A few weeks ago, on NAEYC’s online discussion forum, awesome science educator Peggy Ashbrook (Science is Simple), asked me how one might integrate media literacy into early childhood outdoor education. So, with thanks to Peggy for inspiring me to think more deeply about the topic, here’s my response. It’s not intended to be comprehensive. Think of the ideas as springboards to help you dive in and create your own media literacy lessons for children aged 4-7.
If you’re like many people, the term “media literacy” conjures an image of a child looking at a screen. And that’s not without cause. In our digital world, it is impossible to become media literate without using screen-based technologies. But media aren’t limited to screens and neither is media literacy education (MLE).
MLE is not about teaching the same old things with new technologies. Nor is MLE focused on protecting children from media or convincing them to spend less time using screens. Rather, MLE is an expansion of traditional literacy that prepares children to be thinkers and makers in the digital world. That means devoting attention to image- and audio-based communication as well as to text.
MLE pedagogy is inquiry based; its goals are to help children develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression demanded by the multimedia world that is their reality. MLE helps young children recognize and understand
- constructedness (i.e., that media are made by people who make choices about what to include and exclude),
- ways that we shape and are shaped by media, and
- how we can use various media forms to communicate feelings and ideas effectively.
There are substantial overlaps between science skills and media literacy skills. Both science and media literacy education ask people to:
• Make, describe, and record careful observations
• Analyze observations using “compare and contrast”
• Link opinions or conclusions to evidence
• Use reason and logic to evaluate evidence and information sources
Keeping these goals in mind, here a few activity ideas…
1. Guide children to notice and analyze media that are in outdoor spaces.
Many hiking trails and parks include a multitude of signs: no motorized vehicles on trails; dogs welcome (or forbidden); historical plaques; park logos; trail maps; explanation panels of natural features; and even hiker-created trail markers. You could guide children in analyzing any or all of these and ask questions like: What does that sign mean? How do you know? Why do you think they made a special marker to help us notice this rock formation? What colors do they use on the signs and why do you think they chose those colors? Why do you think the park logo includes a tree?
- Awareness – (I never really noticed that sign before).
- A sense of constructedness – (Someone drew that map and made choices about what to include).
- Curiosity (Why did the person who made that sign choose to include flowers but not bugs?).
With some adult guidance, all of these insights can later be applied to screen media.
In combination with analysis, making media helps children synthesize and reflect on what they have learned. Invite kids to design their own trail markers, park logos, or playground signs. What would they highlight and why? What do they think the signs should look like and where should they be posted (or not posted)? Is it okay to have media everywhere, or do we want to have some spaces where there isn’t any media?
2. Document outdoor experiences.
In children’s hands, digital devices that can record audio, video, or photos offer a multitude of opportunities to combine learning about the natural world and media literacy. To transform tech use into a media literacy experience:
1) Involve children in decision making, and
2) Have follow-up conversations about the choices they make.
Photography and Video
By putting a lens in between a person and a subject, cameras provide an opportunity to see things in a new way. Once children have experienced the outdoors directly and from their own point of view, offer them cameras and prompt them to record as if they were looking through someone (or something) else’s eyes. What does the park look like from the perspective of a tree, a bird, a snake, or a gecko? Let them experiment with the camera to figure out what they need to do with it to help people see that perspective. Follow up by pointing out how authors, illustrators, app creators, and/or video makers show “point of view.”
Or you might introduce children to apps or device functions that transform a tablet’s or phone’s camera into a macro lens. Guide them to notice the differences between pictures with and without a macro lens. Use media terminology (e.g., pointing to what is included or excluded from the “frame” when you select a “close-up” or when you “zoom out” for a “wide shot”). That helps children develop the vocabulary they’ll need in later years to engage in more sophisticated media analysis.
