The River as an Educational Resource

There’s a lot of science to be discovered around a river in winter, even if it’s half dry. Check the tree branches and trunks for mosses and lichens and even buds. Explore large rocks near the river for life, and if part of the riverbed is dry, check for interesting rocks and notes their differences and learn how they were formed. A science teacher with a camera can produce a lot of her own visual aids on one river walk.

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Whether you are a home educator or a classroom teacher, if you have a river nearby, you have a wonderful educational resource. I live near the Salinas River and often hike the Salinas River Trail in Larry Moore Park in Paso Robles. It normally has water only a few months of the year, and only if there’s a normal amount of rain. Most of the year the Salinas River is subterranean. You don’t see the water. The river normally appears during winter, and I usually start searching for water around January. This year, though, we had our heavy rains start earlier than usual. So I went out in search of the river today, December 28, 2012. I found it.

Water in Salinas River
Water in Salinas River flowing north toward Niblick Bridge, Paso Robles

I followed the river bed for some distance, since I always get excited about what I see. Today it struck me how much science there is to investigate in the river and the riverbed.

Is there a story under this willow?
Is there a story under this willow?

As I walked along the edge of the river, I saw these small clumps of willows everywhere. Those closest to the west channel, which always stays full of water the longest, seemed to live on top of brush piles. Let’s take a closer look at one of these. Do you think a child might wonder how all this material happened to be under this willow? Might one try identifying different types of trees from what’s in these piles? What might one learn about a river by observing this small tree?

What's under this willow?
What’s under this willow?

Although the overall impression as one walks along the river in late December is colorless brown and tan branches and dead leaves, some plants show they are very much alive, or host things that are. On the ground beneath are new weed seedlings. There are red buds on some of the twigs. Moss and lichens also add color. Children turned loose with a hand-held microscope would have fun discovering this variety of mosses and lichens of different colors and identifying the new weed seedlings.

Winter Color in the Branches
Do you see all the colors here?

Children would also be fascinated at all they can see growing on a rock.

What grows on a rock in winter?
What grows on a rock in winter?

Not all growing on this rock is moss or lichen. We also see green seedlings. They need soil. How did soil get on this rock? How about the weed seeds? Is soil created on the rock itself? Or does it all blow into crevices? And why does the rock itself look the way it does? How was it created? There is geology as well as life science to be learned. All these questions can be answered through research and observation. As a teacher, you can inspire the curiosity that will make students want to solve the mysteries.

If you aren’t in a position to take your students on a field trip, you can at least make the trip to the river yourself with a camera. Take the pictures that will arouse interest in what you want students to learn. And don’t forget the videos. Watch the river’s current. Study the rocks in the riverbed to try to understand how they became what they are. You can even collect a few rocks to bring into the classroom. Here are some specimens I found.

Egg-Shaped Rock
Egg-Shaped Rock and Some Other River Rocks
Interesting River Rocks and Milk Thistle Seedlings
Interesting River Rocks and Milk Thistle Seedlings

Author: Barbara Radisalvjeivc

I have been reading since the age of three, and still use books to relax or learn something new. I sold books in a store and online and on the road for a total of 30 years, and now I enjoy recommending my favorites to others.

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