Teaching Writing

Layers of the Land: Prompts for Writing Outside

Write Out


This resource is available to support place-based writing outside anytime of year and comes with related resources and age-level recommendations. Originally developed for Write Out (writeout.nwp.org).

“Exploring the layers of the earth is like reading the pages of a book.” —James W. Mercer

According to the Grand Canyon National Park’s website, the story begins almost two billion years ago with the formation of the igneous and metamorphic rocks of the inner gorge. And still today these forces of nature are at work slowly deepening and widening the region. Further up the Colorado River, at the Colorado National Monument, ancient landscapes built up the rock layers of sand and mud that you see there.

The two videos below created by Rangers at these two National Parks prompt writers to get outside and consider the landscapes around them, how those landscapes have been formed, are still changing, and will look in the future.

Writing “Spark”

As educator Peter Elbow writes, “the most effective way … to improve your writing is to do free writing exercises regularly.” Use these writing “sparks” to get your free writing started. Use a notebook or a journal, go digital or stay analog, feel free to incorporate images and multimedia; use or experiment with approaches that work best for you.

Spark from Grand Canyon National Park—Imagine yourself standing on the landscape one million years in the future; what would it look like and why?

Content focus: Geologic time and change
Age-level recommendations: All ages
Time: Video length = 4:42; Writing time as needed

After a land acknowledgement, Ranger Tarryn asks writers to consider the scale of the Grand Canyon through a geologic timeline and then prompts them to reflect on change and time in their own community. Imagine yourself standing on the landscape one million years in the future; what would it look like and why?

Spark from Colorado National Monument—Create a storyboard that shows a place changing over time.

Content focus: Geologic change and forces; storyboarding
Age-level recommendations: All ages
Time: Video length = 1:43; Writing time as needed

Ranger Sam from the Colorado National Monument describes the way that she learns about and tells the story of the landscape. She describes the way that she creates storyboards to sketch the details that she wants to share with visitors to the park and encourages writers to do the same based on their place and the way it has changed (geologically or otherwise) over time.

Share Your Writing

Writing outdoors provides a wonderful opportunity to share your writing with others. Here are a few ideas how do this whether you are in person or at a distance from each other:

  • Come together in a circle to share your writing, or an excerpt from your writing (passing should also always be an option); if you aren’t in person, set up an online video conference to do this;
  • Develop a collaboration on the fly by having each writer share one line of their work to add to a greater whole; if you aren’t in person, you can create an email address, hashtag and/or online form for individuals to submit their selections;
  • Set up a “gallery” of writing which could support browsing, feedback and/or response; this is especially useful if the writing includes more than just text but also images, video, sound. This can happen in person or online using a shared collaborative space like Google Jamboard, Padlet etc.;
  • Especially during Write Out, share your writing by posting on social media using the hashtag #writeout

Related Resources

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

Geology at the Grand Canyon National Park: Have you ever wondered how the Grand Canyon was formed and why it is found here in Northern Arizona? To understand the formation of the canyon, there is a simple way to remember how it was shaped over time. All you have to remember are the letters D U D E or dude. The letters stand for: Deposition, Uplift, Down cutting and Erosion.

The Active Geology of the Monument: The rock layers here connect many neighboring National Park Service units. The Precambrian rock layer in our canyon bottoms is on full display at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The smooth Entrada sandstone along Rimrock Drive is the main arch-forming layer at Arches National Park. The Morrison formation in our highlands also produces fossils at Dinosaur National Monument. The geology here connects stories from across the Colorado Plateau and the planet.

Write Out: Write Out is a free two-week celebration of writing, making, and sharing inspired by the great outdoors, and was created through a partnership of the National Writing Project and the National Park Service. It is a public invitation to get out and create that is supported with a series of online activities, made especially for educators, students, and families, to explore national parks and other public spaces. The goal is to connect and learn through place-based writing and sharing using the common hashtag #writeout.


Image source: Cross-section of Sedimentary Layers, Wikimedia Commons

This post is part of the STEAM-powered prompts for Writing Outside collection.