Poetry and Science: Pathways to Presence

By Emilie Lygren|April 20, 2023

“I’m a poet and outdoor science educator.” This is what I say when asked what I do for work. For me, poetry and outdoor science are complementary ways of looking at the world. They’re both rooted in common attitudes of attention, curiosity, and humility. They both require being present with the world in a deep way. And both fields of study can support learners, educators, and communities to develop environmental literacy and a sense of place.

Emilie writes in the redwoods.

My own relationship with poetry and outdoor learning started early. While growing up in the Monterey area in California, I loved spending time outside. I liked to study nearby trees, plants, animals, and bodies of water, and I often composed poems in my mind based on what I saw. Paying close attention to my surroundings helped me feel grounded and connected to place. Learning through my own observations made me curious to know more. In part, these interests emerged from having access to outdoor spaces and parents who encouraged me to express myself creatively. I was also fortunate to learn through an ecosystem of experiences in nature and generous individuals and groups I’d known.

I had a fantastic sixth-grade science teacher who invited students to engage in curious, careful investigation of the mysteries of the world. At the beginning of a class period, he’d hand out binoculars and field guides, then say, “Go out and find out what birds we have on campus. Come back in an hour and tell me what you saw.” Throughout the school year, our class mapped which plants grew around the schoolyard, collected and sketched insects, searched for fence lizards, and discussed how the school’s water use impacted nearby animal and human communities. By the end of the year, I’d gained a set of tools and mindsets for nature study that continues to sustain me to this day; environmental education made a difference in how I perceived myself as a learner and as a community member.

But not everyone has the access to the outdoor spaces and environmental learning opportunities that I did. In fact, access to green space and educational opportunities is often stratified by race and class. Many organizations in California and beyond are working to address these disparities and expand access and inclusion in the outdoors, including affinity-based organizations like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro, education and advocacy organizations like Justice Outside, networking and community-building organizations like Ten Strands, and many more. Policy efforts such as A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy” lay out a vision and strategies for “educating every California student in, about, and for the environment.” And there are hundreds of providers across the state that offer outdoor learning experiences. The work of all of these organizations is important and necessary to support environmental literacy. 

I have spent most of my time in the outdoor education world working with the BEETLES Project, based at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. Since its beginning in 2011, BEETLES has focused specifically on shifting the culture of outdoor teaching toward learner-centered pedagogy, encouraging instructors to be curious about students’ ideas, to represent science as a way of thinking rather than a list of facts, to help learners develop transferable thinking tools, and to focus on common and accessible parts of nature. BEETLES professional learning sessions, like “Making Observations,” offer learner- and nature-centered practices, paired with research and theory behind why they are effective. BEETLES student activities, like “Discovery Swap,” offer practical, learner-centered resources for instructors to use. Supporting resources, such as “Engaging and Managing Students in Outdoor Science” and “BEETLES Guide for Outdoor Science Program and Organization Leaders,” offer general support for instructors and organizations. 

Emilie and a group of students explore a creek in Sonoma, CA.

Prior to working for the BEETLES Project, I was an instructor at residential outdoor education schools, where I spent every day outside with students. My goal was to offer learners a range of different ways for being outdoors, from direct observation and close study of organisms to discussions of environmental issues to nature journaling to exuberant play. I also called on my love of poetry and facilitated writing exercises with students. I found that learner-centered, observation-based teaching practices and nature journaling in particular fed easily into poetry.  My poetry eye quickly noticed that lists of observations, questions, and connections that students said out loud often sounded a lot like poetry––which is teeming with observations, questions, and connections. It wasn’t hard to encourage budding young writers to transform their scrawled notes, memories, and firsthand observations into poems, which they were often eager to share.

Emilie facilitates the BEETLES activity, Thought Swap, with environmental education instructors and organization leaders.

Ada Limón, the national poet laureate, says, “Poetry offers us a way to be closer to who you are.” In my experience, poetry also offers us a way to be closer to where we are through the process of careful observation, as in Brooke Maren Yokell’s poem:

My Backyard in the Spring
Brooke Maren Yokell, third grade

I sit in the backyard for
hours looking up and noticing the
clouds swiftly drift by
When I’m there I hear the bees
buzzing, the birds chirping
and wind gently blowing the trees.

I let the low wind hit my face
with warm spring air.
I let the warm air flood through
my body.
I sink into the
hot grass trying
to figure out
the shapes of
the clouds. The
wind gently pushes the
trees toward us.

Writing and sharing poetry in the context of environmental learning supports learner-centered teaching, making room for students to share their perspectives and experiences, as in Lena Nguyen’s poem:

My Old Old Old neighborhood
Lena Nguyen, third grade

My old old old neighborhood
where I used to live
was a home to me.
It had everything I needed.
Playground behind my house.
And every time I was sad
it would calm me with
sweet hushing rain.
When I was not scared
it would scare me with thunder.
If I was bored it would let
the sun out and welcome me to play.
Every year it would celebrate
with different decorated trucks
depending on the year.
My old old old neighborhood
used to cheer me up all the time.

Writing poetry is also a way to reflect on responsibility, making sound choices, and reflecting how actions may impact communities, places, and people––as in Ada Limón’s “A New National Anthem.” Writing poetry offers a way to slow down, notice, and adorn the ordinary with attention, as the luminous poet Naomi Shihab Nye describes in “Valentine for Ernest Mann.” And, writing poetry can be a way to name and cherish meaningful memories of places, people, and communities, as in my own poem about elders teaching children how to plant seeds

Emilie offers a writing prompt to third graders at Edna Maguire Elementary School in Mill Valley, CA.

