Walking, Wonder, & Writing: Supporting Literacy Through Imaginative Place-Based Practices (Elementary)

Everything has a story.

It was a glorious day—truly glorious. I had a sneaking suspicion that the teachers that chose my session entitled #getoutside: Resources For Cross-Curricular, Place-Based Learning In Your Schoolyard shared the same wish: they really wanted to #getoutside as well! This walkshop provided participants with the opportunity to play with some imagination-focused place-based teaching practices. It was a good!


I began the session with a warp speed introduction to an approach to teaching called Imaginative Ecological Education, or IEE. (I told you, we all really wanted to get outside!). Then I specifically focused on the Walking Curriculum,  a PreK-12 teaching resource that looks at how themed-walks that explore the local community / playground can support cross-curricular learning. We discussed the importance of properly preparing to use the Walking Curriculum before starting—this is crucial for success! Preparation includes things like getting parents’ support but also, importantly, setting the imaginative scene with students each and every time!


Outdoors in our walkshop, the teachers tried different walking-based activities from the Walking Curriculum. I asked them to notice how different cognitive tools engaged their imaginations and to then reflect upon how a walking-focused practice could support their teaching goals. Next, they focused on “literacy”–this was the curricular theme chosen by the group. In their small groups the teachers went walking and exploring, each group tasked to come up with their own idea for how focused walking could support writing instruction in the elementary school classroom. These are a few of their* ideas:

Writing Stories

Everything has a story. Allow students to explore the playground and to choose one natural thing that they want to bring into their imaginations. What is the story on the item? (e.g. the falling of leaves. Start—the journey, the destination) (Cognitive tool: the story-form)

Ask students to identify an object high up and out of reach (tree, sun, clock tower). Ask: If it could speak, what story would it tell? What would you ask it? How have this object’s surroundings changed over time? What has it observed happen? (Cognitive tool: Humanization Of Meaning/Personificationthe story-form)

Invite your students to explore a “new land”. Tell them they should imagine that they are either very very small or very very large. Miniscule or monstrous! How do they travel around where they are? What are the dangers? What are the gifts of being this size? What happens to them as they travel? Who or what do they encounter? What would it feel like to live forever as this new size? (Cognitive tools: Abstract Binary Opposites; the story-form)

Write “a day in the life of” something living in the natural area. A spider? A slug? A fly? A bird? Anything goes! Describe the character of this living thing—the students may personify natural objects to bring them to life, too. (Cognitive tool: the story-form) FYI: you might enjoy this free IEE resource:  The Secret Life of Worms & Soil


Encourage students to choose two natural items that they consider to be opposites. Ask them to describe the two objects in as much detail as possible. They should also justify how they are opposites! What kinds of “opposite” categories can they search for? (Expand and discuss as a class—re-investigate the playground.) Now invite students to pull their chosen items into your imaginations. How did each object end up where they found it? What would it say to its opposite? (Cognitive Tool: Abstract Binary Opposites) 

Mind The Details! Ask students to find something that they have never noticed before. Why is it there? What does it do? They can now create a story that predicts what this thing is for and what will happen to it next. (Cognitive tool: Sense of Mystery & Puzzles).


Ahead of time, collect some paint strip samples at a local hardware store. Lay out the samples on the grass. Have students choose one colour. Students can then search for the same hue in the playground/school ground. Find matches. They can use the found-objects and develop some descriptive language to describe the colours. (Extension: Do a colour rainbow using natural found colours.) Then, as a class (with varying teacher support) use the language to write some colour poems.

Encourage students to imagine that they are explorers on an alien planet. They have to report back on what you hear, see, smell, feel. They can each begin to explore by finding one spot to sit. Allow them to sit for some time and try to collect in their minds as many details as possible. Suggest to them that they take a mental picture. Then they can record what they’ve observed through their senses. With varying teacher support the experience can be used to build poems of different kinds (e.g. use metaphor to explain what things were like) (Cognitive tools: mental imagery; metaphor)

The Authors

Thank you Chris, Timon, Christina, Katie, Hayley, Vanessa, Thea, Elsa, Esther, Jeanette, Kimberly, Valerie, Catherine, Patti, Cindy, Elicia, Kati, Sue, Amy, Debbie, Christa, Meghan, Doris, Susan, Mary, Allison, Jane, Sarah, Valerie, Bev, Janice, Kim, Hannah, Diana, Katie, Amy, Jon, and others who slipped away before I got your names! I appreciate your passion for teaching and good humour.







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2 thoughts on “Walking, Wonder, & Writing: Supporting Literacy Through Imaginative Place-Based Practices (Elementary)

  1. What great ideas for making meaningful outdoor education through engagement of the cognitive tools! With Fall upon us, I want to try one of these right now. I also have another one:

    When I was younger I read a lot of Calvin and Hobbes. In one strip, Calvin was annoyed that he had to collect 50 different types of leaves for a class project. But now as a teacher I think it is an idea that would work well. By collecting different types of leaves students could learn about the different taxonomies of plants, and also engage their cognitive tools of collections and sets.

    1. Tell me how the leaf activity goes Clayton. Science, Math, Language Arts…
      And try the walks!
      Thanks for your comment 🙂

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