Gardening can be a wonderful activity for children to spend time outdoors, learn about how plants grow, and experience the interconnectedness of nature. With a little bit of planning, gardens can also be a magical place where children can use their imaginations and be inspired by the beauty that surrounds them. Here are some ideas for making a children’s garden that doubles as a place of learning and a place of magic.
- Build a sunflower house. Plant sunflowers in a horseshoe shape, and as the flowers grow tall a great hideout is created.
- Build a bean tepee. Use long branches and/or small saplings to build a tepee frame. Wrap the tepee with garden twine horizontally. Be sure to leave a side unwrapped and open as an entrance. Plant pole beans around the outside of the tepee. As the beans creep up the trellis, the tepee becomes a fort that also provides a yummy snack.
- Create a story-themed garden. Plant a garden that follows the story of a garden from a favorite book. For example, in The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, a young boy plants a carrot seed and patiently cares for the plant until it becomes a humongous carrot. For your related story garden, plant carrots, watch them grow, and see if they become giant carrots just like what happened in the story. Check out this month’s Garden Nature Book List to find other stories for garden inspiration.
- Plant a meal-themed garden. A salad garden could include various types of lettuce, spinach, kale, radish, carrots, and peas. A pizza garden might have tomatoes, basil, spinach, garlic, pepper, and onion growing. A soup garden could be made up of potatoes, garlic, onion, carrot, celery, and kale. Use your culinary imagination to create a fun, meal-themed garden!
- Create a fairy garden. Build fairy houses or even a fairy village. Grow flowers and herbs and ferns and other interesting plants in the garden space around the fairy community. Check this out for some amazing fairy garden village inspiration!
Let’s face it. Getting outside on a rainy day can be tough. The rain can be cold and damp, and outdoor play isn’t any fun when you’re wet. But with some good rain gear and rain boots, lots of fun can be had outside in the rainy weather. (Rain or Shine Mamma has some great tips for being prepared for rainy day outdoor play.)
Here are 7 outdoor rainy day activities to encourage children to have some fun in the rain and explore nature even when the weather isn’t so perfect.
- Listen to the rain. Listen to how it falls on the natural objects around you. Bring a variety of items from the recycling (plastic containers, cardboard boxes, tin cans, etc.) and listen how the sound of the rain changes on each.
- Stomp in puddles. Make different sized splashes. Watch the patterns that are created by the different foot movements and splashes.
- Build a rain gauge to measure the amount of rainfall. Here is a simple tutorial.
- Create a rainstorm with your hands and feet. This activity works best with a large group. It would be a lot of fun to do this as a class. If you listen carefully you can hear the rainstorm move in and then get further away.
- Go on a rainy day nature quest. Flip over rocks and logs, and look under leaves to search for bugs and worms. Some creatures love the rain and can easily be found enjoying the extra wet weather, while others are taking shelter from the rain.
- Make boats and rafts out of leaves, sticks, and bark. Float them in a puddle or down a stream.
- Build a rain shelter. Use sticks and leaves and other objects from the forest floor to build a rain-proof shelter that would keep you completely dry.
And, when you are ready to come in from all that outdoor rainy day fun, cozy up with some of these reads all about rainy weather from the April Nature Book List!
This year the vernal equinox will occur Sunday, March 20 in the northern hemisphere. On the equinox, the sun passes over the celestial equator (the invisible line in the sky above the earth’s equator), making the length of daylight and night nearly equal. The term equinox is derived from a Latin term meaning “equal night”. The nearly equal lengths of day and night on the equinox are a result of the tilt of the earth’s axis being perpendicular to the sun on this day. Earth Sky has good information describing the science of the upcoming vernal equinox, along with a video (about halfway down the page) explaining the seasons.
The vernal equinox also marks the first day of spring. This has long been celebrated as a time of renew. Many cultures mark the arrival of spring around the vernal equinox emphasizing fertility, birth, and growth. Celebrations can take form in a number of ways. Here are a few ideas to connect with nature on this special celestial day, and observe the changing of the season:
- Set up a spring nature table. Bring a bit of nature in to display in a beautiful arrangement. Collect rocks, feathers, twigs, and maybe even some flowers from a nature walk. Take cuttings from budding flowering shrubs, place them in a vase of water, and force them to bloom indoors. This small alter for the season provides a place to connect with the natural world even while indoors.
- Try to balance an egg. There is an old anecdote that asserts an egg can be balanced on end only twice a year (on the equinoxes). Whether or not this is scientifically accurate, it is still a fun activity to try!
- Go for a nature walk and spot signs of spring. There are many tell-tale changes in nature as spring draws near. Birds become more abundant as many return from their winter habitats and their songs can once again be heard all around. Other animals become more active, like the chipmunks and squirrels who come out of their winter dens. Buds form on trees. Flowers begin to grow, with snowdrops and crocuses being the first flowers to pop up around here. Explore the world around you, and see how many changes you can find.
