Teaching Writing

The Bird’s Nest on The Windowsill: Prompts for Writing Outside


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).

I acknowledge my status as a stranger;
Inappropriate clothes, odd habits
Out of sync with wasp and wren.
I admit I don’t know how
To sit still or move without purpose.
I prefer books to moonlight, statuary to trees.

But this lawn has been leveled for looking,
So I kick off my sandals and walk its cool green.
Who claims we’re mere muscle and fluids?
My feet are the primitives here—ah the air now
Is a tonic of absence, bearing nothing
But news of a breeze.

—Rita Dove, Reverie in Open Air

Rita Dove writes about finding a spot of nature in which to float into her reverie. When you pay attention to it, you’ll find nature is everywhere. It’s in the flowers and blades of grass popping up in the cracks of the sidewalk. It’s in the birds that nest in the doorways of stores.

In these videos you’ll be prompted to go outside and look for these moments of nature, notice where they intersect with the human-made world. What stories might you find there?

Writing “Sparks”

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 Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area—Look around at the birds in your area, to consider how they interact with both the natural and human-made environments. What sorts of challenges do they face?

Content focus: The joys of nature found in a park between two major cities.
Age-level recommendations: All ages
Time: video length=2:54; writing time as needed

Ranger Casey loves spending time with the birds and other animals of The Delaware Water Gap, and knows how special this natural world—which is surrounded by two large cities—really is. She encourages you to look around at the birds in your area, to consider how they interact with both the natural and human-made environments. What sorts of challenges do they face?

Spark from Philadelphia Writing Project—Contemplate Nature in Urban Parks

Content focus: Observation in urban parks.
Age-level recommendations: All grades
Time: video length=4:24; writing time as needed

Educator Angela Crawford takes us into the parks of Philadelphia as she falls in love with nature in urban spaces. Spend some time doing the same in your own urban park and find inspiration for your writing.

Spark from Kent State Writing Project—Contrasting Worlds: Intersections Between Human and Nature

Content focus: The poetry found in the spaces where human-made and nature-made meet.
Age-level recommendations: Resources oriented towards older writers
Time: video length=13 mins 20 seconds; Writing time as needed

Educator Amy Hirzel uses the Cuyahoga National Park and its surroundings as a metaphor for all that occurs at the intersections between the human-made and the natural world. She hopes that you will go outside and be inspired by the human and natural world that is directly around you, and consider all of the connections and contrasts found there.

Here is a set of related handouts along with an extended resource guide. This activity can be used with all ages while the video and resources are oriented towards middle- and high-school writers:

Sharing 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

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area: Situated within the most densely populated region of the United States, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area provides a unique opportunity to experience tranquil landscapes, rich human history, and striking scenery along 40 miles of the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi. The park offers year-round recreation including hiking, paddling, fishing, and hunting.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Though a short distance from the urban areas of Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park seems worlds away. The park is a refuge for native plants and wildlife, and provides routes of discovery for visitors. The winding Cuyahoga River gives way to deep forests, rolling hills, and open farmlands. Walk or ride the Towpath Trail to follow the historic route of the Ohio & Erie Canal.

U.S. Urban Parks and Programs: The NPS, through its many programs and parks, has much to offer the urban dweller: a sense of place, an escape from cubicle confines, recognition that everyone’s history is important, a restored and accessible waterfront, and a threshold experience to a greater outdoors.

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: Photo by Syed Ahmad on Unsplash

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