The Built Environment

In Term 3 this year I took a break from running face-to-face science classes. Instead I trialled a new course on The Built Environment. I worked on this course with a friend of mine who is an architect.

July is winter in the Southern Hemisphere but this didn’t stop us from going outside for most of the classes. We went out into our local area to look at functions of buildings and take pictures of some details.

We saw how buildings that have the same function (e.g. a home) can look very different from the outside.

A home near ours Another home near us Concrete home

A portaloo on a building site prompted a discussion about the design of toilet blocks.

portable toilet

We went to a local community garden to investigate interactions between people and the environment.

Manly Vale Community Garden

My husband took the children to a local shopping mall to talk about systems in the built environment. At home we thought about how buildings have changed over time, and how we can plan sustainable, energy efficient buildings for the future.

Together with a few other Nurture Learning guinea pig families, we went on an outing into the bush. We looked at structures in nature, an old Aboriginal habitation, and the children built ‘fairy houses’.

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A few weeks later, we visited the Sydney Opera House. The children thought about compass direction, where the wind was coming from, the sun and shade and how this changed throughout the day. As they went through the activities they drew clues on a ‘mud map’ – a large site plan of the Opera House. We looked at the windows in the Opera House, the tiles, and thought about the materials that were used in the construction.

Opera House       Opera House excursion

As a follow up to all these activities, my children are designing their own built environments and learning about how the design process works in practice.

In the process of designing and trying out these activities, I have learned plenty about architects and the work they do, and structures both in nature and in the built environment.

I am very pleased with the way the trial classes and outings worked out, and only want to make a few minor changes before we offer this course more widely.

If you’re interested in your children taking this course, I plan to repeat it around the same time next year, i.e. Term 3: mid July to mid September 2016.

Earth and Space Science Class 3: The Earth, and Seasons

Our planet.

Our green and blue planet, the only one which has oxygen in our atmosphere, the only one in our solar system on which carbon-based life-forms can live and thrive.

By NASA ESA ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In this class, the younger group learned about how the Earth is round, not flat, and how there is no right way up for our globe as ‘down’ means towards the centre of the Earth.

I shone lamps on the globe to talk about Day and Night and we talked about the different temperature and rainfall in each season.

The older group did day and night very briefly (since I wanted to make sure we had covered that part of the NSW syllabus). I think everyone in the group has relatives or friends living in the Northern Hemisphere, either in Europe or North America. We all know that they are in bed in the middle of our day, and so we have to schedule Skype or FaceTime calls for the morning or evening.

We moved onto seasons and I tried to explain how it is not to do with the distance from the Sun but rather the angle the Sun’s rays make on the Earth. If the same beam of light is spread out into a larger area, there is less light (and heat) per unit area.

I have covered this before, but I know it is a tricky concept for people to understand. If I present this course again, I will design a different activity. For now, the seasons are explained in this article on NASA’s Space Place website, and the MIT video below:

I then produced some rainfall and temperature charts from Sydney and London, but with the city information rubbed out. I wanted the children to decide which chart came from where, and whether the seasons fitted in with our imported European model or not.

Graph from the BOM Indigenous Weather Knowledge site
Average monthly rainfall chart from BOM Indigenous Weather Knowledge website

I rushed through how to read graphs, to make sure the children knew what I was talking about. We brainstormed vocabulary associated with the four seasons. Then we tried to allocate different months to each of the four seasons to see if they fitted with the model.

In all honesty, this activity was not a hit. Personally I find reading charts fascinating but I guess it is not to everyone’s taste. 😉 Again, I will redesign this activity for another time.

However, clearly the Sydney weather does not fit with the European four seasons. For one thing, we never get snow in Sydney, and secondly our summer is quite wet and humid rather than hot and dry. The closer you get to the equator, the closer you get to two different seasons rather than four – basically a wet season and a dry season.

It has also been suggested that across Australia we would understand our weather better if we designated five or six seasons instead of the European four. Many of the traditional Aboriginal groups had six names for the seasons. They used observations of plants and of animal behaviour to indicate changes between the seasons, as well as precipitation and temperature. There is more information about Aboriginal seasons here and here.

A few different season models using information from Aboriginal tribes. Image taken from the Australian Geographic article “Should Australia have five Seasons?’ by Katie Duncan, April 12, 2011

Next week’s class will be about the Solar System, and to finish off the class, in both groups, we played a game from the Universe in a Box activity kit. The children had 2D scale pictures of the planets to order, plus cards with information and a little quiz on it. This was a popular activity. If you download the Universe in a Box kit you can print out your own copy of the cards and children can also colour in the pictures on the front if they wish.

Further information and resources:

Try keeping a nature diary. This is such an easy way to get out and about (especially good for kinaesthetic learners) and to have a visual record of changes in the seasons.

For visual learners I have only just found the MITK12 YouTube channel and they have quite a few Earth Science videos. I recommend checking them out.

There’s a simple game about the orbits of the Earth and Moon on BBC Bitesize, although I found setting the orbits a little frustrating.

Create symbols for each season and paint them on stones, as we did in a recent YuuMii workshop.

Students might like to make a model of the layers of the Earth. You could do it with modelling clay or bake a cake!

For auditory learners Videos as above.

Reading and writing

Go to your local library and dig out picture books about day and night and seasons, or venture into the non-fiction section to find some children’s books about astronomy and Earth science. I don’t have a favourite at the moment on the topic of The Earth or day and night, although for children from about 4 years old upwards, Why We Have Day and Night looks suitably quirky.

My youngest son loves the Guyku book by Bob Raczka and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, with haikus for each season of the year. Perhaps your children would like to write their own haikus?


Tactile children might like to make models of the Earth’s layers as above in the Visual information.

There are more ideas on the NASA SpacePlace site but I haven’t checked them out – do let me know if you try any of the activities on the site, or if you know of some great activities that I haven’t included above.