Then give a prompt (connected to curricular goals) that provides an opportunity to decide when it would be helpful to use a macro or close-up and when a wider shot might be a better choice. For example, you might build on lessons about butterfly habitat:
a) Invite children to choose a “target audience” (families, other children, community leaders, etc.).
b) Use questions to help children plan how best to tell that audience what needs to be saved or expanded to preserve butterfly-friendly areas: Would it be better to use a macro shot of the pattern in a butterfly’s wing, or a wider shot of butterflies on the plants they need?
Note that there isn’t one “right answer” to that question. One child might opt for the wide shot because it would show the plants that need to be in the habitat while another might reason that people will enjoy the beauty of the butterfly wing and as a result, will want to know more about what happens to butterflies if they can’t find the plants they need.
The point isn’t to guide children to a correct answer; it’s to help them develop the habit of reasoning. We ask them to explain their choice as a way of offering an opportunity to practice linking choices to evidence. We guide them with additional prompts to help them see the strengths and shortcomings of their ideas: If we use the macro shot, how will we tell people which plants are important?
Follow that up with an opportunity for children to make and publicly share a multimedia or video documentary about why butterflies (and other pollinators) are important and what these important insects need to thrive, and you’ve now got kids who know they have the power to make a difference in the world!
And if you’re skeptical about young children’s abilities to impact their communities, take a lesson from second graders at Caroline Elementary School. As part of a science curriculum that integrates media literacy, they made a documentary about caring for the watershed in back of their school and convinced a reluctant school board to allocate $5,000 to their bridge repair efforts! (More on that project in a later post).
Photography not your thing? How about recording sounds to make a podcast. What sounds would children intentionally record? Which parts of their audio track would they use for various purposes/topics and why? When children are asked to make those sorts of editing decisions, they begin to attune to sounds in a different way, paying attention to details that previously went unnoticed. That leads to a richer experience.
Imagine, for example, the response to a question like, “What did you hear?” Children are likely to respond with something general: “I heard birds.” In contrast, children listening to the playback of their recording several times with a focus on selecting a few seconds of the best examples will begin to notice that the bird calls included different patterns and different tones. As children notice more, they typically have more questions. Perhaps there were different types of birds? Perhaps the birds were saying different things? Can birds have a conversation? Their questions lead to deeper thinking. With a bit of prompting, their observations will also carry over to the next outdoor opportunity, much the way that knowing what to listen for enriches the experience of hearing a jazz improv session.
As children improve their listening skills, you can also guide them to apply what they notice to the audio in the mainstream media they use. Background sounds influence our interpretation of media, whether we consciously take note of them or not. Children who produce podcasts (or other types of audio recordings) know that media makers make choices (i.e., media are constructed). This knowledge primes them to pay attention to media makers’ audio choices. In the world of media literacy education, awareness always leads to new questions: Is that game’s sound effect really the sound that fish make? Why does the movie start with such soft music? Why can I see the rocket lift off but not hear any noise?
Or children could conduct and record interviews. Perhaps on the group’s last adventure, two children saw a chipmunk run into its hole, but the others missed it. They could record an interview with the kids who saw the chipmunks. Imagine the language development as interviewers craft questions and interviewees describe what the animals look liked and what they did!
Or perhaps each individual child could become an expert on a different animal in their neighborhood and they could be interviewed as if they were that animal. So the interview isn’t with the kids who saw the chipmunk, it’s with the classmate who is pretending to be the chipmunk.
3. Document change over time.
Everyone teaches the seasons. How about helping children analyze common depictions of seasons (e.g., posters at schools, holiday cards, store signs and decorations) and compare those media to their actual lives?
At its best, media literacy can help children see their world in a new way, with new insight. Start by analyzing existing media. You might ask: When you look at a picture, are there clues that tell you what season it is? What clues would you look for if you were looking for a picture of autumn? What could you put in a picture if you wanted to show it was really cold or really humid outside? What would people be wearing? What would they be doing?
