Running Urban Ecology remotely

During our brainstorms with many of you over the three weeks of PLIX Urban Ecology Online*, we came up with some ideas for running the activities given current restrictions:

  • Host an online sensory nature walk
  • Use houseplants to complete a soil shake and determine the components of soil that they’re growing in
  • Try a group Google Earth nature walk
  • Sort objects collected from your block/backyard and share your findings in a group call

Do you have other ideas do you have for running Urban Ecology remotely or at a distance? Have you tried any of these out with your patrons? Take a look through the activity guides and let us know in the thread!

*As part of our PLIX Online Workshop series, we created PLIX Urban Ecology Online— a 3-week mini online course designed to get librarians interested and comfortable in running the suite of PLIX Urban Ecology activities as well as remixing them for a virtual or socially-distanced setting.


I think some of the notebook pieces could be done independently too and then use the online sessions to check in with everyone (similar to the training for Urban Ecology, I suppose!)


I’ll be running the series of three urban ecology programs virtually in August 2020 at the Malden Public Library. I plan to hand out thirty kits in advance that provide the necessary materials for all three programs, but patrons can likely come up with what’s needed on their own as well. I plan to host them live, but also want to record the how-to sections, so patrons can do this anytime in the future as well.


What’s in your kits? We are waiting for funds to come through from a grant, but until then, we’d have to do this with no budget.


There are links to materials lists in each of the workshop guides on the PLIX website.
I didn’t include some common items (i.e. pencils), to save some money, so each kit came to about $10. Patrons can come up with these items or practical replacements for these items fairly easily, but I wanted to entice more people to attend with an activity kit. Fortunately, we have a donor who sponsors our summer programming. Let me know if you have any more questions.


I’ve been thinking of attempting this one remotely too, especially since I think it could be done at home as a more inter-generational type program.
I’m thinking (similar to Lydia and Emily) that a lot of the activities and exploration parts could be done individually and then have some kind of sharing session once a week, whether it’s a zoom call or just some type of visual forum. I think participants would be interested to see what other people have found and how their areas differ.


I wanted to share an overview of my experience running the Urban Ecology series remotely. I held three one-hour virtual workshops live via Zoom and then recorded shorter, distilled versions for YouTube. I prepared thirty Urban Ecology Kits that cost approximately $10 each with funds from a private donor, which could be picked up at the library via curbside pickup the week before. Each kit contained the materials listed in the workshop guides for all three activities, so they only had to be picked up once. The kits were a fun way to engage kids and make sure they had all the tools with them for the workshop.

Live Programs: We advertised for grades 3-8, but attendees were ages 3-9, so I simplified language and concepts on the fly. The best aspect of these programs was interacting with the children, who loved sharing their observations and experiences with nature.

1. Sensory Nature Walk: 8 attendees. We talked about how to do a Sensory Nature Walk, focusing on senses and what they can tell you about the environment, and how to record that information in the Field Journal. I then asked them to find 8-10 specimens for the second week’s activity, Tangible Ecosystem. The concepts were simple enough for everyone to be engaged and everyone left with a clear understanding of how to conduct a sensory nature walk and be prepared for next week’s activity.

2. Tangible Ecosystem: We had 11 attendees, ages 3-10, including everyone from the week before. I had uploaded the overview video for Sensory Nature Walk the week before, so anyone who couldn’t join us live was able to catch up and be prepared for Tangible Ecosystem. For this activity, we talked about touch and texture, learned how to describe and record texture via description, picking, mapping (including Google Earth), photographing, pressing, interviewing, and rubbing. I also showed them how to do a soil shake in anticipation of week three: Understanding Urban Soils. This was a lot to cover, and if I do it again, I might do a separate workshop for Google Earth.

3. Understanding Urban Soils: We had four children, ages 3-9, for this activity. I wonder if I burned them out after the week before. Children had their soil samples, but despite my repeated reminder not to disturb the samples, all of them had, so it was a little more difficult to talk about each person’s sample. The concepts were also the most complex for this activity and I had a harder time engaging everyone. We covered observing the environment surrounding the location of the soil sample, the role of soil, techniques to analyze soil samples (soil rubbings, clump test, & soil shake), how to read a soil jar, types of soils, and the importance of soil. Given the age of attendees, reading a soil jar in great detail was too difficult, but the soil rubbings and clump test were approachable enough.

Virtual Programs on our YouTube Channel

1. Sensory Nature Walk: 35 views. I provided an overview of the activity, which was helpful for patrons, but I think I might do experiential videos next time (i.e. “Miss Jean goes on a Sensory Nature Walk”) which inform while being more personal and tangible to the viewer.
2. Tangible Ecosystem: 15 views. I provided an overview, but next time I might include short videos of how to do each activity, rather than just photographs and steps written out.
3. Understanding Urban Soils: 14 views. I provided an overview, but next time I might include short videos of how to do each activity, rather than just photographs and steps written out. This activity is an opportunity to get a little messy playing in the dirt!

These were great activities during good weather while everyone has been cooped up in their homes. Parents were grateful for a new activity and many of the children came from families with a scientist and/or a strong interest in gardening.


Hey, Alison! Any updates on running this program remotely? I’ve been experimenting with ways to complete these activities without having to order any materials – making a field journal by stapling together graph paper; using a large metal spoon as a shovel (and collecting in mason jars or quart containers); heavy books for pressing flowers; making viewfinders from cardboard. Lots of improvisation : ) Would love to know if you’ve put together any Urban Ecology kits!

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Thanks for this writeup, Jean! I wonder if there are ways to make the Understanding Urban Soils activity a bit less technical. Since it’s the most hands-on (and messy!) of the activities, in theory it should be the most intuitive. I’ll be thinking about ways to zoom out when thinking about the underlying concepts. Expect some dirt-filled updates!

The attendees I had were on the younger side, so I think that was the primary reason they had trouble understanding the USDA’s Soil Texture Triangle.

I love the idea of facilitating this as an inter-generational program. I’m finding that, especially in the COVID/exclusively online programming era, a lot of my colleagues are approaching STEAM programming through a children’s services lens and I’m really interested in expanding our offerings for adults.


Hi Avery! Meg Ragland here at the Someville Public Library is taking the lead on this. We applied for (and just received) funding from the CARES Act Grant, which is very exciting. The funding literally just came through, so I don’t think she’s purchased anything yet, but I know she has a plan! More to come…

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Urban Ecology Remix!

I created a couple of CarryOut Kits for my library during the pandemic that were based on the Urban Ecology activities. We used small pizza-style boxes for the kits. They ended up being rather popular.

Here’s a link to my Google Drive with the instructions for creating the Collecting and Sorting kit

Here’s the link to the Sensory Nature Walk kit

I hope you find these useful in some way!

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