) of the landscape.

Then sit in a circle, have everyone close their eyes and be silent for 30 seconds, and do an example reflection together:

  • What can be heard?
  • Are there any distinct scents?
  • What are ways that we can record our observations in the field journals?
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PLIX Tip: We have found that participants tend to favor their sense of sight during a sensory nature walk. This activity is a nice way to help participants practice using other senses — like hearing and smelling!

Next, guide participants in recording this information in their field journals. Encourage them to experiment with both words, drawings, and affixing clippings. Then, following this group reflection, allow participants to explore the field site further while recording on their own or in small groups.

You can use the rest of the time to explore your other field sites. As a facilitator, make sure to encourage different ways of completing the activity—remaining stationary and investigating all the senses; moving about and focusing on one sense; etc.

Fences can create interesting barriers in the environment. Often, they unintentionally "catch" and hold onto wind-dispersed seeds. When these seeds grow, they can sometimes tolerate the fence in a way that humans did not intend: in this case, the tree has learned to grow around (and through) the fence!
Fences can create interesting barriers in the environment. Often, they unintentionally "catch" and hold onto wind-dispersed seeds. When these seeds grow, they can sometimes tolerate the fence in a way that humans did not intend: in this case, the tree has learned to grow around (and through) the fence!
Sometimes, it isn't possible include an entire specimen in your field journal. In this case, the specimen was an entire tree! Here, a participant decided to "capture" a record of the tree in two ways: 1) using a photo and 2) picking off some leaves and seeds! Each of these methods can be incorporated into the field journal.
Sometimes, it isn't possible include an entire specimen in your field journal. In this case, the specimen was an entire tree! Here, a participant decided to "capture" a record of the tree in two ways: 1) using a photo and 2) picking off some leaves and seeds! Each of these methods can be incorporated into the field journal.
Vegetation that arises in the cracks of sidewalks is called SUV: spontaneous urban vegetation. These are stress-tolerant species of plants that thrive in harsh environments, like construction sites, side walks, and even on buildings. In this case, this SUV species is growing in pure sand (nestled in cracks) as its soil! SUVs (often thought of as weeds) are often the best adapted plant species to grow and survive in urban environments.
Vegetation that arises in the cracks of sidewalks is called SUV: spontaneous urban vegetation. These are stress-tolerant species of plants that thrive in harsh environments, like construction sites, side walks, and even on buildings. In this case, this SUV species is growing in pure sand (nestled in cracks) as its soil! SUVs (often thought of as weeds) are often the best adapted plant species to grow and survive in urban environments.
Trees grow tall and broad to out-compete nearby trees for sunlight. Humans can choose to design in concert with this feature, or against it! Here, a tree's branches extend into telephone lines. Ecologically-sensitive design can prevent circumstances like this one, which is unfortunate for both the tree and people who rely on the lines for telecommunication!
Trees grow tall and broad to out-compete nearby trees for sunlight. Humans can choose to design in concert with this feature, or against it! Here, a tree's branches extend into telephone lines. Ecologically-sensitive design can prevent circumstances like this one, which is unfortunate for both the tree and people who rely on the lines for telecommunication!

Come-Together: Field Journal Share-Out

Suggested Timing: 20 minutes (10 min for the activity + 10 min for clean-up & hand-washing)

For the come-together activity, we recommend staying outside (weather permitting), perhaps using a picnic table or shady area to sit down together as a group. Ask each participant to share something interesting they noticed in the field — encouraging them to share their field journal notes and observations with the group.

Some prompts for further discussion:

  • What do participants notice now that they didn’t before?
  • Can they discover any new interactions that they hand’t thought about or seen before?
  • Which senses do they use the most?
  • What are different scents telling them about the urban environment and the way people are living in/using it?
An example field journal with specimen clippings and a printed photo from the field!
An example field journal with specimen clippings and a printed photo from the field!
An example field journal with drawings, written observations, as well as clippings.
An example field journal with drawings, written observations, as well as clippings.

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