Below are two poetry exercises that integrate poetry into environmental and outdoor programming (suggested for students age seven and older). Use them with groups of students, or respond to them as writing prompts yourself!

Two poetry exercises to support learners in developing environmental literacy and a sense of place:

  1. Observation Poems: Calling on “I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of.”  

The BEETLES activity “I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of” is a backbone of my teaching outdoors. I begin every outdoor learning experience by introducing the three prompts, “I notice, I wonder, and it reminds me of.” My students and I call on these tools again and again, observing different organisms and phenomena, and building understanding and knowledge together as a group. During the course of my career as an outdoor science educator, I also got excited about using these same prompts to examine one’s own inner landscape, and I invited students to use these prompts to reflect on that, as well as on our relationship to the social dynamics around us. 

To facilitate the activity: 

  • Lead the BEETLES activity, “I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of as written. 
  • Offer these prompts as a set of thinking tools that can be used in many ways, including writing poetry, which is full of observations, questions, and connections. 
  • Invite students to find a place to sit comfortably, be present with the place they are in, and to write a poem about their experience.
  • Encourage students to begin by writing down things they notice, wonder about, or are reminded of in their surroundings. 
  • Ask students to then turn the prompts of “I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of” inwards, adding lines to the poem that explore and express what they notice about themselves, things they wonder about their experience or the world, and what they are reminded of while in this place.
  • Share that students don’t have to be rigid with the process, and they can use the prompts in any order they wish.
  • Share that if students get stuck while writing, they can always look around, notice something, and put it down on the page.  
  • Give students about seven minutes to write. 
  • Invite (but don’t require) students to share their poems with the group. 
  • Invite students to reflect on the process of writing the poem: 
    • What was writing the poem like for them? 
    • Did writing shift how they felt about the topic they chose, about themselves, or about their relationship to this place? If so, how? 
    • What did writing and sharing poems offer the group? 
    • How did it impact their relationship with the outdoors, place, and the environment in general?

See a more detailed version of this lesson plan.

2. List Poems: Calling on Identity, Memory, and Perspective

Listing is a common technique in environmental and outdoor science. Scientists and naturalists use lists of species to help understand ecosystem changes and dynamics. Poet, naturalist, and author J. Drew Lanham subverts and expands the idea of listing into poems that explore aspects of identity and justice in “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” and “9 Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher.”

List poems can offer opportunities for learners to reflect on aspects of their identities, memories, a specific place, an organism or phenomenon, an environmental issue or challenge, or a community. The constraint is also helpful; choosing a specific topic narrows the field of what to write about. 

To facilitate this activity: 

  • Read two to three of the example poems. (Be sure to include at least one of J. Drew Lanham’s.)
  • Ask students to share reflections on the poems: 
    • Which lines did they like? 
    • Where did the poem take them? 
    • How did it make them think in a new way?
  • As a group, invite students to brainstorm a few possible categories for list poems focused on place or their relationship to the outdoors. Share some examples first, such as identities you hold, places you love, sounds the wind is making today, things the sidewalk knows, things I know about oak trees, reasons for planting seeds, etc.
  • Give students about seven minutes to write. They could choose a topic the group came up with or make up their own category.
  • Invite (but don’t require) students to share their poems with the group. 
  • Invite students to reflect on the process of writing the poem: 
    • What was it like for them? 
    • Did writing shift how they felt about the topic they chose, about themselves, or about their relationship to this place? If so, how? 
    • What did writing and sharing poems offer the group? 
    • How did it impact their relationship with the outdoors, place, and the environment in general?


Throughout my career in environmental and outdoor science education, reading, writing, and teaching about poetry has helped me to stay connected to purpose and place. I have returned to poetry again and again and been sustained by the joy and perspective I’ve found there. I hope this article offers ideas for calling on poetry as a means to support environmental learning with your students and communities. 

Resources for Further Study of Poetry and Science, and Learner-Centered Instruction

Emilie Lygren
This article was written by Emilie Lygren

Emilie Lygren is a poet and outdoor educator who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Geology-Biology from Brown University. She has published poems in several literary journals and anthologies, and her first collection of poems, "What We Were Born For," was selected by the Young People’s Poet Laureate as the Poetry Foundation’s monthly book pick in February 2022. Emilie has also developed dozens of publications focused on nature journaling, outdoor science education, and social-emotional learning through her work at the award-winning BEETLES Project at the Lawrence Hall of Science. In her writing and teaching, Emilie calls on awareness and curiosity as tools to bring people into relationship with place, self, and community. She lives in San Rafael, California, where she wonders about oaks and teaches poetry in local classrooms. Find more of Emilie's work and words at emilielygren.com. Connect on Instagram: @emlygren.


  • Craig Strang

    Beautiful! Thanks, Emilie, for this heartfelt and inspiring summary of your insights about the connection between poetry and nature, poetry and science. Your contribution to all our thinking is so huge. Thanks, Ten Strands, for sharing so many brilliant voices that keep the movement growing and expanding.

  • Susan Gregory

    Emilie, this article is wonderful and so appropriate for Earth Day! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the BEETLES activities to inspire others to do the same. And thanks Ten Strands for publishing this and emphasizing the incredible power of art and nature together.

  • Susan Gregory

    Emilie, this article is wonderful and so appropriate for Earth Day! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the BEETLES activities to inspire others to do the same. Thanks Ten Strands for publishing this and emphasizing the incredible power of art and nature.