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When Nature Speaks

Originally appears in the Spring 2013 issue

Unearthing activities and programs that successfully connect students with their environment can be a struggle. While visits outdoors are useful, there remains the challenge of how to engage students with their surroundings. Dramatic activities such as role-playing are a useful way to get students excited about nature and open them up to further environmental learning opportunities.

While current environmental education programming aims to improve children’s knowledge about the natural world, it can sometimes leave students feeling apathetic, depressed, or bored, rather than inspired to be outside. Such programs are often crammed with activities and rich with technical information and instruction, resulting in little or no time for thoughtful reflection, hands-on play or inquiry. It is understandable that these programs appeal to educators, as they are rich in content, but often they only allow for a superficial connection between students and the outdoors, sacrificing quality of experience for curriculum coverage and outcomes1.

Drama and character-based programs that incorporate place-based learning, creative teaching practices, and student inquiry, give participants the opportunity to learn through the use of their imagination. More unstructured time spent outdoors along with, a greater offering of creative activities and dramatic role-play opportunities allows for more hands-on interaction with the environment, encouraging children to identify and empathize with the natural world2. Role-play and other dramatic programs provide students with  entertaining activities that feel like play, making the thematic message of a program easier to engage in and understand.

The Benefits of Role-play

Interactive role-play enhances learning by encouraging students to help shape the activity; students shift from being passive observers to being active creators of their program. Students consequently feel increased ownership over the activity, which elicits more thoughtful reflection from the participants3.  The end result is a student who feels connected to nature more strongly than if they had simply been taught environmental concepts in the classroom.WhenNatureSpeaks2

When a child assumes and develops a role, their emotions and feelings of empathy for the character are engaged. Students experience, through imagination, the perspective of creatures from the natural world, and are more likely to be empathetic and appreciative towards the environment and its inhabitants3.  For example, a child pretending to be a squirrel might make meaningful connections between squirrel habitat, behaviour and food sources, and the necessity of the supporting ecosystem.

Perhaps the most compelling benefit of role-play is its ability to create memorable and enjoyable learning experiences for both the students and the activity leader. As role-play is a creation of its participants, it is never the same twice, and this mystery helps maintain active engagement throughout the program4. As a result, role-play activities tend to be highly-charged and entertaining, driven by the instructor, but powered by the energy and imagination of the students.

How to Make Role-play Effective for your Class

All classes are unique, and through creative planning, role-plays can be designed to be beneficial to every class, regardless of size or student learning level.

Class Size – Most scripted plays are limiting as they are designed for a particular number of pre-set characters. More creative role-plays (such as the activity with this article) allow for greater flexibility in the number of participants, and can be run successfully with a class size of 4-40 students. With larger classes, the students can be split into smaller groups, who each run through a scenario or situation, allowing the teacher to travel between each to observe and participate in the discussions.

Behaviour and Management Issues – Role-play allows students greater freedom and more control over an activity than traditional programs, which can be nerve-racking for educators who may have students in their classes with behavioural issues.  However, role-play is often a great fit for students with behavioural issues as it is highly active and dynamic, which increases student participation and engagement, frequently resulting in improved behaviour.  Role-play also makes use of increased hands-on learning and imaginative play, which engages the whole student (mind and body) and appeals to a wide variety of learning styles.

Physical Limitations– Role-play offers several benefits for working with groups of students with physical disabilities. Many traditional programs work on the assumption that all students are equal in ability, which can be limiting and frustrating for students with disabilities. Role-play allows students to take-on a variety of different parts, which can be individually tailored to students, with physical impediments easily incorporated into the role-play character. As an example, a student with reduced mobility could be given the role of a porcupine in a wildlife role-play. The porcupine, although slow, has a number of unique and interesting adaptations which would help the student identify more with the animal, and consequently be less likely to feel deterred because of their own disability.

Setting the Stage for an Effective Role-play

For teachers unfamiliar with leading role-play activities, the following tips will help you and your students to create a fun and effective program:

    Prior to the Role-play Activity

  • Slow down. Role-plays require time for students to learn about their characters, visualize their roles, participate, and debrief. Give yourself plenty of time when you organize your first play so the children have time to truly buy-in to the experience without feeling rushed.
  • Inform the participants.  Actors cannot act without knowledge about the scene, and likewise, students cannot participate in a role-play without adequate information about their scenario. Ensure you first educate the students about the scenario, characters, and issues so they can fully engage in their role.

