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
- Background & Materials
- Workshop at a Glance
- Supply Kit
- Getting Started with Urban Ecology Zine
- Sensory Nature Walk Prompts
- "Nature in the City/The City in Nature" Images
- Workshop Flow
- Workshop Musings
- Introductory Activity: What is Ecology?
- Field Exercise: Sensory Nature Walk
- Come-Together: Field Journal Share-Out
- Additional Resources
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
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 →
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 →
"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).
- 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?
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.
Some additional resources for keeping a field journal:
- How to keep a field journal
- Keeping a naturalist’s field journal
- Keeping a field journal
- Guidelines for keeping a laboratory record
- Field notebooks: a student’s guide
Field Exercise: Sensory Nature Walk
Suggested Timing: 60 minutes
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?
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.
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?
- Looking for some background music? Check out our Urban Ecology Spotify playlist 🎶
- Want tips on facilitation? Sign-up for our Urban Ecology Email Mini-Course 💌
- Questions? Ask them on the PLIX Discussion Forum 🙋♀️
- Share your experience running this workshop on social media using #PLIXUrbanEcology 😎
The Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX) is a project of the MIT Media Lab Digital Learning & Collaboration Studio. Except where otherwise noted, all materials on this site are licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. Accessibility.