- Have a picnic outside. The arrival of spring means warmer weather and more sunlight. Why not celebrate the nicer weather by having a picnic in the fresh air. Set up a blanket in the grass or on a deck or patio and enjoy a simple picnic lunch or snack.
- Plant seeds. Since spring signals a time of growth, what could be a more fitting activity than to plant and grow seeds? Find a sunny window of your house. Fill some small peat pots with a seed-starting soil. Plant a few sunflower seeds and watch the seedlings grow. When the weather warms up enough, transplant the flowers outside to enjoy through the summer and into the fall. Perhaps, even, use these seedlings to build your own sunflower house.
For some great reads about spring, take a look at this month’s Nature Book List.
And, check out these other links for more spring-welcoming activities:
Winter brings cold weather and snow, but it can still be fantastic time for outdoor play. Opportunities for exploration are endless: forts can be built, tracks can be identified and followed, birds can observed, snowmen and winter fairy houses can be made…along with the traditional wintertime activities like sledding, snowshoeing, skiing/snowboarding, skating, and ice fishing.
Not only is outdoor activity fun in winter, there are many benefits to it. This is the time of year where illness and germs are more prevalent. Getting out in fresh air during the winter months helps build the immune system by exposing children to bacteria naturally found outdoors, and allowing them to escape the indoor germs. Additionally, wintertime outdoor play provides essential vitamin D, which is supplied to us by the sun. Adequate vitamin D intake helps promote better moods and energy levels, as well as increases calcium absorption which is necessary for strong bones. And finally, time outdoors in winter also offers fun exercise – think about the activity involved with sledding. Walking repeatedly through the snow uphill – that takes a significant amount of work!
Here are some tips for managing the cold and enjoying wintertime outdoor activities:
- Stay Warm. Dress in layers. This involves wearing a base (wicking) layer close to the body (such as a good pair of long underwear), an intermediate layer for warmth and insulation (fleeces and wools work well for this), and an outer layer to protect from the elements. Wear appropriate outerwear, including a hat, gloves/mittens, and, if the weather is cold enough, face protection in the form of a cowl or balaclava. A good pair of wool socks, along with sturdy winter boots, will keep feet nice and cozy. A glove liner layer can help keep hands warm, and if your little one’s hands are always cold, slip a hand warmer between the glove liner layer and the outer glove. Also, keep in mind, mittens tend to hold more warmth around the fingers than gloves.
- Stay Dry. Moisture is the enemy of outdoor fun. Once wet, it is difficult to keep warm, and the danger of frostbite or hypothermia increases. A breathable waterproof outer layer will keep wet snow from reaching the body, while also allowing internal moisture generated by body heat to escape. Waterproof gloves/mittens and boots will ensure that hands and feet stay dry as well.
- Stay Active. Movement generates body heat, which will help keep a person warm in winter weather. Go for a winter walk, build a snowman, take the snowshoes out for a hike, shovel a maze of paths, make a snow fort…there are so many opportunities for outdoor winter play when children use their imaginations. If a child is not active while outside in winter, he or she will get cold. So, it is important for children to move around and have fun.
**While there is enjoyment to be had exploring nature in winter, it is also important to be cautious of extreme cold. During times of extreme low temperatures, consider significantly limiting time spent outdoors or even postponing outdoor winter nature activities until the weather warms up. Times of extreme cold, offer an excellent opportunity for reading and sipping hot cocoa!
While some animals hibernate or migrate to warmer climates for the winter, many animals continue to be active. With snow on the ground, a great wintertime activity can be tracking these animals that remain out and about. Tracking involves interpreting, following, and identifying animal tracks. Children can be nature detectives as they study the different animal tracks and signs left in the snow. The more time they take searching for clues and making careful observations, the more they will learn about the wild animals of winter. Here are some helpful tips for animal tracking with children:
- Examine the tracks carefully –
- Use a ruler to measure the size of the track and the distance between tracks
- Notice the shape of the track; count the number of toes
- Based on the pattern of the tracks can you tell how the animal was moving? Was it walking? Was it running? Was it hopping?
- Notice what is around the animal tracks –
- Where are they located?
- Where do the animal tracks go? Follow them for a little bit.
- Are there other animal signs near the tracks, such as scat or fur or feathers or scratches/claw marks?
- Bring along kid-friendly animal tracking guides or cards. This is a great resource for children. Here is a handy pocket guide to bring along on your adventure.
- Take pictures of the different animal tracks you find so you can take another look at what you found back at home or in the classroom.
- Bring nature journals or clipboards so students can draw their observations and findings.
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Carefully arranged found nature items.