     During the Role-play Activity

  • The leader sets the tone.  As the students’ role-model, it is critically important that you actively participate in the role-play as a character; if you don’t feel inclined to ‘play along,’ neither may some of your students. Your participation in the activity often provides a vital ingredient to the drama, giving your students the courage to participate as well4.
  • Make the participants comfortable, both physically and emotionally.  Role-plays can be stressful and mentally taxing for some students.  Make sure the activity is conducted in a secluded and comfortable location – it takes an enormous amount of bravery and mental exertion for many students to participate in such an activity; they don’t need to be worried about a gathering audience or frigid temperatures as well.
  • Go with the flow.  Perhaps most importantly, remember that role-play is organic. This is an activity that cannot be fully planned in advance, and while there will be some role-plays that are more successful than others, the best role-plays come together spontaneously, and variance and uniqueness is to be encouraged. Come prepared for a variety of situations, and then hold on for the ride.

            Following the Role-play Activity

  • Validate the emotions experienced.  Depending on the topic of your role-play, complicated concepts may arise, such as environmental health or the treatment of animals by humans. These topics can elicit a variety of emotions in the participants, which can be difficult for some individuals to understand and communicate. Ensure the participants are listened to thoughtfully and their emotions are discussed in order to validate the importance of their experience.
  • Maintain the natural connection formed. Like all relationships, multiple encounters are required to forge strong connections. Use role-play in addition to other nature-based activities, such as outdoor journaling and nature hikes, to help your students form stronger feelings of connection to their local environment.

Most children have an innate interest in play and using their imaginations, which can be powerful tools for significant educational experiences. Role-play activities are ideal to use in environmental education as they provide excitement and mystery to students, and engage them to participate, have fun, and deeply connect with the meaning behind the lesson. As an educator, let your students see your love of nature by jumping into a role-play program and setting your inner animal free!


1. Nabors, M. L., Edwards, L. C., & Murray, R. K. (2009). Making the case for fieldtrips: What research tells us and what site coordinators have to say. Education, 129(4), 7.

2. Levey, S. (2005). Drama in environmental education. Green Teacher, 77, 15-19.

3. McNaughton, M. J. (2010). Educational drama in education for sustainable development: Ecopedagogy in action. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 18(3), 289-308.

4. McSharry, G., & Jones, S. (2000). Role-play in science teaching and learning. School Science Review, 82, 73-82.


Role-Play Activity: When Nature Speaks

Purpose: To encourage students to assume the role of a forest creature and elicit feelings of natural connectedness and empathy towards wildlife and the environment as a whole.

Grade Level: Grades 4-9                     Time: 60-90 minutes

Setting:  A natural, outdoor location works best. A secluded, wooded space is preferred as it acts as a sanctuary, allowing students to engage more deeply in the activity.

Materials: Species Cards – Make up 5-6 cards featuring one local animal species per card. Include details about the animal, such as its diet, adaptations, and any fun facts. Print enough for one card per participant.


1. Lead the students to the centre of the wooded space and ask them to comfortably sit and close their eyes.

2. With the students’ eyes closed, the activity leader introduces themselves as “Mother Nature” and tells the students a story of transformation, asking them to visualize themselves transforming from human into a ‘more-than-human’ creature of the forest.  (It can help to pre-write a small story ahead of the activity for those less comfortable with improvisation. Have fun with it – the story should be detailed and whimsical – the more visual imagery the better.)

3. Following the story, with the students still sitting reflectively with closed eyes, hand each an animal character card.

4. After the students receive their cards, ask them to take a moment to go over their species’ characteristics quietly, then hand in the card and head off to explore the forest on their own as their new character. This time is important for the students to be active in developing and shaping their characters as well as their stories, not just asked to re-enact a pre-written script.

5. After given adequate time to explore the forest as their animal (5-15 minutes depending on the students), call the students back, asking them to find others of the same species without using their human voices. This allows the students to employ aspects of improvisation and creativity through inventing ways to communicate with their classmates without their voice.  Encourage them to act physically and use props (e.g., sticks for antlers)

6. Once all of the “animals” have found each other, Mother Nature will convene the animal groups, informing them of important environmental situations the “animals” groups need to discuss (i.e. a wildfire is approaching the forest, an increase in predators is experienced, etc.). After each situation is presented by Mother Nature, have each animal species discuss its effects on them, and in turn, present their views to the group.  Have the students come up solutions for the predicament based on their species.

7. After several rounds of these discussions, Mother Nature can lead the students through an exiting story where they are asked to return to their human state.

Optional Additions: The activity can be extended over a few hours or even over a few weeks by adding additional activities to the role-play.  Such activities could include journaling as their character, mask making, or additional research into their particular animal species.


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Emma Gilbertson is the Education Coordinator at the DevonianBotanic Garden, a department of the University of Alberta. She holds a MA in Environmental Education, as well as a BSc in Environmental and Conservational Sciences. She has over 10 years of experience in creating and delivering outdoor and environmental education programs in a variety of non-formal education venues; including summer camps, farms, park systems, and botanic gardens.