Questions lead to more questions, offering children opportunities to ponder the world more deeply as they go. For example, many posters printed in the U.S. use similar imagery to differentiate the seasons: snow indicates winter, rain (and sometimes seedlings) for spring, sun for summer, and changing or falling leaves for autumn. But how do you know when it’s winter in Phoenix or Miami – places where it never snows? And is it always sunny in the summer in Chicago? Never sunny in winter in Vail? If it’s raining, does that mean it is spring, even in Seattle or San Francisco or Los Angeles? And when it’s fall in your town, is it fall everywhere in the world? Can you guess from the pictures on the poster where the artist lives?
To help children compare the poster’s messages about seasons to what really happens where they live, have them take a picture of the same thing(s) outdoors over the course of a school year and note the changes over time. Ask children to determine what they should photograph. What in their environment changes and what stays the same? You might want to invite them to photograph different types of plants to see which change a lot and which seem not to change at all. That might spark an investigation of the difference between, say, deciduous trees and evergreens. This could be especially effective if your poster of the seasons uses a changing tree to symbolize the four seasons.
The pictures could be used to prompt additional observations: What did the subject of the photo look like at the beginning of the year? Just before winter break? At the end of the year? Or they could be used as reminders before heading out: What did the park look like when we first visited at the beginning of the year? Let’s pay attention to what’s different now.
You could start the unit by teaching about animation and show a short video that uses high speed video to show long term change in a very short viewing experience. Explain that to achieve this effect, the camera has to be stationary – in exactly the same place – every time they take a picture. Assign children to take the picture(s) daily or at a set time each week. If you aren’t savvy at video production, work with a parent, aide, library media specialist, intern or older child who knows a little bit about producing video to help edit the pictures together and speed them up, so you can see the change over time quickly. Then, at the end of the unit, the kids have not only learned about the changing seasons; they’ve also learned about animation and special effects!
Another version of seasonal explorations is to involve children in linking common holiday traditions, foods, and media representations with what’s happening in the natural world. Why do Thanksgiving decorations often include a cornucopia and how does that relate to it being a fall holiday? Similarly, would Halloween imagery be filled with pumpkins if we celebrated it in May?
4. Analyze representations of nature.
Before you ever meet a child for the first time, their ideas about nature and being outside have been shaped by their personal experiences and by media. All media – even when we know it’s not real – influence ideas about the world. You can teach children to ask the types of questions that will help them recognize media influences and learn to discern which media messages are helpful or trustworthy. (A developmentally appropriate sampling of such questions is available in my chapter in Chip Donohue’s NAEYC anthology, Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years).
When weather precludes time outdoors, turn attention to analyzing media messages about nature, ecology, or sustainability. Help children use media literacy questions to examine their books, apps, movies, or games. Focusing on media they already know works best. Model asking questions like:
What are the messages about nature? Is it something to be conquered? A source of food? Should we fear going into the forest? How about the ocean? What’s accurate about SpongeBob Squarepants’ habitat and the actual habitats of lobsters and starfish? Also, What sorts of people spend time outdoors? Do any of them look like me? What do they do when they are outside? And, What are the messages about animals? Are they scary? Friendly? Do lions really look like the pictures in the book? What’s the difference between what the turtle could do in the story and what they do in real life? Follow every prompt with a probe for evidence: How do you know? What makes you say that?
You might also help children look at food packaging. Identify food packaging as a form of advertising, which is a form of communication. What’s the package saying to us? Are there clues that children can spot that tell them which packages contain foods that are from plants, trees, vines, or bushes? Which just pretend that real fruit or vegetables are inside? Hint: Teach children to look for the word “flavored.” Even if the word is different in their home language, the packages they are likely to encounter in the U.S. will use the English word, so teach the word in both languages. Pre-readers can look for the first couple of letters, “F” and “L.” When the word “flavored” is accompanied by pictures of real fruit or vegetables it means that the package is almost certainly wearing a disguise. Real foods don’t need fancy or disguised packages to tempt us – they’re delicious all by themselves!