Children are naturally creative. When given the space and the freedom, they will create their own play situations that can entertain for hours. And, when provided the opportunity to use more open-ended objects, children transform them into imaginative items seamlessly incorporating them into their play. An old cardboard tube becomes a telescope. A stick becomes a fishing pole. A mix of mud, rocks, leaves, and water becomes a delicious soup. Ordinary becomes extraordinary when kids are allowed time for free-play, where they can invent and discover without expectations and pressure to finish a particular product. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children need unplanned play for creative growth, self-reflection, and decompression. This progress can occur with free play because there is less pressure due to the fact that there is no right or wrong way to create. Children are allowed to make their own choices, resulting in self-confidence and independence.
Fishing off of the deck.
The outdoors can be a wonderful place for free play. Toys are not a necessity. Children can explore, create, and imagine with simple, found objects, learning about themselves and the world around them. Take a nature walk with your children. Let your kids play freely in the great outdoors – in you backyard, at a park, or any other natural area. Experience the joy that this type of play can provide.
Selling items at his store.
Paying for a flower with a small stone.
A school desk. The stick is the pencil. The board is the paper to write on.
Another desk in their school game.
Last night’s supermoon eclipse got me thinking about star-gazing as one of the ultimate backyard learning experiences. Growing up in a rural area, I have memories of learning constellations, discovering the Milky Way, and watching meteor showers just outside the back door. I remember drinking hot cocoa, sitting under warm blankets, and looking up at the sky, not entirely sure what it was I was about to see or comprehending the enormity of the universe that I had a slight glimpse into. And now, as an adult, it is wonderful to share these experiences with my own children. Often, I think, we forget to look up and take it all in. But, may I suggest you spend some time watching the stars. It’s a good reminder of how unique we really are.
A blurry and crude picture of last night’s eclipse. Wishing I had a better camera. Oh well. Seeing it in person was still great.
Exploring the night sky can be done in both rural and urban areas. Of course, rural settings, with minimal light pollution have a better visibility. But even in urban settings stars can be seen – the bright ones remain visible while the faint ones get washed out by the surrounding light. This can actually be advantageous for a beginning night sky observer because it is usually the main constellations that can still be seen. Because stargazing can be done anywhere and only requires our eyes and a dark night sky, it is easy.
Here are some tips for keeping your eye on the night sky:
- Start with the easiest and most familiar star patterns to recognize. The Big Dipper is a great one for beginners. It consists of seven stars and is shaped like a pan. The Big Dipper is always visible in the northern sky in Canada and in the northern half of the US. Cassiopeia and Orion’s belt are two other simple-to-recognize star patterns. Cassiopeia looks like the letter W, and is seen in the same section of the sky as the Big Dipper. Orion’s belt consists of three bright stars in a row and is prominent in the winter sky.
- To tell the difference between stars and planets, the general rule of thumb is that planets don’t twinkle and stars do. When looking through binoculars or a telescope, planets appear larger in the night sky (although stars are much bigger) because planets are so much closer to us. It is because of this that the light from planets doesn’t appear to twinkle. Turbulence in the air causes the twinkling of light from stars.
- The Milky Way (our galaxy) is seen best on nights with no moon and away from city lights. To the naked eye, it appears as a faint, pale white trail across the sky. Binoculars can be used to examine the Milky Way more closely, transforming the haze into a glittering stream of stars.
Getting outside is important for children. It gets them moving and provides exercise. It encourages the use of their senses, allowing opportunities for discovery. It sparks curiosity and imagination. In a time of increasing access to technology and a more sedentary lifestyle, access to the natural world is fundamental to raising a healthy child. Here are five tips for encouraging successful nature play.
- Go outside all year round. Getting out in the summer is much more common than in the winter – the weather is nice, there are many opportunities for swimming, fishing, biking, etc. But there are an equal number of opportunities for outdoor play in the remaining seasons. With the right clothing and layers, nature play is fun during all seasons and in many different weather conditions.
- Allow children to get messy. And dirty. And wet. Be prepared with a change of clothes. With the freedom to become totally immersed in outdoor play, children will truly investigate their environment.
- Encourage curiosity and observations and questions. Don’t be quick to provide an answer to a question, but rather help children make their own discoveries that might lead them to the answer.
- Let the children be the guide. Children will feel empowered about their nature discoveries when they are involved with the planning of the adventure. Going on a nature walk? Let the children choose the trail. Doing a pond investigation and the children have questions about whether certain objects sink or float? Take a few minutes to test some materials out and let them choose the materials.
- Always be respectful of nature. To maintain the beauty of the natural environment, it is important to leave it as you find it. Children can explore their natural environment without damaging it by staying on trails, collecting only fallen items from the ground, and picking up any garbage they use. Encouraging this perspective early on helps it carry into adulthood.