To use media literacy as a bridge between outdoor education, sustainability, and nutrition lessons, follow-up by taking a walk around the neighborhood and look at the sorts of things that end up as litter. How many of the items that children spot are food packages, especially food packages that disguise what’s inside? Help children see that they can help the environment by picking up the litter, and also by eating fresh produce instead of things that are wrapped in a lot of packaging. Compare what happens to the remains of, say, an orange you eat and orange flavored Jello, soda, or snack cakes.
5. Find credible answers.
Central to being media literate is the ability to ask relevant questions and find credible answers. We rob children of the opportunity to learn how to find answers when our first impulse is to provide answers every time they ask a question. Instead, consider making it a habit for your first response to be, How could we find out? Then we can model how we would find the answers.
Being outdoors, especially in new environments, sparks lots of questions. There are skills to be mastered, unfamiliar creatures to investigate, intriguing rocks, and so much more.
Whether it’s in the moment using a phone or tablet, or later on when you have an Internet connection, if you go online to find an answer, describe each step of what you are doing and involve the child as much as possible: We can use a search engine to find an answer.* See this box here? I can upload the picture you took to help us figure out what it is. Or, I can type in a question. What question should I ask? When the list appears, talk through how you select what you’ll click on: The top sites are trying to sell me something and I’m not interested in buying anything right now, so I’m going to skip those. This one says it is a collection of pictures from a university where people specialize in studying about insects in our state, so I think that’s a good place to start. For young children, it doesn’t have to get any more complicated than that. It’s just a way to let them know that there are criteria people use to distinguish useful and not so useful sources. And you’re introducing media vocabulary in the process.
You can continue to expand children’s thinking about good sources by describing how you choose all sorts of things:
- Introduce books by explaining how you picked them. It doesn’t have to be more than a sentence: I especially like this book because the illustrations are drawn by an artist who really studied animals and the pictures of wolves and beavers are very realistic.
- Introduce guests by explaining their expertise: I invited Mr. Shemesh to help in our garden today because he grows organic strawberries that have won awards at the state fair! He can give us tips on how to keep our plants healthy without using pesticides that might hurt the bees.
BTW, If you want a great example of how kindergartners compared websites to learn how best to grow tomato plants, check out Vivian Vasquez’s & Carol Felderman’s brilliant book, Technology and Critical Literacy in Early Childhood.
*Note that there are search engines other than Google. I like DuckDuckGo because it doesn’t track users, but there are others. And all voice controlled devices (Alexa, Siri, etc.) are also search engines (except they only provide one answer to your query rather than a list).
6. Make art.
Artists have long taken drawing and painting tools into the wilderness to capture the beauty, mystery, grandeur, and peace of the natural world. This generation has an additional set of tools made possible by digital tech. For children who haven’t yet developed the fine motor skills to paint what they are seeing or experiencing, or situations where taking art supplies outside is impractical, cameras can be a profound tool.
Ask children how they could share the feeling of a special outdoor spot. Have a conversation about how people use selfies and emojis to indicate that they like something and then help them think beyond just liking or not liking a place. What is it about the place that makes it special? What could they show to someone else to let them know what the spot looks, feels, and sounds like (not just that they like it)?
When we think of media in terms of literacy — i.e. as the mastery of symbolic communication — all sorts of interesting possibilities emerge! And so many media literacy activities support selected Next Gen Science Standards for Kindergarten:
- Proficiency in asking questions
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Engaging in argument from evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
I am always on the lookout for other classroom-tested or childcare-tested ideas that reach beyond technology integration to help young children develop communication, reasoning, and analysis skills. If you’re willing to share your experiences, I’d love to hear from you. Or if you try out any of the ideas here, let me know how it goes. If you’d rather talk instead of taking the time to write a summary, that works, too. You can reach me via my website: InsightersEducation.com. Thanks!
May be reprinted or excerpted for educational, non-profit use with the credit: From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2018