In my first post for this nature walk series, I discussed various tools and supplies that can be utilized on nature walks to enhance learning opportunities for children. These items can easily be stored in a backpack to remain accessible at all times, and can be brought along with each hike. In follow-up to that post, I thought it would be useful to share some possible themes for nature walks that would allow learning to be more focused. Of course nature walk themes aren’t crucial for learning and exploring with every single hike, but they can be a great way to guide a child’s exploration, helping to develop observation skills.
Here are 6 nature walk themes to consider:
- Color. As you hike, look for different colors all around. Challenge your child to see if he or she can find all of the colors of the rainbow. Look for a variety of shades of a particular color – greens can be found in many forms in nature. Collect free paint chip samples from the hardware store, bring them along on your hike, and see if you can find items that match the shades on the paint chips. Soon you’ll notice the great variety of color that exists in nature.
- Texture. Bumpy. Smooth. Soft. Rough. Bubbly. Slimy. Prickly. Sharp. There are so many textures to be found in nature. As you walk, see how many different kinds of texture you can find. It is okay to touch things as long as you know it is safe (i.e. you wouldn’t want to touch a poison ivy leaf!), but remember be to be gentle so as not to damage the natural object.
- Patterns and Symmetry. Symmetry is a common occurrence in nature, and provides a great connection to math. There are different kinds of symmetry. Reflection and Rotation are two of the main types that can easily be spotted in the natural world. With reflection symmetry, half of the object is a reflection of the other half (a mirror image). With rotation symmetry, an object is rotated around a central point and still looks the same (for example, a pinecone). Take pictures of objects, then identify the type of symmetry they present.
- Plants. Using a handy field guide for your region, see what types of plants you can identify. Notice the differences and similarities between the various types of plants you find. Are all plants green? What is the biggest plant you can find? What is the smallest? Do all of the plants have leaves?
- Animals. Animals or evidence of animals can be found all around on a nature walk, if you’re quiet and observe closely. Birds can be heard singing. Squirrels and chipmunks might be seen collecting seeds and nuts. Insects can be spotted in the grass or under a rock. Amphibians might be found near water sources or after a rain storm or under a log. The wildlife of nature is diverse. See if you can get a sense of the wildlife ecosystem in your area by keeping track of the animals you find and where you find them, with a wildlife map.
- Rocks/Geology. Rocks and the geology of areas can be a pretty interesting topic to investigate. Rocks tell a story about how the land formed and how it was used. Ever see a gigantic boulder in the middle of the somewhere that doesn’t seem to fit in? It may have been brought there by glacial movement. Ever find stonewalls in the woods? Those woods were most likely farmland at one point. When you take a closer look at the rocks of your area, you might be surprised by the diversity you find, not only in rock composition but in size. There are field guides to rocks and minerals that will help you identify common rocks in your area.
Taking a nature walk is a wonderful way to enjoy some fresh air, get a little exercise, and experience the natural environment. Nature walks also provide opportunities for children to learn about science and math, and practice their observation skills. Nature walks don’t need to be a serious hike – they can be done in your backyard, schoolyard, or neighborhood. They also don’t require any special equipment, and can be done on a whim if you’d like. But, if you’d like to plan ahead, or make a nature walk part of your curriculum, there are certain items that can enhance the experience of the hike, and incorporate more learning opportunities:
- Binoculars help you spot things far away. They even make sturdy binoculars designed just for kids like these.
- A magnifying glass encourages a closer look so that you can see the fine details and textures of the object. I like these from Learning Resources – they’re colorful, sturdy, and do a good job magnifying objects.
- Small containers can be used for collecting and carrying items (but remember, if it is alive, it is best to leave it in it’s natural habitat). Re-use food storage containers from the recycling bin or old egg cartons.
- Journals are perfect for recording or drawing observations. Journals come in all forms. They can range from a simple notebook to weather proof journals designed specifically for outdoor use. There are also journals available with prompts for guiding observations similar to this one.
- Writing Utensils, such as pencils, colored pencils, crayons, and markers are perfect for adding detail to drawings and recordings.
- Tools for digging and investigating, such as shovels and tweezers will help you find interesting items in interesting places.
- Field guides are useful for identifying new plants and animals. Field guides can be as detailed or as general as you’d prefer. I have a great Field Guide to New England from the National Audubon Society that I use with my children. The photographs are detailed and the descriptions are short, making it convenient for my children to use on their own. Also, I like the fact that the field guide is specific to the area we live in. But, if I want more detail and information, I might use a specific guide. For example, if we find a cool bug that isn’t in the general guide, we turn to a distinct one for insects and spiders.
- A camera to make the experience memorable! Take lots of pictures of the walk, print them out, and add them to the nature journal.
- Of course, all of the above items are best carried in a backpack. For convenience, you could even have a pack dedicated for the purpose of nature walks, and keep it conveniently by the door, for those walks you suddenly decide to take when the feeling strikes.
This is the first post in a series I am putting together on Nature Walks. Stay tuned for more!